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Sat Oct 25 14:42:47 SAST 2014

Too much hot air may pop parties' balloons

S'Thembiso Msomi | 07 November, 2012 02:22

If President Jacob Zuma is often his own worst enemy, his political opponents are usually his saviours.

Too many times over the past decade, Zuma has found himself in deep trouble - only to be rescued by the actions of his often overzealous rivals.

In a bid to capitalise on his blunders, misjudgments and other weaknesses, his opponents sometimes engage in acts that only help to shift the public's attention from the man and - in certain instances - even mobilise public sympathy for him.

The controversy over The Spear painting has been the most spectacular example of this so far.

For a moment this past weekend, it looked as if DA leader Helen Zille's "inspection" of Zuma's Kwadakwadunuse private residence in Nkandla would be another such example as scores of angry Zuma supporters blocked the main road leading up to the homestead.

As a standoff ensued between Zuma's supporters and Zille's entourage on Sunday morning, there was real danger that the public's attention would shift from the questions that still need to be answered over why taxpayers had to foot the R200-million-plus bill, to the folly of the DA's poorly thought-out publicity stunt.

Fortunately Zille's visit to Nkandla ended without any major incidents and the country can now focus on the public protector's ongoing investigation into how and why the Public Works Department, the South African Police Service and the Presidency decided that Zuma deserved such an expensive upgrade to his private residence at taxpayers' expense.

While the DA, the other opposition parties and civil society at large are right to shine the spotlight on this apparent abuse of the public purse, it is not clear why Zille thought it necessary to raise tempers in the historically volatile uThungulu rural district.

With the next general elections merely two years away, expect opposition parties to use every trick in the book to stay in the headlines.

This they would do in the hope that it would win them more votes in the 2014 elections.

But the DA has so much going for it right now that it actually does not need such stunts to win more votes.

It has been exemplary as the official opposition in parliament, and its performance as the government in Cape Town and the Western Cape is sure to convince sections of the electorate that it is a better alternative to the ANC.

One would have understood if the march on Nkandla was staged by Congress of the People president Mosiuoa Lekota.

Now here is a leader and political party in trouble.

COPE, which broke away from the ANC in 2008, did extremely well in the 2009 general elections - gaining more than one million votes and emerging as the third-biggest political party in parliament.

But it has been a downhill slide for the party ever since, and COPE now faces the real danger of perishing at the next polls unless its leaders find new strategies to restore the credibility it lost during a long-running power struggle between Lekota and COPE co-founder Mbhazima Shilowa.

It is within this context that Lekota's recent headline-grabbing statements and actions in parliament should be understood.

The former Robben Island inmate - who once occupied the position of national ANC chairman before splitting to form COPE - has twice been kicked out of the National Assembly so far this year for making controversial comments about Zuma.

While Lekota's passionate dislike for his former comrade cannot be ruled out as a possible motive for his outbursts, his hard-hitting remarks in parliament - and the booting out that follows them - seem calculated to ensure maximum publicity for both COPE and its leader.

Lekota knows that if he is to keep the one million voters that backed COPE in 2009, his party needs to be more visible both inside and outside of the National Assembly.

For most of the first three years - and due mainly to Lekota's battle with Shilowa - COPE has allowed the DA to steal all the opposition limelight in parliament.

If this trend continues, the party will lose a sizeable portion of its 2009 voters to Zille while others will either not vote COPE or - depending on whether or not Zuma is re-elected in Mangaung - return to the ANC.

But will Lekota's new and robust approach pay off for COPE in the long run, or is it too late for the party?

Played just right, the strategy may work. But overplayed, it may end up playing into the president's and his party's hands.

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