Congress of the People (South African political party)

The Congress of the People (COPE) is a South African political party formed in 2008 by former members of the African National Congress (ANC).[1] The party was founded by former ANC members Mosiuoa Lekota, Mbhazima Shilowa and Mluleki George to contest the 2009 general election. The party was announced following a national convention held in Sandton on 1 November 2008, and was founded at a congress held in Bloemfontein on 16 December 2008. The name echoes the 1955 Congress of the People at which the Freedom Charter was adopted by the ANC and other parties, a name strongly contested by the ANC in a legal move dismissed by the Pretoria High Court.[2]

Congress of the People
PresidentMosiuoa Lekota
ChairpersonTeboho Loate
Secretary-GeneralDiratsagae Alfred Kganare
SpokespersonDenis Bloem
Deputy PresidentWilliam Mothipa Madisha
Deputy Secretary GeneralRob Hutchinson
Founded16 December 2008 (2008-12-16)
Split fromAfrican National Congress
Headquarters34–36 Fricker Road, Illovo, Gauteng
Student wingCOPE Students Movement
Youth wingCOPE Youth Movement
Women's wingCOPE Women's Movement
Business and Professionals' wingCOPE Business and Professionals
IdeologySocial democracy
Social liberalism
Political positionCentre-left
National affiliationCollective for Democracy
Colours  Yellow   Red
SloganReliable, Accountable, Incorruptible
National Assembly seats
2 / 400
NCOP seats
0 / 90
Provincial Legislatures
0 / 430
Party flag

In the 2009 general election, the party received 1,311,027 votes and a 7.42% share of the vote. Following the 2009 elections, COPE experienced a leadership dispute between factions supporting Mosiuoa Lekota and others supporting Mbhazima Shilowa,[3] that led to a 2013 court battle,[4] and continued into 2014.[5] After the 2014 election, COPE was left with only three seats in the National Assembly, down from 30 seats in 2009.[6]

Despite its reduced stature, the party has joined with the much larger Democratic Alliance (DA) and several other smaller parties to co-govern Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane after the 2016 municipal elections.


52nd ANC national conference

The birth of the party can be traced back to the 52nd ANC national conference held at Polokwane in December 2007. The conference resulted in the election of Jacob Zuma and his supporters, ahead of Thabo Mbeki and his supporters, to the ANC's governing body, the National Executive Committee. Zuma was elected ANC president ahead of Mbeki. The conference highlighted the different factions within the ANC and brought to the fore the diametrically opposed philosophies between Mbeki and Zuma. This included differences in both style and economic policy – the former pursued neoliberal economic policies and was known for an aloof personality and plotting against his political opponents,[7] while his successor is more left-wing and populist, and has a closer relationship with the South African Communist Party and Congress of South African Trade Unions.[8] The split also revealed underlying ethnic tensions between Zulu and Xhosa speakers, represented by Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki respectively, as they jostled for political predominance.[9]

Zuma corruption trial and recall of Mbeki

Jacob Zuma, now elected president of the ANC and ANC candidate for president in the South Africa at the 2009 election, was facing corruption charges in relation to a multi-billion rand arms deal with French manufacturer Thales Group (SA devision Thint). Zuma had previously been dismissed by Mbeki as South Africa's vice-president at the start of the arms deal trial.

In 2008 a landmark ruling by high court judge Chris Nicholson found that the re-charging of Zuma by the National Prosecuting Authority was illegal and was unduly influenced by Mbeki due to political motives. The case against Zuma was thus dismissed. As a consequence of the judge's findings of political interference, the ANC's National Executive Committee requested the recall of Mbeki as the country's president. Mbeki tendered his resignation on 21 September 2008 and the resignation became official on 25 September. Many members of Mbeki's cabinet resigned their posts at the same time in solidarity, including vice-president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and other senior cabinet ministers.

The recall of Mbeki brought to the fore simmering tensions within the ANC. On 23 September Mosiuoa Lekota announced that he had served the ANC with "divorce papers" and on 8 October announced that a national convention would be held to discuss the future of South African politics and the possible formation of a new political movement.

Lekota's call resounded with many Mbeki supporters who started handing in their resignations to the ANC to join Lekota's movement. Notable resignations include those of former Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa, former Western Cape minister of safety and security Leonard Ramatlakane and Mluleki George. Across the country many regular ANC members also handed in their resignations in public demonstrations, burning their ANC membership cards.[7] The resignation movement resounded particularly in provinces in which there were already splits in the ANC structure, such as the Western Cape.

Convention and formation of new party

The convention called by Lekota was held in Sandton on 1 November 2008. Planned for 4,000 delegates over two days, the conference eventually hosted over 5,000, with some people not able to get into the venue, and was shortened to one day to avoid inconvenience to those delegates who had nowhere to stay overnight.[10] The conference was attended by major political figures, including delegates from other political parties. The ANC did not send a delegation to the conference.

