The former general secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches, the Rev Mvume Dandala, has been nominated as the presidential candidate of a breakaway faction of South Africa's ruling African National Congress in the country's 22 April 2009 elections - writes Hans Pienaar.
Professor Russel Botman, the rector of Stellenbosch University and the former president of the South African Council of Churches, pipped the former president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Rev. Allan Boesak, to the post as nominee for another top party position.
Botman, a theologian, is the nominee of the Congress of the People (COPE) for the premiership of the Western Cape, a province that the ANC could lose control of in the April elections. The COPE party was formed in December after Thabo Mbeki was made to step down as president in September 2008.
Dandala, who is also a former head of the Methodist Church in Southern Africa, is seen as a compromise candidate between COPE's founders, former defence minister Mosiua Lekota and former Gauteng provincial premier Mbhazima Shilowa. Dandala is also seen as a trump card as COPE beats an anti-corruption drum in the wake of a fraud scandal involving former ANC spokesperson Carl Niehaus, who says he is an ordained minister.
Largely unknown on the South African political scene, Dandala returned to South Africa barely two months ago after a five-year stint in Nairobi at the AACC. He first made his name as a peacemaker in the 1990s township wars between Zulu nationalist migrants and ANC-aligned units in the East Rand gold mining area near Johannesburg.
As presiding bishop of the Methodist church, he became a voice against the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, and the South African government's refusal to acknowledge scientific facts on the HIV and AIDS pandemic. A staunch believer in unifying Africans, he also promoted the use of African customs, including ancestor worship and new liturgies, in the Methodist Church in Southern Africa.
The selection process for the COPE party's election nominees was chaired by Barney Pityana, a prominent Anglican who is the principal of the University of South Africa, the country's largest. He and Dandala were known as supporters of the Black Consciousness doctrine espoused by anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko who died at the hands of the police in 1977.
COPE's general secretary Charlotte Lobe said on 19 February, "COPE stands for clean governance that efficiently delivers service to the people." She said Dandala represented honesty, hard work and family values.
In the Cape provincial election Botman could face up to the Cape Town mayor, Helen Zille, a long-standing anti-apartheid activist in the Black Sash woman's movement. She is leader of the Democratic Alliance, a party whose leadership has been labelled as "too white" by its opponents.
Zille on 19 February called on the ANC's nominee for president, Jacob Zuma, who faces multiple corruption charges, to step down as the candidate, saying his presidency of the country could be unconstitutional.
There had been some speculation in media reports in February 2008 that Dandala was being thought of as a possible successor to the Rev Dr Samuel Kobia, a Kenyan Methodist who is general secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. Kobia's successor is to be named at the end of August.
Dandala was born in 1951 and he has a Master's degree in theology from the University of Cambridge.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]