South Africa's Cope Party Threatens to Collapse Amid Leadership Struggle

The Congress of the People, formed two years ago by dissidents from South Africa’s ruling African National Congress, is in danger of disintegrating over a power struggle between its two top leaders.

Mosiuoa Lekota, a former defense minister and ANC chairman, was ousted as president at a party conference on May 29 and replaced by his deputy, Mbhazima Shilowa, an ex-labor union leader and governor of the central Gauteng province. Cope won 7.42 percent of the vote in 2009 parliamentary elections, making it the third-largest political party.

The weekend conference broke down into rowdy scenes, with the police called to intervene as delegates supporting the two rivals threw chairs at each other.

The leadership fight will “undermine a very fragile organization,” Zwelethu Jolobe, a politics lecturer at the University of Cape Town, said in a telephone interview today. “It is likely to hemorrhage votes. It could split.”

Cope’s leaders include several veterans of South Africa’s struggle for democracy who backed former president Thabo Mbeki’s failed 2007 bid to win a third term as head of the ANC, losing out to the current president, Jacob Zuma. Their credibility among the black majority gave them hope that the party had the potential to challenge the monopoly on power the ANC has held since winning the nation’s first all-race elections in 1994.

South Africa is due to hold local government elections next year, with national elections scheduled for 2014.

Unlawful

Lekota said he remains Cope’s rightful leader and the attempt to remove him was unlawful because he had obtained a court order preventing the party from holding elections until a dispute over membership accreditation was resolved.

“We must ask the court to urgently set aside all of those decisions that affect the smooth running of the leadership structures of the Congress of the People,” he told reporters in Johannesburg today.

Other party officials said Shilowa enjoyed overwhelming support and the vote of no confidence in Lekota did not constitute an election and thus was valid.

“Maybe there are people who want to break away, but it’s a tiny group,” Cope spokesman Sipho Ngwenya said by telephone from Johannesburg today. “There was a tiny block that associated itself with Mr. Lekota.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Mike Cohen in Cape Town at mcohen21@bloomberg.net;

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