Will COPE help bring real change?

In the Cape Times, Star and All-Africa.com

23 January 2009

By Zubeida Jaffer*

Outside the city of Cape Town, in a northern suburbs home, COPE party leader, Mosiuoa Lekota, sips a glass of cold apple juice. A small boy, with large innocent eyes, toddles into the lounge and he takes him onto his knee as he speaks. There is no sign of the anger, agitation and frustration he displayed a few weeks ago when he left the ANC. The child too is still and quiet sensing the calm.

The past weeks of contact with South Africans of all walks of life have energised Lekota. “We are attracting people from all sectors of society, many who had abandoned politics,” he said. “Young people in particular see in COPE a party of their time.” He ascribes his sense of well-being particularly to acknowledging the mistakes he and others had made. “I share responsibility for failures in full,” he said. “It is not for lack of effort. It is partly because we missed some fundamentals.” He feels peaceful since deciding to make a fresh start. “There is nothing more painful than being at loggerheads with one’s conscience,” he said.

The party he leads will launch its manifesto in Port Elizabeth on Saturday barely two weeks after the ANC’s impressive launch in nearby East London. Will their manifesto signal a changed approach to the huge challenges facing our country? Will this inject fresh hope into the body politic or can we expect more of the same?

Lekota identifies two areas that require considerable change – non-racialism and economic empowerment. COPE will not challenge the broad philosophy of these policies. Instead it believes that substantial change has to take place with the implementation.

Huge effort has gone into popularising the idea of non-racialism but some fundamentals were missed in implementation. “On the side of the ANC, we did not read the mood and were unable to fashion an approach that would help all sections of the population feel they belonged,” he said.

He argues that the language used by the democratic government has sustained an apartheid mentality. “We should strongly have spoken about South

Africans,” he said.

In terms of Chapter three of the Constitution, citizens were all equally entitled to rights and benefits and all equally bound by duties of responsibilities, he said. “We communicated a message that in this democracy you pay tax but when it comes to your rights, you are less of a citizen.” COPE will stick closely to the founding provisions of the Constitution and make sure that the language used be fully inclusive.

This will require a neutral approach to economic empowerment. Instead of emphasising black economic empowerment, COPE will call for economic empowerment for all and provide assistance to those who need it based on a means test. “In all sections of the population, people are poor. We need to find ways to reverse these trends in all communities,” he said.

If COPE has its way, Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) will become Grassroots

Economic Empowerment (GEE). The country will become a food exporter not a food importer by working the land effectively and will increase the production of tradeable goods. Since 1994, the industrial sector in the country has slowed down dramatically, forcing South Africa to import many goods.

He is sensitive to the need to fashion an approach that will draw on the strengths of all South Africans irrespective of race, gender or religious affiliation.

Not only was there an emphasis on being black, there was also an emphasis on being ANC. “We need to depoliticise the civil service and draw on people from all political parties with the necessary skill to do the job,” he said.

For Lekota, COPE has revived people’s hopes of achieving a genuine democracy. “If we stay on course, we will inject new life into the political process.”

Will his message of change resonate with the South African public? Much depends on his parties conduct over the next few weeks. The proof will be not in only in what they say but in how they conduct themselves. The reality is that many of those who have moved into COPE bring their experience of the ANC with them. The question is whether or not they will leave behind that which is bad and take with them that which is good?

Genuine change requires serious personal reflection. Listening to Lekota and observing him suggests he has done some soul-searching. When the pressure builds up over the next few months, it will be interesting to see whether he will remain resolute in his determination to chart a different course – one that recognises as Mandela said that there are good men and women in every political party. There are good men and women irrespective of race who are keen to work to make South Africa function optimally.

By Freedom Day this year, we are likely to know whether we have reached a level of freedom that allows us to consider new and fresh ideas and welcome these into the body politic. The danger however remains that in the process, we may carelessly break down painstaking gains that have been made. Once again, the challenge will be how to find the balance between the old ways of doing things and the new. In his inaugural address on Tuesday, US President Obama put his finger on the essence when he said: “Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends – hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism – these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to those truths.”

Since 1994, we have moved our country towards the contemporary and dominant way of the world. We have been encouraged to believe that greed is acceptable, that personal well-being requires massive accumulation of material wealth, that the welfare of our neighbours are not essentially our responsibility, that there is no right or wrong. The rapid collapse of the global economy says something different. It challenges us to reconsider the dominant way of today’s world and will force us to rethink our “anything goes” approach.

It is the dreams of greater equality and kindness that moved us to create a movement for change that found expression in the ANC. It is those values of peace and goodness that we all yearn for. COPE will just be another one of the many political parties, if its leaders are not seen to be seriously reflective of how they have conducted themselves in the past and demonstrate in right actions a commitment to a fresh approach.

Observing Lekota, it appears that he has taken a step in the right direction. He has indeed been given a second chance but he needs to know that for him and those around him, there will be not be a third. COPE has a huge responsibility. It will not be easy to breathe fresh life into our fledgling democracy again if citizens discover that hidden behind the rhetoric and veneer of deepening democracy lies a shallow interest in self-promotion. It is not only poverty that destabilises public life. It is the perceived unfairness in the way important decisions made and politics is conducted.

If we cannot reshape the way in which we do the business of politics, what will be the future of that small boy with the large innocent eyes perched on Lekota’s knee?

Zubeida Jaffer, journalist and author of recently launched Love in the Time of Treason is Visiting Associate at UCT’s Centre for African Studies.


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