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Breakaway Party Challenges South Africa's ANC

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

South Africa's historic transformation into a multiracial democracy has obscured a central fact of its politics. Though there are a scattering of small parties, the country is effectively a one-party state. Now some politicians who've become disaffected from the powerful African National Congress are taking on the ANC by launching a new party this week. It's called the Congress of the People, and they say the ANC has veered off the democratic path. NPR's Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF COPE PARTY CONVENTION)

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(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING AND SINGING)

CHARLAYNE HUNTER: Singing revolutionary songs and dancing at a party convention is the old way of doing things. But the party about to be launched Tuesday, the Congress of the People, is brand new - the bright yellow T-shirts worn by the delegates proclaiming new hope for change, change many are predicting will signal an historic turning point in South Africa's 14-year-old democracy. Interim Chairman Mosiuoa Lekota went so far as to claim the ANC is creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation similar to the apartheid era of vicious, white minority rule.

MOSIUOA LEKOTA: Public servants now talk in whispers when they discuss COPE.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

LEKOTA: Men and women with whom we worked and shared jokes now have to look the other way when we chance upon each other along corridors of state buildings.

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HUNTER: Lekota also charged that South Africans are back to spying on each other, as in the apartheid era, and that leaders of the ANC thrive in political hate speech.

LEKOTA: Songs threatening and/or encouraging the hatred of or the killing of COPE leaders have been composed and are sung at meetings before their leadership addresses them.

HUNTER: Lekota detailed a long list of grievances against his former party. But he and other interim leaders call for tolerance within their ranks, even later criticizing a group in the balcony that sang this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD SINGING)

HUNTER: Zuma is campaigning throughout the country, expressing confidence in an ANC victory in next year's elections. COPE plans to contest next year's elections, claiming to have already enrolled more than 400,000 paid-up members since it began organizing in October, compared with 600,000 in the ANC since the end of apartheid 15 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING AND SINGING)

HUNTER: As interim leaders like Lekota exhort them, even the most enthusiastic delegates say they're hoping to hear more about COPE's plans for the future. Mbhazima Shilowa, COPE's deputy interim chairman, says they will use the rest of the time here to write a constitution and thrash out answers about its policies, ideology, and distinguishing features. Meanwhile, the party's launch at a rally on Tuesday is causing one worry. The ANC has scheduled a rally nearby. Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR News, Bloemfontein, South Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.