With just two months to go before South Africa’s general election,the Congress of the People (COPE),a splinter of the ruling African National Congress (ANC),has presented a political unknown,Bishop Mvume Dandala,as its presidential candidate in a bid to attract votes.
Since its launch late last year,COPE has been struggling to distinguish itself from the 97-year-old liberation party of which its founders were so recently an integral part. With Bishop Dandala,a former head of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and of South Africa’s Council of Churches,it hopes to present a squeaky-clean image in contrast to the sleaze that is plaguing the ruling party and its own presidential candidate,Jacob Zuma.
Some have hailed the move as a master stroke,providing the prospect of the first real challenge to the dominant party since South Africa became a democracy in 1994. The country’s interim president,Kgalema Motlanthe,a deputy president of the ANC,said the bishop’s candidacy would add “oomph” to the electoral contest.
But others are less impressed. However fine the moral and intellectual credentials of the 57-year-old bishop,who has a master’s degree in theology from Cambridge University and two doctorates in theology and philosophy,he has scant political experience and is little known among South Africa’s poor blacks,who cast the bulk of the vote. Sceptics suspect his candidacy is part of an effort to disguise a power struggle between COPE’s leader,Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota,and his deputy,Sam Shilowa.
Most pundits reckon that COPE is backed by about 10 per cent of the voters. The only other serious opposition party,the Democratic Alliance,led by Cape Town’s forceful mayor,Helen Zille,may again get the 12 per cent or so of the votes it polled in the last general election in 2004,but it is still handicapped by its predominantly white middle-class image; COPE,though also widely seen as too middle-class,is drawing support from across the racial divide. So the guess is that the ANC will still get a good two-thirds of the vote in the coming election,on April 22nd. The new parliament then chooses a president. It is in the longer run that COPE may have the potential to break the ANC’s stranglehold on power.
For the ANC seems to be sinking deeper into a mire of corruption. The ebullient Mr Zuma,soon (it is said) to marry his sixth wife,is struggling to fend off a string of charges against him for corruption and tax evasion. A trial has been set for August,when he will very probably be South Africa’s head of state. Last week Carl Niehaus,the ANC’s spin doctor and a former ambassador to the Netherlands,resigned after admitting to a web of lies,fraud and debt that financed a lavish lifestyle and must have been obvious to his bosses.
The South African Institute of Race Relations,a think-tank,has given warning that the spreading allegations of fraud and corruption in the ruling party may come to compromise the country’s rule of law. “It appears as if certain political leaders take the presumption of innocence to mean that they can remain in office while under suspicion,regardless of the damage that does to their political party or to government,” says the institute’s deputy director.
Meanwhile Ipsos Markinor,a market-research firm,has published a poll taken in November,before the global economic storms had fully affected South Africa. It suggests that,for the first time since the onset of democracy,more South Africans feel their country is moving in the wrong direction (42 per cent) than in the right one (38 per cent).
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009