The ANC, COPE and the DA in a rapidly maturing Democratic South Africa

Contrary to popular belief, the ANC is not first and foremost a political party, but rather a liberation movement which has, since 1994, been attempting the near impossible task of transforming itself into a homogenous political party.

The ANC was established in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) to pursue the interests of the oppressed black South African population living under the laws and social constructs that came to be the most formalised racial discrimination in the world: Apartheid.  Between 1912 and 1994, the ANC defined itself around the singular challenge of securing a free and equal South Africa for all South Africans, regardless of their race.

During the 82 years between 1912 and 1994, the ANC gradually transformed from a pressure group into a militant liberation movement.  During those years the organisation utilised every conceivable form of campaigning, protests, passive resistance, international appeals and the like before eventually resorting to armed resistance in the 1980s.

The ANC’s membership comprised everyone willing and interested in a free and equal South Africa; anyone interested in the liberation of non-white South Africans from the injustices of the Apartheid regime.  The membership of the ANC was thus not as one might find in a traditional political party such as the Democratic Alliance – an organisation rooted in liberal politics, and thus comprising largely liberal thinking South Africans – but rather it was diverse in political ideology, ranging from communists to capitalists, all united under the banner of liberation.

When freedom came to South African in 1994, the ANC as a liberation movement achieved the goal which it had worked to secure for over 80 years, and thus began the transition from liberation movement to political party.  Since 1994 the ANC has struggled to unite ideologies within its ranks ranging from peaceful free market capitalism to militant communism, and the recent rift which saw the birth of another political party was the inevitable result. The ANC is rapidly maturing into a more leftist political party and is shedding much of the ideological baggage that its current leadership bloc no longer tolerates.

The split of the ANC spells the death of this liberation movement and sees the birth of one political party and the purification of another.  The ANC will finally have ideological purity, more left leaning than it has been since 1994; and the Congress of the People (COPE) will attract the more centrist and progressive members of the ANC.

These events will go some way to bringing clarity to the voter, letting them know exactly what the ANC is and what it stands for.  The voices of Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, influenced as they are by their SACP and COSATU alliance partners, will no longer be tempered by moderate or liberal ANC leaders who have attempted to maintain the centrist image of the ANC.

COPE and a resurgent Democratic Alliance (DA) pose a significant threat to ANC dominance in post-independence South Africa.  COPE will appeal to a range of South Africans for a variety reasons from ethnicity, where it is perceived as being Xhosa aligned, to competence where it may be able to lay claim to having attracted more qualified and experienced leaders and politicians from the ANC and other parties.

The DA has a new leader in Helen Zille who is as yet untested in a major election, but if the results of the recent round of by-elections in South Africa are anything to go by (the DA won as many wards as the ANC, 11, followed by COPE with 10), then the DA should have a good showing in the April 2009 poll.  Helen Zille has proven herself able to connect and identify with the average South African and her prominent and effective mayorship of the City of Cape Town has won her many supporters, especially from the Coloured community.

Many prominent South Africans, most notably Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, have expressed their dissatisfaction with the performance of the ANC government, especially with regard to pertinent issues such as the provision of basic services, housing, land reform and crime.  Tutu recently publicly expressed his intention to withhold his vote in the upcoming poll in what has become a clear example to other disenchanted ANC supporters that they can apply pressure on their party without actually voting against it.

In the two polls since 1994, the number of voters turning out for the ANC has dropped by an average of 1.5 million votes.  The ANC, however, managed to increase its winning margin due to the decrease of more than 3 million voters participating in the polls as a whole.  The notable exception to this trend has been the Democratic Alliance who, as the Democratic Party, secured only 1.73% in 1994 but won significant increases at each of the 1999 and 2004 polls.  Nearly six times as many people voted for the DA in 2004 than did for the DP in 1994, resulting in an over 7-fold increase in the percentage vote when compared with 1994.

Table 1: Comparison of Election Results since 1994


ANC Votes


DA Votes

DA %

Total Votes



















The emergence of COPE and its mobilisation of a significant proportion of ANC supporters, atop widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of the ANC, pose a very real threat to the ANC at the upcoming poll.  The Democratic Alliance’s recent by-election successes and increasingly popular leader also hint at the possibility of a significant increase in DA support in April.

