Paballo Thekiso/AFP/Getty Images
Mvume Dandala (right), the presidential candidate of South Africa's new COPE party, stands by a cheering supporter in Kliptown, Soweto, April 9.
Mvume Dandala (right), the presidential candidate of South Africa's new COPE party, stands by a cheering supporter in Kliptown, Soweto, April 9. Paballo Thekiso/AFP/Getty Images
South Africans vote Wednesday after one of the most intense campaign seasons in the county's post-apartheid history. That's because the ruling African National Congress party has split and faces a new challenger from within its ranks.
But the 3-month-old Congress of the People, or COPE, faces challenges of its own, not least its widely unknown presidential candidate, Mvume Dandala.
In a bustling black township near Cape Town, a policeman named Thembele, who doesn't want to give his last name, expresses what many South Africans think about Dandala.
"That guy. Where is he coming from? What did he do before?" he asks.
Cleric Chosen For His Conduct
Dandala's supporters insist that their 57-year-old candidate is the right man at the right time, even if he isn't a household name.
"We used to talk about tried and tested leaders. And we found, in fact, there is a flaw in that kind of reasoning," says Saki Macozoma, a former top ANC official and businessman who is now a member of the opposition COPE. "Every society needs to produce new political leaders, and they will come from the churches, from the community structures, even from tribal politics."
"Those people who are not career politicians often make better politicians," Macozoma says.
Dandala is a cleric who served as general secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches based in Nairobi, Kenya. Earlier, he had been bishop and a leader in South Africa's Methodist church.
But, says Macozoma, Dandala wasn't chosen because he is a cleric, but "because of the way he has conducted himself over the years."
As a young student, Dandala was an anti-apartheid activist. He worked as a community organizer and later was part of successful peace missions on the African continent.
Opposition: ANC Failed To Achieve Its Promises
At COPE's final election rally over the weekend, Dandala tried to draw a clear distinction between COPE leaders and the leaders of the ANC, including the ANC's presidential candidate, Jacob Zuma, who had been entangled in corruption charges until they were recently dropped.
"COPE is offering this country leaders who will honor the rule of law, leaders who will not spend all their time running from the law," Dandala said.
COPE was formed after a divisive power struggle in the ruling ANC forced South African President Thabo Mbeki to resign from the party presidency. The leadership battle alienated many ANC followers, though COPE claims that wasn't the spark for its creation.
COPE accuses the ANC of failing to achieve any of its promises to reduce violent crime, poverty and AIDS in its 15 years in power. It also says the ANC has lost the moral authority it gained over decades of fighting white rule and that it has made a poor choice in Zuma as party president. Since 2005, Zuma was tried on rape charges of which he ultimately acquitted and faced corruption charges that were finally dropped this month.
Questioning Fitness Of Both Zuma, The ANC
Against this background, Macozoma, the COPE member and former ANC official, says the party had to find a candidate with "impeccable moral credentials."
Compared to Zuma, who stirs his audiences with dancing and singing, Dandala is more of an evangelizer. And where Zuma is self-made — never having had a formal education and having worked as a cattle herder and kitchen boy in his youth — Dandala has two doctorates, one in philosophy and the other in theology.
Nobel laureate and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has described Zuma as "unfit" to be president. Dandala, however, holds his opponent in high regard.
"[Zuma] is a person of great intellect. He is person of great wisdom. There's no question about those things," Dandala said at the election rally.
But without referencing his opponent by name, Dandala questioned the fitness of a candidate facing the allegations Zuma has faced.
"It is unfortunate when there are very crucial issues, issues relating to corruption and so on, that are being asked, for a person not to stop and clear those first," he said.
However, Dandala said he and his party were not just running against Jacob Zuma.
"We are actually raising the question about the fitness of the African National Congress to govern this country," he said.
COPE Still In Nascent Stage
Some early pre-election polls predicted COPE would get at least enough votes to become the official opposition and cut into the ANC's powerful two-thirds majority in parliament.
But so far, COPE's performance has been uneven — not surprising, given its youth. Some observers believe COPE's real opportunity is in the 2014 election, after it has had an opportunity to build broader support.
Dandala is both hopeful and realistic. He says COPE is here to stay and will be a key player in government, whatever happens.
As for the battle at hand, Dandala says he thinks he would make a good president because of his "absolute passion to see democracy restored back to the people." Now, it is up to South African voters to decide if this is enough.