COPE is too important to fail

Graham McIntosh on why he is sticking with the party

An inebriated Sam Shilowa - former Premier of the richest Province in South Africa -- scuffling with the elderly and gentlemanly Thozamile Botha, who, later, shed tears, is an indelible impression from the aborted COPE Congress on 16 December 2010. 

The sad, bitter and angry emotions causing those tears of frustration and disappointment, were shared by millions of South Africans who had wished COPE well. The astonishing political miracle of the emergence of COPE now lay in tatters.  Can it rehabilitate itself or is COPE's failure destined to be more grist to the mill of the Afro-pessimists?

On 21 November 2008, I became a member of COPE.  At the founding Bloemfontein Congress on the 16 December 2008, I was elected to the COPE National Committee (CNC).  That thus far COPE has been a classic case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, cannot be disputed, but being on the inside, looking out, one observes a different reality, not least the patience, commitment and, indeed, stoicism of its supporters. I saw and still see COPE as a vital and key contributor to our present and potentially to our future political development.

The disorganisation, disruption and manipulation that took place at COPE's aborted National Elective Congress, and, since the April 2009 General Election, within the CNC, has left me puzzled and questioning the quality of some of our black leaders in South Africa.

Why are so many black politicians, including some of our COPE leaders,  unable to put basic non-political administrative processes into place and why are they prepared to contradict their propaganda, abandon their principles and values, cast ubuntu aside and deviously follow their own cynical self-interest and overweening ambition.

In that process they are prepared to damage and possibly destroy their organisation. It is a kind of political immolation or the wounded baboon pulling out its own innards.  The PAC, AZAPO, now seemingly the IFP, Meshoe's ACDP and former politician Ziba Jiyane's NADECO all have had serious if not terminal problems. The ANC also has huge factional tensions.  The endless replacement of Directors-General, is a further manifestation. 

Is it because in black African culture there are only two states in relationships - amity or enmity? People cannot agree to disagree and then work together for a common purpose. Instead they become ultra suspicious factionalists who walk stiff-legged and slowly around one another like wary dogs ready to attack.  The only time that they bury the hatchet, is in their enemy's head.

Applying discipline and firing miscreants is pathetically handled, if at all, and then used to foment factionalism. I can only link this behaviour to those vices of umona (jealousy but more encompassing than that), inzonda (hatred, revenge and putting down an enemy or a rival) and ukuloya (casting a spell or damning somebody to outer darkness).

Opposition or disagreement must be crushed and hence the use, beloved amongst black Southern African politicians, of the term imbokodo (grinding or crushing stone).

Of course we can say, as so many do, that we are a young democracy and that people are still learning how to live the culture of democratic institutions. It is also a fact that nowhere in human civilisation, has a genuine democratic dispensation of non-violence, regular elections and freedom of speech and association been achieved without a protracted struggle by determined, tough and committed men and women.

The path of principle and the often resultant political wilderness is not for cissies.  The majority of the CNC, and of COPE, are deeply committed to accountability, good governance, regular elections and the rainbow nation of the new South Africa.  We are learning fast that the price we have to pay for liberty is eternal vigilance and that real democracy is a fragile flower that must be fearlessly defended.

This is all the more so as COPE has been the victim of a cynical attempt to manipulate the party to achieve the objectives of a particular faction.  I have seen endless filibustering in CNC meetings, unnecessary delays, sinister disruptive banging on tables, removal of ballot papers, aggressive and insulting verbal and body language directed at individual people and plain disloyalty to the Office Bearers and especially the President, who has many failings, but he is still the President of the Party.

The fact that COPE's Congress Working Committee (CWC), which met almost every Monday, did not set up a proper administration run by apolitical professionals is a shameful legacy of their incompetence.  To list the pathetic levels of poor administration, poor attendance in Parliament and other examples would astonish and depress most South Africans, as it does me.

Many have left, like Mvume Dandala, who had no interest in remaining the meat in the Shilowa-Lekota sandwich.  Charlotte Lobe and Andile Mazwai have simply let their support fade away.  Lynda Odendaal, Simon Grindrod and others could not stand the heat in the kitchen and for quite understandable reasons. 

I have considered pulling out, even if only for my own personal political credibility, but COPE is too important a development in the politics of our nation and a work in progress in South African and African politics, for me not to "cling to the wreckage" and try to swim along with it towards the shore of a credible elective Congress where competent individuals are elected. 

I have not lost hope because there are now people in COPE who are fighting for what is right, due process and a proper democratic party.  They are painfully realising that walking the talk of principled and honest accountable democracy is a narrow way, not a broad way.   South Africans want COPE to rise phoenix-like and make a serious impact on South Africa's politics.  It can be done.

Graham McIntosh is a former MP who has served in three Parliaments since 1974 during periods in which John Vorster, PW Botha and Thabo Mbeki were heads of government

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