Consider a scenario where the Democratic Alliance, with a revitalised brand and Helen Zille at the helm, manage to increase their support to 17.5% of the total vote by consolidating opposition support and winning over a small number of ANC voters; COPE secure 10%, largely from ANC voters but potentially also consolidating the opposition vote; and minority parties such as the IFP, UDM, ID, ACDP, FF+, MF manage to secure 15% (down from around 17% in 2004).

Such a scenario would leave the ANC with 57.5% of the vote and only 230 out of 400 seats in the National Assembly (down from 279 in 2004), revoking the constitutional majority held by the ANC since 2004.  Additionally, were the ANC to lose control of the Western Cape, the Northern Cape and possibly the Eastern Cape, this would result in the upper house of Parliament, the National Council of Provinces, becoming a more useful democratic institution than it is now.  Presently, the ANC controls all 9 provinces and the NCOP effectively rubber-stamps all resolutions sent through the house.

The changes in the South African political landscape since the recall of President Mbeki in late September last year have been numerous and significant.  The recall of the President on the basis of a court judgement that has since been set aside, alienated with finality many ANC supporters from the post-Polokwane leadership of the Party.  The decision created the precedent upon which the National Convention was called and held in Sandton and ultimately, The Congress of the People formed, all within less than 3 months of President Mbeki leaving office.

Democracy in South Africa will be strengthened in three significant regards as a result of these changes, making 2009 the most important year for South Africa since 1994.  First, and most importantly, ANC will find it extremely difficult to maintain more than two-thirds of the vote and will thus lose its constitutional majority.  Second, the emergence of COPE will add another opposition voice to the fray, greatly increasing the number of people who can oppose abuse of power or poor performance by the ANC. Third, the potential is created for COPE and DA to form coalitions to win provinces and municipalities and ultimately work closely together to form a united opposition – with a merger a real possibility within 10 or even 5 years of this election.

The election in April this year provides an opportunity for every South African to make their choice about the direction our democracy takes.  In the 15 years under the stewardship of the ANC the South African Government has failed to realise the potential this country holds to create prosperity for all.  Every South African must be encouraged to make their mark and get out and vote for CHANGE.

5 thoughts on “The ANC, COPE and the DA in a rapidly maturing Democratic South Africa”

  1. Interseting analysis. More political parties does not nescearily indicate a maturing democracy. It does indicate a more tolerant society. It also mean that the unity of the presently disadvantaged has been damaged.Democracy is about the will of the people and not about the western world’s idea of many (ideolgical)parties and a divided nation.

  2. Alroy, thanks for the comment – I think it is important to note that my premise for suggesting a stronger democracy is not the fact that we have another political party, but rather that the party is likely to win a large proportion of the ANC vote. A divided opposition has plagued South African politics since 1994. The emergence of COPE presents an opportunity to create a more united opposition which could pose a real threat to ANC dominance in South Africa and if the ANC has something to lose, they might jack up their ideas and deliver on their promises.

    Do ANC announcements like “We’ll fire non-performing Ministers” and “We’ll fight nepotism and cronyism in ANC appointments” sound like the ANC of the last 10 years? Nope.

  3. While I am enthusiastic with you in regards to the formation of COPE and that this represents a maturity in the South African’s political consciousness… I caution you (as I have before) against using the recent by-election as a representative of any sort of vote.

    Remember that the ANC did not manage to pull their bits together to register their representatives in time. Had they done so, the vote may have looked quite different! Also, considering that these by-elections were – in my understanding – largely due to the COPE breakaway it must be understood that these regions are those that represent the areas which are largely dissatisfied with the ANC. They do not necessarily represent the vote of the country as a whole.

    Do not underestimate the brand power that the ANC carries. The ANC brand tugs at the heart-strings of the majority of South Africans, who still see it as the movement which brought them freedom… and it therefore appears to be traitorous to vote against them. Until this conscience is overcome in the hearts of the people, they will blindly vote for the ANC regardless of progress.

  4. While I agree with many of your points, I am still reserved in judgement with regards to the DA, Helen Zille and COPE.

    Let me start with the DA. The DA is, and has always been pivoted around a primary focus of “stopping the ANC”. They have always been the first to jump at publicly ridiculing the ANC. I understand that the DA is a serious opposition to the ANC, but how does name calling aide in rebuilding a broken country? Instead of focussing all their efforts on strategies of rebuilding, reforming and reshaping, they have been like the class bully, sitting to one side and waiting for the ANC to do something stupid (as it always ends up doing) and they sit at highlighting the acts of idiocracy that the ANC has now become famous for. My question is: When the ANC no longer holds a majority, and the DA one day leads the country, how will they lead, when they no longer have someone to lay blame on? When they are the focus of everyone’s attention, will they just be the ones that another “class bully” throws ridicule at?

