Thousands of delegates cheered South Africa’s newest political party on Tuesday as it launched its campaign to break the ruling African National Congress’s stranglehold on post-apartheid politics.
Mosiuoa Lekota, former defence minister and a close ally of Thabo Mbeki, the ousted president, was named leader of the Congress of the People (Cope) at a rally in Bloemfontein, the birthplace of the ANC 96 years ago.
The launch of the new party was given added momentum when Allan Boesak, a leading figure in the fight against apartheid in the 1980s, came out publicly in support.
Mr Boesak is a controversial figure, having served a brief jail sentence in 2000 for misuse of anti-apartheid aid money, but he was pardoned and has strong support among people of mixed race and could help deliver their votes in next year’s general election.
The former preacher in the country’s Dutch Reformed Church is one of the most high-profile recruits for the new party, which was formed following a split in the ANC triggered by the sacking in September of Mr Mbeki .
The ANC appears to be taking the threat seriously, with the party choosing to host a rally – addressed by leader Jacob Zuma – in the same city in which Mr Zuma warned against attempts to “sow disunity and confusion” in its ranks.
Cope scored well in municipal by-elections in the Western Cape, and on Friday it defeated a legal challenge from the ANC to stop it from using the Congress of the People name.
The moves indicate that the ANC, which has won handsome majorities at every national election since 1994, could face a tougher challenge at the polls next year.
Mr Boesak electrified an audience that had travelled from across the country to Bloemfontein. A fierce critic of the way black empowerment has worked under the ANC, he urged greater racial tolerance.
“South Africa is one country and it is not destined for destruction. We have a God-given destiny … and the time to fulfil it is now,” said Mr Boesak, as about 4,000 delegates broke out into the songs and dances of the anti-apartheid movement.
Jo-Andre van Schalkwyk, a Cope delegate from the Western Cape, said: “He [Boesak] knows what the people want in rural areas. He knows what it is like not to have bread or sugar in the house.”
There were other indications that this emphasis could figure prominently in the new party’s campaign platform. Mr Lekota argued for the adoption of a more inclusive approach to affirmative action, which is guaranteed by South Africa’s constitution. “This will not be done on the basis of race,” he said.
ANC supporters turned out in large numbers to hear Mr Zuma speak in a football stadium in Bloemfontein’s poor southern suburbs.
Vuyiswa Madimi, 43, a teacher, had travelled from the eastern province of Mpumalanga. She said that Cope leaders who had been participants in previous ANC governments had not fulfilled promises. By contrast, she believed that Mr Zuma was “likely to give us more money”.
Mr Boesak was characterised by the ANC supporters as just another high-profile opposition recruit whose desertion from the party’s ranks had been timed to attract maximum media attraction.