Following the conference Lekota announced that a new party would be formed on 16 December. In Western Cape municipal by-elections on 11 December 2008, COPE won 10 of 27 wards (with its candidates running as independents, as it was not yet registered); the ANC won only three wards, with twelve of its candidates disqualified due to missing the registration deadline. The DA won nine seats.[11]

The party was formally launched at a three-day conference from 14 to 16 December 2008,[12] at which Lekota was named president.

2009 general election

Proportion of votes cast for COPE in the 2009 election, by ward.

The party faced its first general election in 2009. Their election manifesto[13] was launched on 24 January 2009 and included calls for electoral reform to have the president, provincial premiers and municipal mayors directly elected.[14] South Africa currently has a pure proportional representation system with parties submitting lists of candidates in order of preference. The president and provincial premiers and mayors (after municipal elections) are subsequently elected by the members of the relevant assembly.

On 20 February 2009, they announced clergyman Mvume Dandala as their presidential candidate.[15] A COPE official was murdered in the Eastern Cape,[16] and COPE supporters, from the Eastern Cape, were driven out of their shacks in Durban.[17] The party achieved the leadership of the opposition in the legislatures of Eastern Cape, Free State, Limpopo and Northern Cape and representation in all nine provinces.

Election results

National elections

Election Total votes Share of vote Seats +/– Government
2009 1,311,027 7.42%
30 / 400
in opposition
2014 123,235 0.67%
3 / 400
27 in opposition
2019 47,461 0.27%
2 / 400
1 in opposition

Provincial elections

Election[18] Eastern Cape Free State Gauteng Kwazulu-Natal Limpopo Mpumalanga North-West Northern Cape Western Cape
%Seats %Seats %Seats %Seats %Seats %Seats %Seats %Seats %Seats
2009 13.67%9/63 11.61%4/30 7.78%6/73 1.29%1/80 7.53%4/49 2.91%1/30 8.33%3/33 16.67%5/30 7.74%3/42
2014 1.20%1/63 1.63%0/30 0.49%0/73 0.16%0/80 0.86%1/49 0.32%0/30 0.94%0/33 3.60%1/30 0.59%0/42
2019 0.25%0/63 0.45%0/30 0.24%0/73 0.14%0/80 0.23%0/49 0.15%0/30 0.27%0/33 0.86%0/30 0.32%0/42

Municipal elections

Election Votes %
2011 570,698 2.1%
2016[19] 186,185 0.48%

Leadership elected at first National Congress

The elected leadership of the party consists of the following:[20]

  • Mosiuoa Lekota – President
  • William Mothipa Madisha – Deputy President
  • Lyndall Shope-Mafole – Secretary General
  • Deidre Carter - Deputy Secretary General
  • Pakes Dikgetsi - National Chairperson
  • Johnny Huang – Treasurer

2009 provincial premiership candidates

COPE's list of provincial premiership candidates was announced in the Sunday Sun newspaper on 2 March 2009.[21] The list was:

  • Lyndall Shope-Mafole – Gauteng
  • Nikiwe Num – North West
  • Prudence Madonsela – Mpumulanga
  • Wiseman Nkuhlu – Eastern Cape
  • Allan Boesak – Western Cape
  • Neville Mompati – Northern Cape
  • Casca Mokitlane – Free State
  • Lucky Sifiso Gabela – KwaZulu-Natal
  • Sello Moloto – Limpopo[22]

2019 Provincial premiership candidates

On 11 March 2019, the party announced the following candidates for Premier:

  • Dennis Bloem - Gauteng
  • Pakes Dikgetsi - Northern Cape
  • Dr Mankgwana Rampedi - Limpopo
  • Teboho Loate - Free State
  • Jessica Panday - KwaZulu-Natal
  • Matsholo Lekgalanyane - North West
  • Anthony Hall (replaced by Deidre Carter) - Western Cape
  • Rev. Lievie Sharpley - Eastern Cape
  • Ouma Mathebula - Mpumalanga


Reaction from the ANC and alliance partners

The ANC leadership reacted by offering a reconciliation meeting between treasurer Mathews Phosa and Lekota and his former deputy defense minister Mluleki George on 13 October. However, the meeting ended without resolution. On 14 October, Lekota and George were suspended from membership in the ANC by the National Executive Committee, with threats of suspension against any other members who sought to join Lekota and George. Both Zuma and then ANC Youth League president Julius Malema ridiculed Lekota for the announcement.

Support from within the ANC

On 15 October, former Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa, who resigned from his position soon after Mbeki and the cabinet resigned, announced that he had resigned his membership from the ANC and thrown his support behind Lekota's convention, which he announced would be held on 2 November.[23] The partnership between Lekota and Shilowa led the press to nickname the proposed new party "Shikota". Former Western Cape community safety minister Leonard Ramatlakane resigned from the ANC on 22 October to join Lekota's initiative. On 3 November, former Eastern Cape premier Nosimo Balindlela announced her resignation from the ANC in order to join the proposed new party.[24]

On 13 November 2008, Smuts Ngonyama, the former head of communications for ANC, joined the breakaway movement.[25]

Reaction from other parties

Helen Zille of the Democratic Alliance, Bantu Holomisa of the United Democratic Movement and Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party all welcomed the announcement, saying that a new party in opposition to the ANC would diversify the political landscape and pull South Africa from being an effectively dominant-party system.

