The Congress of the People (or COPE) is a relative newcomer in our political landscape, which affects our capacity to reflect on its historical trends in terms of policy. The party was officially launched in 2008, driven by malcontents who had grown dissatisfied with the administration of the ruling ANC. In the 2009 elections the party received 7,42% of the vote – and thus stood as the strongest opposition force outside of the Democratic Alliance. However, COPE and its ascendancy have been seriously marred by leadership contestations: an issue, which will feature in our consideration of “do we want them”.
Principally, COPE has a sound foundation for supporting a women’s agenda. Their 2008 Constitution speaks in its preamble of being committed to combating discrimination, in particular in relation to “women, youth and people with disabilities”. Strong references to the promotion of equal rights and women’s right are peppered throughout the foundational document. In particular, article 6 notes:
“In the endeavour to reach the objective of full representation of women in all decision-making structures, COPE shall endeavor to implement a programme of affirmative action, including the provision of a quota of not less than fifty percent (50%) of women in all elected structures of COPE to enable such effective participation”.
That’s a solid gendered foundation – and at its inception half of the party’s office bearers were women, including one of the two deputy presidents, as were 16 of the 33 additional Working Committee members. By entrenching this quota, COPE is at the forefront of policy – with no such quotas apparent amongst other opposition parties’ constitutions.
How has this translated in terms of actual representation over time, though? While at inception there was a strong presence of women across lists, examining the actual leadership structures demonstrates that the top positions are male dominated: Mosiuoa Lekota remains (at least for the time being) as leader, and though Mbhazima Shilowa is currently ousted, the two senior positions have always been male dominated. At inception the Secretary-General was female, but Abel Rangata has since replaced her. Further, research into the actual constitution across party structures of the implementation of the policy indicates the 50% target has not been achieved.
This has also been true of their candidacies: In the 2009 National and Provincial candidates list tabled with the Independent Electoral Commission, there were only 150 women tabled out of 350 of the national candidates – a rate of 43%. In the 2011 municipal elections, COPE’s political party list only marked 38% of the candidates as female. Further, only 28% of local councilors were women in the 2011 elections process. In terms of parliamentary presence currently, women hold 41% of their 29 National Assembly seats. However, only 33% of their office bearers within Parliament (including the National Council of Provinces) are women, according to Parliament’s data (12 of the 36). This seems to demonstrate three things: one, greater efforts are being made to display representation in the more visible places i.e. the National Assembly; two, the presence of women seems to be deteriorating in terms of official structures; and three, the 50% commitment is not being maintained across the board.
However, what is the female presence as a force of change within the organisation like in practice? COPE does have “Womens” structures, though there is not much visible presence of their work available. Within Parliament, COPE are represented within the Committee of Women, Children and Disabilities by Ms BC Diemu, which is a position of significant potential impact for driving women’s issues. Examining her parliamentary questions, though she tends to focus on expenditure and administration questions, she has probed with some strong positions. She’s tried to drill into the creation of actual policy by asking questions relating to studies into gang rape (the response being essentially “we’ve done studies about rape, though not gang rape”), and determining evidence-based solutions to deal with the problems of child rape. Driving the Department to address the real source of the scourges of gender-based violence go a far way to pushing for real solutions – rather than allowing mere rhetoric to be viewed as taking action. COPE has also been very vocal in their resistance to the Traditional Courts Bill – viewing it as a direct threat to the rights of women to choose (in relation to their avenue for judicial recourse), and as a direct threat to the progress of rural women’s rights. Though we can’t reflect on their positions in terms of important women’s rights legislation like the Termination of Pregnancy Bill (as it preceded their incorporation), it is worth noting that their National Organiser, Mlukeli George, voted in favour of the Bill while an ANC MP.
Much of the discourse of support for women’s rights comes from the party’s strong policy dedication to the supremacy of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, which frames much of the COPE statements in Parliament and public statements, and have included open pronouncements supporting gay rights (historically as well, while an ANC MP, Lekota voted in support of the Civil Unions Act). This ran directly into their election commitments in 2009 – with only the COPE manifesto expressly recognising the need to increase the number of “special care” facilities for women in abusive relationships as a proactive step toward the prevention of violence against women.
Public statements and social media
However, similarly to candidacy numbers, examining the content of public statements there appears to be a diminishing focus on women’s issues. When you look to their Facebook statuses, for instance, the majority relate to what can be viewed as reactive statements of opposition to actions of Zuma and the ANC (largely in relation to corruption and racial discrimination). The tendency to directly react to actions of the ANC, instead of pursuing clearly their own political policies and positions, is resulting in a curve away from women’s issues. This is in some senses a direct result of their historical foundation: The party was formed as a direct act of dissonance by former ANC members. This seems to have embedded a culture of ANC-centred agitation – their existence continues to be meted out in opposition to the ruling party, rather than serving as a platform for consolidated policy beliefs. This limits their capacity to take forward women’s issues effectively and with “fresh eyes”.
