POLOKWANE in December 2007 — and the palace revolution that toppled Thabo Mbeki — registered a full-scale 10 on the Richter scale of political earthquakes. Its final tremor was felt on Saturday, when Jacob Zuma was inaugurated as SA’s fourth democratic president.
In the smaller universe of South African opposition politics, there have been some recent seismic events of a lesser magnitude, which could also indicate a shift in the tectonic plates of our politics.
Last Wednesday, when Parliament assembled for the first time since the election, it was the third party in the house, the Congress of the People (COPE), rather than the government’s traditional bête noire, the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), which attracted the ire of the African National Congress (ANC).
COPE’s parliamentary debut — and specifically its decision to oppose Zuma’s presidential candidacy — was greeted with jeers and catcalls. And no doubt there is something either from the story of Don Quixote, or the annals of chutzpah, for a party with just over a million votes to oppose the leader of a governing party, which recently received a mandate from more than 11-million South Africans. Ironically, the DA, whose improved electoral performance was purchased, in part, on the back of a “Stop Zuma” campaign, chose not to do so when the crunch parliamentary vote was recorded. Its abstention drew appreciative applause from the governing party.
The DA reasoned, correctly in my view, that the parliamentary vote was simply a post-election ritual, and that the ANC’s victory was both emphatic and legitimate. However, in the world of perceptions and headlines, COPE’s gambit appeared to fulfil Winston Churchill’s judgment that “I have always felt that a politician is to be judged by the animosities he excites among his opponents”.
And, no doubt, by taking the fight to the ANC, and drawing in some 17 MPs from the minnows on the opposition benches, the leaders of COPE could stop, for a moment, fighting each other. When the DA was formed in July 2000, our success in the December municipal elections, where we drew 23% of the national vote, kept at bay, and out of the newspapers, the leadership tensions between my deputy, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, and me. It took about 15 months for these power plays to metastasise into full-blown civil war.
COPE’s infighting, fuelled no doubt by dashed electoral expectations — it recorded just over 7% of the national vote in last month’s poll — has commenced much earlier and in plain sight. Both on-the-record briefings and insidious media leaks around the role of party leader Mosiuoa Lekota and his unceremonious dumping out of Parliament into the bowels of party head office suggest a serious drift atop the fledgling party.
The voting public soon tires of leadership splits and schisms; the Pan Africanist Congress, now reduced to a one-man spectral presence in the new Parliament, its heroic liberation biography notwithstanding, should provide an instructive example.
COPE might be incoherent on the question of leadership, but last week it took a tactically decisive step on the vexed question of opposition realignment and future strategy. But the two issues are, in fact, closely related. Lekota, by all accounts, was an enthusiastic support of the invitation from DA leader and premier Helen Zille to join her coalition government in the Western Cape. Zille hoped to use the provincial government as a template for closer opposition realignment and coalition-building elsewhere. However, the COPE leadership again rebuffed Lekota, and now Zille, and declined. The fast-fading Independent Democrats (ID), which polled barely over half the COPE total in the province (4,65% and 7,74% respectively), joined the Western Cape government. While the ID participation in the province cements the coalition between the parties in Cape Town, it has no national significance.
COPE, by contrast, is the second party and official opposition in five provinces. It must have reasoned that a closer union with the DA could hinder its quest to make further inroads into the ANC vote across the country. That poses a challenge for the DA, and its realignment strategy, going forward. But, equally for COPE, the go-it-alone tactic, without the patronage of power or governance, could prove hard going. When Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert led the opposition, he once ruefully observed, “My gravytrein is so kort” (My gravy train is so short). With control of one provincial administration and most Western Cape municipalities, Zille does not suffer from the dilemma of having no gravy on her ladle.
But then Zille is not the leader of the opposition in Parliament. The result of the contest for this title last Thursday, when the newly elected DA parliamentary caucus assembled, detonated the biggest bang on the opposition terrain. Against expectation, and with the weight of the party establishment against him, freshman MP (although a veteran of Eastern Cape provincial politics) Athol Trollip knocked out meister strategist and leadership insider Ryan Coetzee.
I am friendly with both contestants and sad one had to lose. But as Coetzee once observed to me in another context, “no good deed in politics ever goes unpunished”. After designing and executing such a successful recent election campaign, Coetzee probably believes he’s now living proof of his own maxim. The very centralisation of power and decision-making, which Coetzee engineered, proved a winner in turning out the DA vote. But it did not endear him to all sections of the party, and helps explain his defeat.
Trollip won, in part, because of his obvious gifts — for example, trilingual fluency, a leadership record and streak of independence. With national leader Zille preoccupied with running a province, which is already under siege from the ANC, the DA parliamentary caucus perhaps signalled that it wanted to assert itself, and not be simply a national tide pulled along by a provincial moon.
In his first press conference, Trollip promised to improve the opposition’s relationship with government — echoing Zuma’s earlier undertaking to open a new chapter on the generally dreary and, at times, dreadful antagonisms between the two. A refreshed leadership on both sides should help. But the dilemma in this “soft power” approach was underscored just a few hours later. Trollip was dispatched by Zille to read out a speech on her behalf to delegates at the World Justice Project in Cape Town. In the address, Zille stated that the “legitimate” ANC poll win was tainted by the manner in “which it was prepared to undermine the spirit and letter of our constitution”. That very afternoon, in the National Council of Provinces, Zille was roundly heckled by ANC members when she reminded the house that its higher duty was to the constitution, not the party.
But if there appears to be a duality in the approach of COPE and the DA towards the governing party, and each other, evidence of an unlikely rapprochement elsewhere was also on display last week.
Siren calls between the ANC and its one-time provincial nemesis, the now considerably reduced Inkatha Freedom Party , were heard inside and outside Parliament. But there was no deal. Instead it was the minuscule Freedom Front Plus (which has four MPs) that accepted a deputy ministry in the Zuma administration.
The waves of change that washed over the governing party less than two years ago are far from spent. They are now lapping over the opposition as well.
* published 28 April 2009 Business Day