What's ailing COPE?

If the breakaway is to remain a political contender, it has to get its act together - and soon

When the Congress of the People was launched in November last year opinion polls indicated that it could potentially win as much as twenty to twenty-five percent of the vote in the 2009 elections. Yet, 44 days before South Africans are due to go to the polls it seems likely that - if current trends continue - the ANC breakaway will come nowhere near reaching that figure. This would be bad for democracy in this country as the worse COPE does the closer the ANC is going to get to a two-thirds majority.

The breakaway did disappointingly in a series of by-elections in the Eastern Cape on Wednesday. Its eight candidates in Port Elizabeth - all of whom were the serving ANC councillors before they vacated their seats - all lost, winning only 19,5% of the vote on average. In the five by-elections in the Northern Cape COPE's candidates did marginally better with an average of 22,7% of the vote. There is no sign yet in the by-elections held so far of COPE making meaningful inroads into ANC support outside of the Cape provinces.

Current opinion polling - rough and ready as it may be - suggests that its national support has been in decline since December. The Mail & Guardian reported on Friday that according to Markinor's polling COPE is likely to receive between 8% and 12% of the vote on April 22. The Democratic Alliance's tracking poll meanwhile found that COPE had fallen "from between 10% and 11% in mid-January to between 6% and 8% now," according to party CEO Ryan Coetzee.

There are a substantial body of voters who are - or have been - in two minds as to whom to vote for. There are many IFP supporters who could be persuaded to vote for a Jacob Zuma ANC; many ANC supporters who are sympathetic to COPE; and many minority voters who might back the breakaway were they to come around to viewing it as the strongest counterweight to the ANC. Such voters still have to be won-over or won-back, they can't be taken for granted. So far COPE has yet to start competing for their allegiance. As Coetzee points out COPE has yet to start running a proper election campaign. It doesn't seem to have the capacity to push its message out to the electorate - if it had a message (which it doesn't yet.)

Some of COPE's difficulties can be attributed to the fact that they lacked the time other parties had to prepare and organise themselves - and the ANC is able to massively outspend them. But, if time was the only problem, things should be gradually getting better for them (not worse). It is hard to believe that COPE has less access to funding than the Freedom Front Plus. But on Friday evening there were FF+ posters on the poles along Oxford road in Johannesburg, but no COPE ones. The COPE election poster is a rare bird in the land.

One problem is that COPE is not doing getting the basics right. The current state of its media operation is perhaps illustrative of problems besetting the organisation. On Wednesday February 25 published an interview with COPE President Mosiuoa Lekota in which he tendentiously defended Mbeki's AIDS policies, and refused to give a straight answer to a question on whether he thought HIV caused AIDS. COPE needed this particular linkage with the Mbeki-era like a hole in the head. But instead of immediately issuing a statement "clarifying" Lekota's remarks, and thereby minimising the damage, COPE's spokesmen sat on their hands.

Instead, their presidential candidate Mvume Dandala went ahead and compounded the harm by refusing to give a straight answer to a similar question from The Weekender. It took a whole week before COPE issued a statement saying that it did think there was a "definite link between HIV and AIDS" before sulkily complaining about the "attempts by the media to link COPE to AIDS denialism."

At an even more mundane level COPE, unlike the other parties, still does not regularly send out statements, texts of speeches etc., and it still does not have a unified press mailing list. It is a hit and miss affair as to whether one receives their communications or not, depending on which spokesperson (and there are many) is responsible for issuing them. The party seems to have now employed a media consultancy - Fleishman-Hillard - to help out with their communications, presumably at some expense. This is a case of COPE throwing resources at a problem without solving it. It is possible to set up a mailing list through Google groups in - at most - about fifteen minutes. Moreover, it costs nothing and can be used to provide a perfectly professional service - one to which it is easy to subscribe (or add names). This is how the SACP, ANCYL, COSATU and the MDC amongst others all distribute their press releases today. So why doesn't COPE?

COPE's media strategy seems to be to work closely with a handful of favoured journalists. This may have made sense in 2008 when the establishment of the party was the biggest news story of the last quarter, and it was hard not to get blanket coverage. But, on a day-to-day level inserting yourself into the news cycle - on say the Schabir Shaik release - requires responding quickly and intelligently to a breaking story, and getting your message out to the widest possible audience. Confining it to a single newspaper is simply counterproductive.

This inability to get the basics right has been carried over to some of the central decisions of their election campaign. In Mosuioa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa COPE had two high profile leaders to choose from to front their campaign (twice as many as the DA did). But they left the decision far too late and then plumped for an unknown in Bishop Mvume Dandala. This was a choice that was too clever-by-half. While Dandala may be a more worthy candidate than the other two - inserting him into that position at such a late stage simply did not make sense politically or organisationally. (It takes weeks to design, print and put up election posters.) There is also no sign, incidentally, that COPE put their potential presidential candidates before focus groups or conducted polls to see who would be the best person to front their campaign. The decision was made instead behind closed doors by a bunch of wise men with very little practical experience of electioneering.

By contrast, while there may be many reasons why Jacob Zuma should not be president of South Africa the ANC made the correct choice (in purely electoral terms) by sticking with him as their party's presidential candidate. As Lawrence Schlemmer noted in October last year Zuma "is a source of hope for the poorest, most aspirant and numerous" among the ANC's supporters. Without him as their candidate the ruling party would "be thrown into disarray because there is no alternative candidate with a sufficiently prominent profile to unite the party at short notice."

The point is that elections have a very narrow and short term focus. The goal is to get as many of your supporters to the polls as possible, and to win over as many undecided voters as you can. Unless an opposition party wishes to see itself consigned to irrelevance by the electorate, it has to subordinate most other considerations to these objectives. COPE in particular is battling for its existence. If it is to remain a serious political contender after April 22 it has to make serious inroads into ANC support in at least two or three provinces, and also establish a considerable presence in parliament. It has to get its act together soon or else it will simply fade away.

Click here to sign up for our free daily headline email service