My high school “piece job” entailed being an interpreter of maladies. It was my job was to find which tooth or teeth were loose, painful, rotten or all of the above at a dental surgery in Bree Street, Johannesburg. The resulting information would then be captured by yours truly on a piece of paper according to a simple formula the dentist had taught me. Often, I got more than I bargained for. Many patients would disregard my tender age and proceed to use the occasion to tell me their life stories: tales about cheating husbands, violent boyfriends, wayward children, slovenly wives and nowhere-to-be-found jobs. I ended up needing to pacify, comfort and counsel them. This was the case especially just before the administration of the gigantic anaesthetic syringe that came before the extraction. It amazed me that while many of the patients had no doubt about where and how it pained, they were often reluctant to have teeth extracted. Invariably, they would ask just for something to take the pain away or something to help them sleep better. “I will be alright after a few days”, they would invariably say. Yet the very procedure that was needed in order to deal with their pain decisively was often the one thing they wished to avoid — looking for less radical and more paliative alternatives.

This, I think, is precisely how the Cope leadership is currently behaving — avoiding the decisive act guaranteed to deal with their current problems. I will return to this matter towards the end of this posting. 

The challenges facing Cope are well documented. Many observers have used the party’s one year anniversary to state, restate and analyse these. Cope deserters and dissenters alike have long sprinkled and sprayed the political landscape with hints, words, gestures, riddles and metaphors that point to a party leadership in trouble. Not to be outdone by their seniors, the Cope youth wing has had its own mini leadership tussles — at the centre of which there is a distasteful and gender insensitive five letter word, among others. All four of Cope’s prominent deserters (Hlongwane, Grindrod, Odendaal and Boesak — whose picture the Cope website is still brandishing!) have sung the same song, in tenor, bass, soprano and alto respectively. All spoke of a leadership in crisis — a leadership in the throes of war — against itself. They spoke of intense jostling, jockeying and elbowing inside Cope house. For a while, Cope leaders and spokespeople denied and rebutted. Recently, a new air of realism appears to be emerging within their ranks. They may not agree with those who suggest that Cope is now in freefall but they do agree that there are challenges. They need not agree with the recent Ipsos-Markinor poll which suggests a drop from 8% to 2% in support but they have been recently saying and doing things that suggest that they are concerned about their support base. They have admitted that the party’s branch structures are in a mess. Allegations of financial problems in the party came quite early after the April elections. We have recently heard the Cope president come as close as he ever has to admitting to the existence of leadership squabbles.

The most important of the recent signals that have come from the party’s leadership are the processes reportedly unleashed with a view to the elective conference.

In my view, the conference is the missing link and the most important step this party needs to take. In terms of the true story with which I started this posting, the elective conference is the equivalent of the tooth extraction. This is the step that should have been taken before the April elections, failing which it should have been taken immediately after the elections. The absence of an elected leadership contingent is the political quicksand into which Cope may disappear slowly but surely.

Admittedly time has not been on the side of this one-year-old political party. Here is the cruel irony though; a party born in and by a national election has itself not had an election of its own. None of its leaders have been elected. Surely, this is central to the instability and infighting that is tearing the party apart. Every single day that Cope exists without an elected leadership is one more nail in its coffin. The solution is simple: hold and elective conference and do so urgently.

Until now, all we have is an unclear announcement pertaining to this. Indeed, an online Cope elective conference discussion forum has been created. I am afraid a lot more decisive leadership regarding the date, place, process and nature of the election conference is needed than what we have now. Unless the very process of setting up an elective conference has also become a function of the leadership squabbles.

Admittedly, there is something of a chicken and egg situation at play here. Which is prior; the elective conference or the building of branches? How can there be an elective conference without strong branches, some Cope leaders ask. But how will bona fide branch building be differentiated from election campaigning? I am afraid the two processes will be deviously conflated, with disastrous consequences for the party. With the branches that Cope has now, the party needs to move speedily towards an elective conference. The party cannot wait until it has perfect branches and perfect structures before it holds and elective conference.

Does the Cope leadership realise the trouble the party is in? I think they do. Do they know what needs to be done and done first? I think they know that too. But I am not sure that they have until now displayed the political will, visionary leadership and urgency of action necessary to ensure a successful elective conference any time soon. They are neglecting this task at their own peril and at the peril of their party.


  • Tinyiko Sam Maluleke is a South African academic (currently attached to the University of South Africa [UNISA]) who suffers from restlessness, intellectual insomnia, insatiable curiosity, a facsination with ideas, a passion for justice, a crazy imagination as well as a big appetite for music, reading and writing. He has lectured briefly at such universities as Hamburg in Germany, Lausanne in Switzerland, University of Nairobi in Kenya and Lund University in Sweden - amongst others.


Tinyiko Sam Maluleke

Tinyiko Sam Maluleke is a South African academic (currently attached to the University of South Africa [UNISA]) who suffers from restlessness, intellectual insomnia, insatiable curiosity, a facsination...

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