Inevitably commentators are comparing Agang with COPE (Justice Malala, today, Saturday on ENCA). It may well be that Agang will perform less well electorally than COPE, but the significance of the formation of political parties does not lie purely in their electoral performance.
COPE, it will be recalled was formed in the aftermath of Thabo Mbeki’s defeat in Polokwane and the unseemly way in which he was removed as State President when he had a very short period of his term of office left to serve. The formation of COPE was significant because it was the first break from within the ANC (I do not count UDM as a similar phenomenon for various reasons). It drew mainly on people who had been ANC cadres and its followers were fairly similar to the ANC constituency. The process of its formation and its swift entry into elections meant that there was little time to engage in processes outside of those who had been leaders under Mbeki who then became leaders under Lekota and Shilowa. It is not clear whether there was any inclination.
There was, as with Mbeki, and now Zuma, no intention of having an active engagement with the masses. The post 1994 period had seen the running down of ANC branches, periodically revived for elections. COPE had lived with that in the ANC and they took no steps or stated no intention of changing that way of conducting politics.
But COPE had no political ideas that had not already been part of the Mbeki vision and the weakness of that vision (from the standpoint of the character of democracy) is that it was not carved out in broad discussion but derived mainly from Mbeki and the small circle around him. The post 1994 period has been a period of deideologisation that is politics without political debate or ideas about political directions. That is not to say that there were no theories around, but the main issues around which power was exerted and battles fought, related to technical matters or especially under Zuma, distribution of resources to private individuals.
What is markedly different about the Agang launch is that for some time there have been many ideas advanced by Dr Ramphele about empowering citizens, about realising the promises of 1994, respect for the rule of law, meeting the crises of education, healthcare and a range of other areas. Some of the ideas that Agang advances may be open to question, but there is a real attempt to look at the conditions of the time and engage with people on these and it appears, develop policies to remedy the problems. One has the sense that, even if one disagrees, one can engage with Agang
That is very different from any other political party in recent times. That does not mean that the future of Agang can be predicted now. Good ideas are all very well, but with whom will those ideas be exchanged, will the party succeed in establishing viable structures at a range of levels? These are issues that will determine whether the democratic project that Agang claims to advance, starts ‘at home’, within the organisation itself. If internal democracy does not exist, some of us will be less confident of the party being the bearer of a broader recovery of the democratic project.