    Helen Zille, as a political figure, has been in the focus of my attention for quite a while now. My commrades down in the Western Cape brought to my attention her total lack of compassion for the poor. In flourishing “leafy suburbs” inhabited by the middle to upper class, the quality of her reign proves to be like crystal. However, when you go into the poorer areas, you see a different picture all together. Garbage piled up in the streets, broken water pipes, and whole areas with out electricity. The police presence in many of these areas in scarce or nonexistent. And the local DA representative in my area stated that those areas are unable to pay for service delivery. Surely in a post apartheid country, money needs to be spent, or rather invested in building up the poorer communities? But it seems that in many parts of this country, the poor are ignored and the fat cats just get fatter? Sounds like that capitalist dream.

    I left the ANC long before Polokwane, and watched as my once loved party fell to pieces. Many of the members that left the ANC to start COPE were the insurgent trouble makers that were bringing the party down. So called “bum-chums” to ousted Thabo Mbeki. The militant Jacob Zuma is feared to be a War Mongerer, and I personally feel that he will be our own George W Bush, but with localised focus, rather than at a region that will financial impact his buddies. He has, in my opinion, ridden on the back of donkeys (eg… Shabir) to reach his political ambitions, but as our pathetically departed president once said: “Any person who desires the post of president, shouldn’t be allowed the honour.” It leads me to question the intentions of a person who will not rest until he gains ultimate power.

    So now, with that, it leads me to COPE. In the early years of the struggle from the hostile claws of the Old Nationalist Party, Inkosi Albert Luthuli made a public address to Black, Indian, Coloured and White labour workers in Umkumbane (Cato Manor) just before the widest spread labour union strike in the history of South Africa. At this address, he referred to the congregation of workers on the now Cato Manor Sports Field, as “The Congress of The People”.

    That term has stood as a symbol of what the ANC was trying to achieve ever since. However the dead leaves that ran like cowering dogs with their tales between their legs, when they realised their hopes at gaining ultimate control were gone, these dead leaves found it in their “clear consciences” to steal a vital foundation block of their new enemies, and use it as the foundation of their own evil desires, forgetting the pillar of heritage that this block supports.

    The DA however, being the name callers they are, have chosen to welcome the new party, considering the old belief that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, despite the fact that the new party is 100% made up of your enemy.

    When my enemy falls apart and turns on itself, does any part of it cease to be my enemy?

    So this begins to show a small inclining of hypocrisy previously only found in the previous Nationalists who in one breadth spoke foul of the ANC, and then in the next, were sharing an award with the two leaders, and then in the next setting up a political alliance, and finally, shouting out praises to a dead woman, who for years was considered a public enemy. Need I say more?

    So tell me, when the elections are complete, will the ANC not try and buy back COPE, thus gaining the seats needed to keep the majority rule? Or will the DA continue to speak out against how awful this ANC is, until you simply change the name and put it in a shiny new box? Orange Juice is Orange Juice, change the box, it’s still made from oranges.

    And the comment that the SACP and COSATU are the primary influences of Zuma and Malema is totally unfounded, as the SACP and COSATU have distanced themselves from both Zuma and Malema.

    Comparing Zuma to Malema is like comparing a grapefruit to a rotting fish. The grapefruit is an acquired taste, that has the potential for benefit, but the rotting fish, though may look appetising when packaged by a good chef, will always smell and taste like a rotting fish.

    And in closing: my vote goes for the only party that have stood by their guns, and when I say guns, I mean strategies of reforming, rebuilding and reshaping. My vote goes to SACP, and post the elections I will keep a close eye on all these children throwing mud at each other, and I am sure that the SACP will have flung none, and be clean, and at that point, I will commit to the party.

    Mark my words, the triapartheid alliance is dying fast! We’re all just to focused on the misdirection to see the real magic.

  5. The opposition in South Africa need to seriously consider forming a united front by which they might be able to make a serious dent into the ANC hegemony. We saw in Malaysia’s elections last year how three parties of radically different standing- PAS, Keadilan and DAP- were able to form a united front and make the first real dent in the ruling BN for many years.

    Some of these parties have irreconcilable ideologies but find common cause in opposing the present government, this was the case in Malaysia (another country where the race factor has always played a part in politics) and surely it can work in South Africa?

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