Page last updated at 20:04 GMT, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

High spirits at Cope party launch

Cope supporters at the final session of the 3-day founding conference in Bloemfontein, South Africa 16/12/2008

A new political party has launched in South Africa, presenting a considerable threat to the African National Congress for the first time. The BBC's Peter Biles reports from Bloemfontein, on the final day of the Cope launch.

Supporters of Cope - The Congress of the People - were keen to put their stamp on South African political history.

They chose to launch their party here in Bloemfontein, where the ANC was founded nearly a century ago.

From early this morning, they began assembling on the campus of the Free State University as their inaugural congress entered its third and final day.

They wore a combination of red and yellow T-shirts, bearing the slogan, "A new hope for change".

Newborn figures

A frenzy of excitement rippled around the conference hall, as Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota, arrived in the company of Allan Boesak, the prominent anti-apartheid activist who played a pivotal role in the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the 1980s.

Newly elected Cope president Mosiuoa Lekota waves to the crowd in Bloemfontein 16/12/2008
We are coming in as a young contestant, getting stronger every day. We are younger and brighter. The ANC is looking older and duller
Mosiuoa Lekota
Cope leader

Boesak's career was seriously tainted by corruption in the 1990s, but he was warmly welcomed by the supporters of Cope.

When Boesak rose to address the conference, he delivered a vintage speech, brimming with passion and emotion.

He confirmed he was joining Cope, but was not seeking a leadership position.

"Those of you who know me, will know that since the days of the UDF, I have not asked, 'What position will I have?' I have only asked, 'Can I serve my people?' "

Exactly a year ago, Mr Lekota was being booed from the floor of the ANC national conference in Polokwane, in his role as chairman of the party.

Mr Lekota, a close ally of then president Thabo Mbeki, had struggled to control the rowdy contingent of Jacob Zuma supporters who sensed their man was in the ascendancy.

Today in Bloemfontein, Mr Lekota looked a like a newborn political figure as he delivered his acceptance speech as Cope's new leader.

Later, he told me that the day had gone "very very well."

Opposition spoiler

Mr Lekota was not surprised that the ANC leader Jacob Zuma had chosen to address a rally in Bloemfontein on the same day as the Cope conference.

ANC leader Jacob Zuma at an MK celebration outside Bloemfontein 16/12/2008
ANC leader Jacob Zuma held a rally of his own across town

"There have been consistent efforts by the ANC to obstruct us, and we expected that," he said.

The ANC was ostensibly celebrating the 47th anniversary of MK (Umkhonto weSizwe), the movement's armed wing formed in 1961 when passive resistance to apartheid was abandoned.

But few observers doubted that the event was intended as a spoiler on the last day of the Cope launch.

In his speech, Mr Zuma made no direct reference to the formation of the new party, but he dwelt extensively on the ANC's military history. It came across as the ANC again staking a claim to the history of "the struggle."

In contrast, the energy and excitement of the Cope supporters signalled their concern for the future of South Africa, rather than the past.

Mr Lekota is in no doubt that the forthcoming election campaign is going to be robust and lively.

"We are coming in as a young contestant, getting stronger every day. We are younger and brighter. The ANC is looking older and duller," he said.

The new year holds the prospect of a fascinating period in South Africa's post-apartheid political development.

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