Is South Africa leaving the era of Nelson Mandela? After the country's 14 years of de facto single party rule under the African National Congress (ANC), the party of Mandela and of liberation has experienced serious internal divisions over leadership personality, alleged corruption, and ideological conflict. Such divisions led prominent ANC vanguard Mosiua Letoka to officially sever his ties with the ANC and found the Congress of the People (COPE). Letoka, who was the former defense minister and close ally of recently-ousted president Thabo Mbeki, signaled a acute change in atmosphere of South African politics. COPE, first regarded as a manifestation of personality differences between Letoka and Jacob Zuma, quickly became politically relevant as more prominent names of the ANC joined the new party. With general elections scheduled to be held on April 22, 2009, all eyes are fixed on COPE--will it prove to be a formidable political force? Will the splinter party be able to change the face of South African politics? While some welcome the formation of a new competitive party as a sign of "true democracy" taking root in South Africa, comparison with experiences of other countries shows that the result is often, at best, mixed.
What is certain, however, is that the challenge presented by COPE will be a catalyst for internal change within the ANC. Most importantly, the emergence of COPE has the potential to highlight the intensity of ethnic and tribal division within the ANC and the South African political establishment. If Letoka and his breakaway party, COPE, fail to deliver practical solutions to the rising ethnic tensions, the splinter party does take South African politics one step further by allowing the once-taboo subject of ethnic and tribal rivalries to be openly discussed again. This plausibly could trigger incentive for reform even within the ANC, assisting its return to its founding ideology of unification.
Ethnicity has always been a key factor of politics in South Africa--one of the most enduring effects of the apartheid regime was to consolidate ethnicity as a legal and political identity. This has always been more prominent in the opposition parties, such as the Democratic Party (DA) or Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). The DA has been long criticized for inheriting the crux of the Democratic Party during apartheid, establishing itself as a "pro-white" party even till today. IFP has always been firmly rooted in its KwaZuluNatal turf, rarely influencing the political arena beyond its Zulu base. Yet, the ANC has been able to avoid this slippage into the eth-no-nationalistic politics through rotation of top positions and more subtle procedural conventions. Lethoka, however, has brought to light that this mechanism of forestalling ethnic mobilization has failed, and the ANC must look towards reform.
The news conference convened by Letoka in October 2008 did not yet signal to many the end of an era. Still, without a doubt, the conference was a thinly veiled staging ground for the formation of a new party. Although he fell short of naming Zuma as the target of his criticism, Letoka was not shy in decrying the "use of songs that advocate weapons and violence" and the "tribalism" of Zuma. Zuma still sings his signature theme song "Umshini Wami (Bring me my machine gun)" at public appearances, and some of his ardent followers, such as Julius Malema, the head of the ANC Youth League, have publicly pledged to "kill for Zuma." Furthermore, the Zulu faction of the ANC openly celebrates Zuma's Zulu heritage, angering the more traditionalist vanguard members of the ANC, who generally eschew ethnic alliances, and the Xhosa faction, who feel marginalized by Zuma's increasingly Zulu-oriented leadership. Because of these grievances against the leadership, Letoka stated to the foreign press present at the conference that the formation of a new party was "inevitable. …