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ANC defectors struggle for title

The dissidents' party must have a name different from the existing 143.

Mlileke George, left, Mosiuoa Lekota, centre, Mbhazina Shilowa and Charlotte Lobe at the national convention of their new party in Johannesburg.
Mlileke George, left, Mosiuoa Lekota, centre, Mbhazina Shilowa and Charlotte Lobe at the national convention of their new party in Johannesburg.

JOHANNESBURG // From the hammer and sickle of communism to the Democrats and Republicans, of the United States, symbols and names are vital to political organisations, but rebels breaking away from South Africa's ruling African National Congress have developed an identity crisis - they need a title for their new party. The ANC has led South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994 and is now facing its most serious threat in decades, with a split led by its former chairman, Mosiuoa "Terror" Lekota.

The move, after the sacking of Thabo Mbeki by the party leadership under Jacob Zuma, is a potential political earthquake with a general election due next year, but the dissidents are on their third attempt to find an acceptable name for their grouping. It is something of a challenge - the party needs to allude to its chiefs' apartheid-era struggle credentials, while at the same time differentiating itself from the ANC and articulating a new vision.

South African media have dubbed it "Shikota" after Mr Lekota and its convener, Mbhazima Shilowa. Its own first choice, South African National Congress - T-shirts had already been printed up with Mr Lekota's face over the name - was objected to on the grounds it was too similar to the governing party's moniker. At the national convention last weekend that formally decided to create a new organisation, South African Democratic Congress was chosen. It then emerged that a minor party of that label, and known to its few adherents by the abbreviation Sadeco, already existed, albeit with its elected representatives limited to nine local councillors spread across KwaZulu-Natal province.

Now the breakaway leaders have chosen Congress of the People, a spokesman having said it was inspired by the vision of that occasion in 1955, when representatives of the country's oppressed races gathered to proclaim the Freedom Charter. But the ANC is warning it will protest on the grounds that it played a key role in the original event. "We believe that any party with any integrity would find a name and identity and a brand of their own and would not need to attach themselves to the brand name and the identity of another party," said its spokesman, Jessie Duarte.

The ANC's past could not be "divorced from the core" of the party, she said. "It's a diary date in the history of the ANC. "We have no objection to them setting up a new political party, but we can't be silent when people wish to appropriate the history of our country and the objectives of the national democratic revolution for themselves." The word "Congress" would be acceptable in the new party's label, she said, but the phrases "African National" or "South African National" would not.

Elements of the spectacle are reminiscent of Monty Python's Life of Brian, in which the People's Front of Judea denounce the Judaean People's Front, and the Judaean Popular People's Front, along with the Popular Front, as "splitters". Sadeco itself is the product of a split from the National Democratic Convention (Nadeco), which had earlier split from the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party. The issue is a demonstration of the enormous importance of a party name in terms of branding, what it represents and the signals it sends to the electorate.

A democracy analyst based in South Africa for an international organisation, who did not want to be identified, suspected that the ANC's objections were a deliberately obstructive tactic. "I don't think they want to make it easy," he said, adding that a good acronym was vital for easy recognition. "In Canada the Conservatives merged with the Reform party; it was late at night and they announced: 'We are now the Conservative Reform Alliance Party'. The next day they had to change it.

"Cot-P? I'm not so sure that reels off the tongue. It doesn't seem right." According to the Independent Electoral Commission, there are already 143 political parties registered in South Africa, and under its rules new ones should have clearly distinct identities, with a maximum length of 60 letters. Existing names range from the iconic African National Congress to the distinctly esoteric, such Royal Loyal Progress, Divine Kingdom Party, Tender Loving Care, and Keep it Straight and Simple - which recorded the dubious distinction of coming out on the bottom out of the 21 organisations that contested the last elections in 2004.

Several are identified as a "Congress" of one kind or another, partly because of the word's implicit resonance, and the new party appears to be determined to include it. But Sarah Britten, an author who blogs on the Mail & Guardian's Thought Leader site, warned: "'Congress' is still a word that the new party cannot possibly own in the mind of the voter. That's a major obstacle to brand recognition before you start.

"Congress of the People is a bit like Coke vs New Coke vs original formula Coke. You're always a version of something else." In a democracy, liberation movements have to evolve into "more mature" political parties, she said, and the use of "Congress" "fails to signal a willingness to embrace the possibilities of the future rather than the moth-eaten clichés of the past. "It's just more of the same, rehashed."

sberger@thenational.ae