It was founded less than a month ago, but the Congress of the People (COPE), South Africa's new opposition party, formed mostly by disillusioned members of the ruling African National Congress, has already changed the country's politics. If the spur for leaving the ANC was its national executive's vengeful forcing of Thabo Mbeki from office with only a few months of his term to go, it needed the bravery of Mosiuoa "Terror" Lekota, a former ANC chairman and minister, to use the turmoil to form a new political grouping. In doing so, he may have brought genuine multiparty democracy to South Africa for the first time.
Support for liberation movements in southern Africa takes on religious dimensions: members of such movements may have problems with the leadership or policies, but rarely do they leave. Often, opposition parties are irrelevant, centred around an individual, or they cater for minorities. This is exacerbated by the past: the struggle against apartheid was the defining moment in South Africa's history, as was the struggle against colonialism in neighbouring countries. For opposition leaders to be effective, they must come from the ranks of liberation movements, which combine centralised, enforced discipline with fanatical loyalty. So, for Lekota to break from the ANC was spectacularly courageous. Yet it was necessary: the ANC, he argues, has become so morally corrupt that it can no longer be renewed from within.
His challenge now is to create a grass-roots-based, social democratic movement on the centre left, appealing to a non-racial audience, to business, the middle class and the poor. So far, Lekota's group has been received with enthusiasm in the media, among the white and black middle classes and by the educated young. However, it is the mass of voters in South Africa's rural areas, shanty towns and townships that matters when it comes to votes; often in these areas there are no hi-tech media. COPE will have to take the fight to these parts of South Africa. Breakaways from the ANC have failed in the past when a single leader has left and been unable to pull others with him or her. But Lekota has taken a whole layer of supporters with him and is widely acknowledged to be among the most gifted political organisers of his generation.
In the 1980s, he was active in the United Democratic Front, the centre-left civic pressure group led by Reverend Allan Boesak, where he had to build broad-based alliances across race, class and political ideology to work against the apartheid government. He led the ANC initiative to woo white Afrikaners and attempts in 2002 to persuade the remnants of the National Party, the party of apartheid, to merge with the ANC. Such was his popularity that, in 1999, Mbeki was forced to appoint him to his cabinet as defence minister, with the hard task of integrating white and black forces that had fought against each other.
At the ANC's 2007 conference every person standing for election was forced to choose between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. Lekota was one of the contenders to succeed Mbeki as party leader. If Mbeki had stepped aside earlier and allowed one of the younger generation to take over, it may not have been Zuma, Mbeki's exact contemporary, who won. But Mbeki did not, and the opportunity for renewal was spurned. (If anything, Zuma's election may represent the tribalisation of the ANC: it has been said that he is Zulufying the party after a period in which it was led by Xhosa elite such as Mbeki and Mandela. Lekota himself belongs to another group, the South Sotho.) This is a familiar trajectory for sub-Saharan African independence movements. Liberation leaders stay on for ever, or are replaced by contemporaries, and their parties ossify. Just by forming COPE, Lekota may have started the renewal of South African politics. If COPE fights even half effectively for the same centre-left ground as the ANC, forcing it to become more internally democratic and to improve its record in government, then, even if it does poorly in the national elections this year, it will have served a worthy purpose.
William Gumede is the author of "Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC", published by Zed Books (£16.99)