Prominent supporters

COPE has attracted the support of a wide range of well-known South Africans from various sectors, including Sipho Ngwema, former head of communications for the Scorpions who is now the party's media liaison chief,[26] and cleric Allan Boesak[27] who ran in the 2009 election as COPE's Western Cape premier candidate.[28] Other prominent supporters include the wife of Vusi Pikoli, the former head of the National Prosecuting Authority, and Simon Grindrod, former deputy president of the Independent Democrats.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, former deputy president under Thabo Mbeki, and Saki Macozoma, a prominent South African billionaire and close ally of Mbeki, joined COPE in late February 2009.[29] Macozoma's affiliation to the party was accidentally leaked by Mbhazima Shilowa himself in London, United Kingdom, in the third week of January 2009[30] Mlambo-Ngcuka who is best known for her statement that South Africa could learn from Zimbabwe with regard to land reform.[31]


In an interview with The Sunday Times,[32] Lekota stated that the ideology of the party will be one that embraces multiracial and multicultural participation in governance, promoting of the free market and disavowed themselves from any connection to Marxism. He has also indicated that the party would be willing to ally itself with the Democratic Alliance, a historically liberal party, in the case that the DA ever enters government.

According to the party's manifesto flyer,[33] COPE's campaign topics for the 2009 elections are maintaining the constitutional status quo, unemployment, job satisfaction, poverty, the environment, secondary and tertiary education, health care in general, crime, women empowerment, youth development, family values, and future non-racialism.

A main distinction between COPE and the ruling ANC party is that COPE favours a system in which top-level government officials are elected directly, by public election, and officials can be removed only by courts of justice, whereas the current situation in South Africa is that top-level government officials are appointed and can be removed from office by the political parties themselves.[33]


Party name

Before settling on the name Congress of the People and the abbreviation COPE, several possible names were used or suggested by the party founders themselves and through speculation in the media.

During a public meeting on 12 October 2008 in Langa, where Lekota was the speaker, membership forms for a possible new party, bearing the name African National Congress of South Africa (ANCSA), were distributed.[34]

On 31 October 2008, one day prior to the new party's convention in Sandton, the ANC made an urgent application to the high court to prevent the new party from using names such as South Africa National Convention, South Africa National Congress, SANC or any other name or trademark that is similar to its own.[35] The judge ruled that the convention may go ahead, but did make a ruling on the names issue until 6 November.[36]

At the new party's Sandton convention, the name South African Democratic Congress (SADC) was also proposed,[37] but it was later discovered by them that this was already being used by another party that was due to contest the 2009 election.[38]

By 15 November, the name Congress of the People was chosen,[36] and its official abbreviation was chosen to be COPE, not COP.[39]

When the name settled on was the Congress of the People, the ANC announced they would challenge this name as well.[40] The ANC's application to the Gauteng Division of the High Court at Pretoria for an interdict to prevent COPE from using the name Congress of the People, cited that the ANC itself was affiliated to the 1955 Congress of the People, held in Kliptown. On 12 December 2008, the court ruled that COPE would not be barred from using its present name.

Allan Boesak

The elevation of Boesak to the COPE leadership, given his record as a convicted malefactor, drew considerable censure from press and public alike. It was intimated that the party's self-projection as a morally pure alternative had been sullied. On 5 February 2009, on his Facebook page, Lekota urged supporters:

We should also not be distracted now by who serves in the interim leadership, because ultimately the people's voice will be heard. They will vote for their leaders, and everyone else will apply for a job and be interviewed to obtain any position. So, you see, I am not bothered by who joins COPE, or if the individual has a criminal record, or not. Is it not so, that if a gangster goes to church, he expects to dance to gospel music, not kwaito? He's fully aware of what music determines the song and dance in church. No-one is forced to join COPE – people join voluntarily, fully aware of what the organisation stands for. So, why worry about who joins? Let them; they'll dance to our music![41]

Leadership conflict

In August 2022, deputy president Willie Madisha stated that leader Mosiuoa Lekota had been suspended. Lekota subsequently stated that his suspension was illegitimate, as Madisha, along with secretary for communications Dennis Bloem and secretary for elections Mzwandile Hleko had themselves been suspended. A press conference called by Lekota descended into a fistfight between the rival factions.[42]


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  3. "'Infighting necessary' - Cope". 13 May 2011. Archived from the original on 7 January 2014. Retrieved 7 January 2014.
  4. Shanti Aboobaker (27 October 2013). "Shilowa row goes back to court". IOL News. Retrieved 21 November 2018.
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