Page last updated at 08:14 GMT, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

New party to challenge ANC rule

A new political party is being launched in South Africa, made up largely of defectors from the governing African National Congress. The BBC's Peter Biles reports from Bloemfontein, where the launch is taking place.

Mosiuoa Lekota
Cope is led by former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota

Nelson Mandela once remarked "Bloemfontein reflects the crossroads of South Africa's history - a geographic centre and a political hub."

The African National Congress was founded here in 1912.

Now, nearly a century later, the city is giving birth to this new party too.

On the campus of the University of the Free State, Cope delegates are feverishly debating the launch of their new party.

During breaks from formal sessions in the conference hall, they gather outside in the shade of the trees to continue the discussions.

'Real threat'

They see it as a key moment that signals the growth and development of South Africa's young democracy.

"I've come here from Soweto", says Mawethu Ntila. "The Congress of the People is giving us a new platform to express ourselves, and a way to deepen our democracy.

"The ANC should be scared. Cope is a real threat to the ANC."

President Mbeki announces his resigantion on state TV 21/9/2008
Ousted president Mbeki enjoys strong support from Cope members

Lihle Majola from the province of KwaZulu-Natal says: "I feel Cope is going to shape South African politics. It offers freedom. The ANC has become arrogant."

"That's what happens with big political parties. They liberated us for sure, but they became power hungry and lost control," he adds.

Twenty-year-old Sibusisiwe Nodada from the Eastern Cape has already decided to vote for Cope in next year's elections.

"I've come to get a clear insight into what Cope is all about," she says.

"I want to hear the policies first hand. Cope offers a future. It's about 'now' - it's not about the struggle [against apartheid]. It's about what we can do in the future."

Mbeki factor

Some Cope members chant a familiar song in praise of Mr Mbeki as they walk across the Bloemfontein campus.

However, the challenge is for them to distance themselves from Mr Mbeki, and not appear like a group of embittered losers from last year's ANC national conference in Polokwane, when Mr Mbeki was defeated by Jacob Zuma in the contest for the leadership of the ruling party.

Cope delegates in Johannesburg 1/11/2008
Analysts say the opposition challenge is good for democracy

Cope leaders are adamant that Mr Mbeki is not the driving force behind the new party.

Cope's Mbhazima Shilowa, the former premier of Gauteng, says: "Many people took a decision, even before Thabo Mbeki was bundled out of presidential office in September, to say they were not going to vote for the ANC because they didn't think the country was moving in the right direction.

"Secondly, they don't believe Jacob Zuma is the right candidate for the presidency of the country. They're saying they want to vote for a party that is an alternative to the ANC."

Name game

The local media have been headlining the fierce rivalry between Cope and the ANC.

In particular, there has been a legal argument over the use of the name Congress of the People.

1: South African National Congress, challenged by ANC as too similar to its name
2: South African Democratic Congress, already registered by another party
3: Congress of the People, refers to an event when the ANC's Freedom Charter was signed

The ANC has laid claim to the name because the Congress of the People was an historic ANC-sponsored event that took place in 1955 when the Freedom Charter was adopted.

Last week, the ANC's Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe, launched a stinging verbal attack on three high court judges - two of them black and the other white - who ruled against the ANC on the use of the name.

He accused the black judges of being "apologists".

The test of Cope's political strength will only come at the polls in 2009.

But political analyst Adam Habib says the emergence of the Congress of the People is certainly healthy for the country.

"Any democracy has to have a 'substantive uncertainty' at its core," he says.

"When you don't know whether you're going to be in office, you become responsive to your electorate, and have to address the concerns of your citizens.

"South Africa has been missing that. If we can establish a viable opposition culture, then that's good for democracy."

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