ARGENTINIAN writer Jorge Luis Borges memorably described the 1982 Falklands War between his country and the UK as "two bald men fighting over a comb". This is an apt metaphor for the court case of the Congress of the People (COPE) being fought between its founding leaders, Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa; that is, to the extent anyone, other than a handful of its captive public representatives, cares about the outcome.

How different things seemed just more than four years ago, in November 2008, when COPE was launched in Sandton, cheered by thousands of enthused delegates and buoyed by huge media support. At the outset, it enjoyed the approbation of other opposition parties and paraded a deep bench of credible leaders (including, in time, South Africa’s former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka). The wind in its sails as it set course to chart new waters in South African politics was not simply filled with the normal political bombast. Objectively, here was the first serious and much-anticipated split in the African National Congress (ANC) since its legalisation in 1990 and its ascent to power four years later.

The fact that the party was revealed over time to be a grab-bag of political nomads, clinging to the wreckage of Thabo Mbeki’s vanquished presidency, was not apparent when South Africa went to the polls six months after COPE’s formation. The party, despite severe financial constraints, won a very creditable 7.3% of the vote, and its 1.3-million supporters secured it third place in the new Parliament. Its subsequent immolation, caused by leadership rivalries, an infirmity of tactics and its absence of a survival strategy, soon enough consigned COPE to the elephants’ graveyard of our politics.

This unquiet resting place, where so many other political formations lie just beneath the stony soil of our politics, provides us with examples of what it takes to found, lead and, crucially, sustain a political party in addition to South Africans’ hunger for a credible alternative to one-party domination.

Contrary to present beliefs and some of the gushing admiration from some media at the much-anticipated, much-delayed announcement of the political intentions of Mamphela Ramphele, there has never been a shortage of aspiring new opposition leaders in our country.

Back in 1997, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) elected Bishop Stanley Magoba as its president. His Robben Island years, leadership of the Methodist Church and leadership role in the National Peace Committee, on the surface, constituted all the right stuff to arrest the declining fortunes of his ailing party, which had an impressive struggle biography. Nice man that he was, he had zero effect on Parliament and the "slow puncture" of the PAC, in the sharp put-down of Jeremy Cronin, proceeded apace.

There was much expectation, in the same year, when the man who topped the polls in the election of the ANC’s national executive committee, Bantu Holomisa, was expelled from the party and founded the United Democratic Movement. Using his base in Transkei in the 1999 election, he secured 500,000 votes and 14 MPs for his party. In the intervening 15 years, however, Magoba and the PAC have disappeared from the political scene, while Holomisa remains today in Parliament bestride a rump of just three other MPs. His constituency has shrunk to a quarter of its original size.

As a citizen, I welcome the arrival on the political scene of a new political force in the form of Ramphele, especially in these fraught times. As a former leader of the opposition I know what it takes, however, to sustain such a movement. Irritated though she apparently is at me for offering gratuitous advice, I will bear the burden of her irritation by making one further suggestion.

She would do well to visit her local cinema and view the epic Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln. His ultimately successful effort to enact the 13th amendment to the US constitution, the prohibition of slavery, was purchased at considerable cost. That story, about the high-mindedness and low skullduggery of 19th-century US politics, applies in our own political realm 150 years later.

A heroic biography takes you only so far. You crucially need roots, a clear philosophy and, especially, a machine to deliver votes. You also have to undergo what I used to call the "chemotherapy of politics", the dirty business of fundraising. Every opposition leader has visited the house of Gupta or worse. Then there is what Colin Eglin called "long-haul politics" — the sheer ability to stick it out as an opposition politician, with a short gravy train and limited patronage. Often you have to build the foundations of future success without enough straw for the bricks to construct it. Being a political leader might feed one’s vanity in the initial phases, but, as former UK politician Matthew Parris observed, over time "it starves your self-respect".

Perhaps the latest political force in our land will defy these odds. Time will tell.