GARETH van Onselen never faced three charges of treason, any one of which, if it succeeded, could have led to an appointment with the hangman. He therefore makes light of the kind of politics that Congress of the People (COPE) stands for. Likewise, he has never had the privilege of Nelson Mandela tutoring him at Robben Island or continuing to do so when he became the first president of SA in 1994. What COPE stands for is a direct result of the lessons we learnt and the experiences we had. We can take nothing lightly nor for granted because of the great sacrifices we made and the dangers we bore.
COPE pursues a dream that was born in the period of the struggle. We longed for a cohesive society in people forged a common national identity that subsumed race. We dreamt of an SA in which black, brown and white co-existed in peace, practiced Ubuntu and manifested solidarity. We wanted a reconciled nation of the type that Mandela strove to achieve. We looked forward to a SA in which people contributed earnestly to an African renaissance of the type that Thabo Mbeki envisaged.
To keep that dream alive, we broke away from the African National Congress (ANC). We consciously called ourselves Congress of the People. We were motivated to remain connected with the aspirations set out in the Freedom Charter. This is where we come from.
Unwarranted strife set us back in the period before last year’s general elections. Even so, with backing from the Congress National Committee, I devoted enormous energy to the formation of the Collective for Democracy. It was Wilmot James and the Democratic Alliance (DA), however, that pulled out. Van Onselen must know that. We agree with Paul Whelan that Van Onselen is engaging in a “flight of fancy” in assuming “a positive outcome on the basis of add-up sums”.
Van Onselen, clearly, remains trapped in the past. COPE, meanwhile, has turned the corner. We know that past performance is not necessarily a determinant of the future. We undertook a thorough analysis of the setback we experienced in last year’s elections. Accordingly, we made the changes we had to. Our focus is now on the future.
The DA successfully absorbed the Independent Democrats because of compatibility. They consummated their marriage because they were philosophically and ideologically suited to each other.
For COPE, history is crucially important. We recognise that people who do not know where they come from, as the adage states, will not know where they are going. When we cast aside history, however, and forget its injustices, iniquities and harsh oppression, we fail ourselves. We need the moral touchstone that history provides to build a political order that is indeed fair and just. History must remain our best teacher.
COPE never ceases to harp on constitutionality. We insist that the president and all public representatives implicitly honour the oaths of their office. We remember all too clearly, how distraught Mandela was when some of our comrades quickly forgot history and began single-mindedly to pursue careerism and the acquisition of wealth at all cost. What he witnessed shattered him. As more and more people pursued self-interest, we saw pervasive greed and opportunism tarnishing the movement extensively. A party that loses its moral core becomes a danger to society.
We, who chose not to let idealism die, broke away. We could not betray all who struggled to bring us into the democracy we yearned for. COPE must fight on to defend our Constitution and deepen democracy.
For Van Onselen, COPE is a “shadow of (its) former self”. We are indeed smaller in number but we are even more robust than before. Dynamite comes in small packages. Since last year’s elections, we have consistently raised our voice above the din of sycophancy. Citizens have noticed the tough questions we are asking in Parliament, the strong statements we are releasing to the media every day and the punchy debates in which we regularly engage. We are a powerful moral presence in South African politics. We hold the executive accountable with fierce resolution. We know more than most — and certainly better than most — where and how the ANC is straying from its original course. Remember, we came from there.
Further, we offer social democrats the opportunity to rally around us. We have an exciting plan to make an invigorated economy work for all. We have a plan to share the wealth of the nation with all. We want the resources of the nation to go to the people.
There is no party in SA more strident than COPE in demanding that the government down-sizes considerably. We continuously insist that the government drastically curb consumption-side expenditure. COPE has consistently demanded a debt clock so citizens can monitor the soaring national debt. The government resisted but an international nongovernmental organisation offers citizens the South African Debt Clock on the internet. Now, the debt is there for all to see.
Van Onselen will not know that many veterans in the ANC, with whom we worked with closely before, are telling us confidentially that they agree with the issues we are raising. Unfortunately, they are constrained from expressing their support. COPE is there to prick the conscience of those who are sitting tight on government benches and having huge moral lapses. We do that very well because of who we are and where we come from.
COPE is also fully alive to our potential to “profound(ly) influence” outcomes in the metropolitan councils, particularly in Nelson Mandela Bay, in next year’s local government elections. We therefore made clear our intention to attract people of integrity to stand as our candidates. We have zero tolerance for crooks and self-serving politicians. We are appealing to visionary people with a sense of duty to come forward and list as our candidates. Our hope is that opposition parties can indeed work co-operatively and yet separately. We are open to constructive suggestions. Voter education is the key to the best outcome for the people of SA. Joint efforts in this regard will bring huge rewards.
Van Onselen is right in observing that “many voters love the idea of the opposition parties working together”. Of course they do. Our democracy is in real danger at present. The rule of law is under severe threat from the ruling party. We need to stand together to defend our democratic and constitutional gains.
We know that when trust in a government declines substantially, the economy of that country will decline correspondingly. Where trust in a government is very high, as in Singapore for example, the economy is full of vigour. The ruling party is inflicting serious political and economic damage. We need to work together to save the situation.
This ineffective and inefficient government is squeezing citizens harder and harder to extract more from them for less and less. It is squeezing citizens to compensate for its wide range of failures. South Africans owe it to themselves and their families to bolster opposition parties. By their activism, they can defeat the harm of majoritarianism and create a level playing field. Only then will the ANC show proper responsiveness and responsibility. The ANC at present does not care for voters at all. It is arrogant because it has the numbers in Parliament to walk all over all other parties, as well the people of our nation.
Our policy platform is very different from the DA’s and very clear. As social democrats, we want:
• High-level accountability;
• Overt transparency;
• Visible responsiveness;
• Equitable sharing of the nation’s wealth;
• Heavier commitment of funds to infrastructure;
• Optimal disclosure of party funding;
• Quality education;
• Effective health care;
• Rapid and extensive transformation of townships so that they are connected to cities;
• Widespread artisanal enterprises; and
• A government of the people, by the people, with the people, for the people.
We are out-and-out new-order social democrats. COPE is resurgent. We are the only political party in SA conducting internal party elections that are fully open to the media. Our next election for the party leader will use electronic technology to allow every single member of COPE anywhere in SA to vote. Our former members, noticing this resurgence, are returning to the fold in numbers. They see that we have indeed turned the corner.
COPE is now a united and cohesive force. We met in Bloemfontein in early June in an extraordinary meeting with provincial and regional representatives to adopt policies, revise our constitution and shape our ideology. We are looking forward with confidence to the battle that looms in 2016.
COPE is open to co-operative engagements with other parties for the betterment of SA. We cannot, however, disconnect with our history nor neglect to take forward the legacies of Mandela and Mbeki. We wish to choose and carry forward what is good from the past. By doing so, we can create a future in which we deepen democracy and ensure that human rights remain untrammelled.
• Lekota is the leader of COPE
Read Gareth van Onselen’s column: Time for COPE and the UDM to join the DA