The break-up of the African National Congress and the forthcoming general election provide a unique opportunity for a realignment of forces in South African politics. Creation of the Congress of the People, a new party, will erode the ANC's grip on power and reignite the public debate over pressing issues such as corruption, crime and poverty.
The people behind Cope are no angels. They share responsibility for guiding the ship of state into troubled waters. By increasing the competition for black voters, however, they may yet benefit South Africa.
Cope was born out of internecine conflict between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, the ANC leader. It was Mr Mbeki's defeat as the ANC president in December 2007 and his forced resignation as state president last September that precipitated the unravelling of the ANC. Both Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa, Cope's leader and deputy leader respectively, are close to Mr Mbeki.
The new party's birth comes at a propitious time. In the 2004 election, more than 50 percentage points separated the ANC from the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance. The governing party controls all nine provinces and every main city, bar Cape Town.
This hegemony ossified political discourse and undermined constitutional checks and balances. The ANC has used a combination of race politics and deployment of its "cadres" across much of South Africa's public and private sectors to destroy the wall between the party and the state. It diminished parliamentary accountability and hobbled supposedly independent institutions, such as the South African Broadcasting Corporation. It has also attempted to stifle debate on contentious policies, including Aids and Zimbabwe.
The tribal tensions behind the split – Mr Zuma, the presumptive state president, is a Zulu and the new party draws much apparent support from Xhosa-speaking regions traditionally associated with former president Nelson Mandela and Mr Mbeki – are somewhat blurred. They are certainly less sharp than the black-white division that has characterised voting for the ANC and the DA respectively.
Encouragingly, Mr Lekota and Helen Zille, leader of the DA, said they would co-operate and possibly form coalition governments in those provinces where the combined opposition won a majority. Mr Lekota also recently emphasised a return to "rainbow nation" politics and a retreat from the racial quotas that have driven the government's economic policies and public appointments.
The new party claims to be distinct from the ANC in "respecting the constitution and the courts". That is a welcome sentiment, for supporters of Mr Zuma, who faces unresolved bribery charges, have in recent months denounced South Africa's independent judiciary as "counter-revolutionary", and declared their readiness to "kill for Zuma". Mr Lekota's commitment to principled politics was, unfortunately, undermined by Cope's embrace of Allan Boesak – a disgraced anti-apartheid cleric convicted of embezzlement.
Cope might also come to regret its closeness to Mr Mbeki. After all, it was on his watch that South Africa's social, economic and political challenges became more acute.
At present, Cope seems committed to continue with Mr Mbeki's lacklustre policies, while the ANC has embraced economic populism, campaigning on a programme of more spending and more state intervention. Somewhat paradoxically, Trevor Manuel, the business-friendly finance minister, remains a member of the ANC cabinet, while one of Cope's apparent funders, Wendy Luhabe (Mr Shilowa's wife), is a billionaire beneficiary of the ANC's dirigistic economic policies. The loss of power, business deals and patronage is probably the most reliable explanation for the schism.
Based on municipal by-election results in Western Cape in December, it appears that Cope can cut deep into traditional ANC support, while the DA can count on the support of the white and coloured communities. That suggests the 2009 election could be good news for South Africa. Until now, the country's democracy has assumed some of the worst features of a one-party state. More political competition could revitalise South African democracy and help safeguard basic liberties.