A further concern in relation to their capacity continues on from the earlier notes that the leadership is strongly male: COPE is increasingly a “one-man show”, with Mosiua Lekota dominating as the public profile of the party. Rumour suggests he is the only person who is “authorized” to speak to the media about COPE and calls himself “COPE President”, despite questions relating to the fact that he was never elected to that position by party members. This is problematic: it means that if COPE were to pursue a feminist agenda, it would rely on a very progressive male leader for this profile to be publically expressed. And current history doesn’t appear to support this as a possibility. In Parliamentary debate in February 2013, responding to the President’s State of the Nation Address, Mr Lekota stated:
“A staggering R102 billion spent on consultants because relatives, friends and concubines who are employed have no qualifications to do their work.” [Emphasis added].
At the time, Lindiwe Sisulu objected directly to the use of the phrase “concubines”, and the ANC Women’s League came out publically afterwards to protest what they viewed as a generalised disrespect for female public servants. Though he clearly is not referring to all female public servants, his use of this term is worth noting: when he refers to women he believes to not be qualified, he automatically frames them with a sexually loaded term – there is no insinuation that unqualified men in these positions have slept their way to money; this selling of the body is reserved only for the female perpetrators. It might be a one-phrase slip-up, but it does not bode well at all for the future of their agenda.
In conclusion, perhaps the most important concern is that – since 2009 – the pursuit of women’s interests has diminished significantly in the party’s discourse, ravaged as it has been by the contestation for leadership between Mosiuoa Lekota and his former deputy Mbhazima Shilowa. And as of today this leadership battle hasn’t been finally resolved, as the party examines the court judgments relating to the leadership battle.
Also in South Africa, on this very day, 3600 women will be raped in the country. A woman is killed by her intimate partner every 8 hours. Women are 10% more likely to be unemployed than their male counterparts (and the disparity is even more pronounced if you happen to be black and female). Women between the ages of 15-49 years are also 10% more likely to be infected with HIV than men in the same age group. When we go to the polls in 2014, when there is in essence a war against women in this country on multiple fronts, can you soundly cast your vote for a party that has let its constitutionally-enshrined and visionary gender policies be de-railed by a protracted dick-swinging contest for leadership?
Congress of the People. (2008). Constitution of the Congress of the People. Available at: http://www.copesa.org.za/Documents/OFFICIAL%20CONSTITUTION%20OF%20COPE%20as%20adopted%20by%20BLOEMFONTEIN%20INAUGURAL%20CONGRESS.pdf.
Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa. (2009). South Africa: Women’s representation quotas. Available at: http://www.eisa.org.za/WEP/souquotas.htm.
Masoga, E. (2013). Cope is a symbol of failure and disctatorship. Avaliable at:http://www.sabc.co.za/news/a/dcc730004f9daba09453f60b5d39e4bb/Cope-is-a-symbol-of-failure-and-dictatorship-20131405.
Nicholson, Z & Jones, M. (2013). Up to 3 600 rapes in South Africa everyday. Available at: http://www.iol.co.za/news/crime-courts/up-to-3-600-rapes-in-sa-every-day-1.1466429.
Rademeyer, J. (2010). Wikileaks cable nails Cope. Available at: http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/Politics/WikiLeaks-cable-nails-Cope-20101226-2.
Selokela, T. (2012). The representation of women in municipal councils and executive structures: analysing trends in the implementation of the Municipal Structures Act from the results of the 2006 & 2011 South African local government elections. Available at: http://etd.uwc.ac.za/usrfiles/modules/etd/docs/etd_gen8Srv25Nme4_1601_1370341692.pdf.
South African Medical Research Council. (2012). Every Eight Hours: Intimate femicide in South Africa ten years later! Available at: http://www.mrc.ac.za/policybriefs/everyeighthours.pdf.
Statistics South Africa. (2013). Census 2011: Data. Available at: http://www.statssa.gov.za/Census2011/Products.asp.
Van der Linde, I. (2013). HIV/Aids in South Africa: At last the glass is half full. Available at: SRC http://www.hsrc.ac.za/en/media-briefs/hiv-aids-stis-and-tb/plenary-session-3-20-june-2013-hiv-aids-in-south-africa-at-last-the-glass-is-half-full.
 Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa. (2009).
 Selokela, T. (2012).
 Ibid at p37
 Based on research by the Medical Research Council, reported in Nicholson, Z & Jones, M. (2013).
 South African Medical Research Council (2012).
 Statistics South Africa (2013).