The Congress of the People (COPE) has branded itself as a non-racial movement and is viewed as a potential threat to the ANC’s 14-year hold on South African politics.
“The history of South Africa will never be the same again,” Lekota told 4,000 delegates at the party launch in Bloemfontein.
“Ours shall be a truly non-racial party that will provide a true home to all South Africans irrespective of race, class or gender,” he added.
The party’s launch marks a dramatic shake-up in the country’s politics, which have been dominated by the ANC since it defeated apartheid and secured election for Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first black president.
COPE was formed by former disgruntled ANC members and government ministers who quit office after the ruling party asked then president Thabo Mbeki to resign.
“We are the party of the future,” Lekota said, saying that poverty, crime, unemployment and HIV-AIDS remained the country’s greatest challenges.
The party also wants South Africa’s president, provincial leaders and mayors to be directly elected instead of being appointed by the party in power.
The election manifesto will be launched by the end of January.
The party named the former leader of Gauteng and one-time trade union boss Mbhazima Shilowa as Lekota’s deputy, and Lynda Odendaal as second deputy president.
Lekota was defence minister from 1999 to 2008 when he quit office along with several high-profile ANC and government leaders who stepped down after the ruling party ousted then president Thabo Mbeki.
Known as “Terror” for his skills on the soccer field, Lekota was a political prisoner on Robben Island alongside anti-apartheid icons such as Mandela.
The party’s launch came after a three-day conference to iron out an election campaign, leadership, and adopt party policies and a constitution.
The party’s formation has been marked by intense confrontation with ANC supporters and junior political partners who have disrupted party meetings and fired verbal attacks against the breakaway faction.
The ANC held a parallel gathering in Bloemfontein yesterday at which party chief Jacob Zuma admitted the ruling party had made mistakes.
“We have learnt from the mistakes of the past 15 years, especially the manner in which we may have, to some degree, neglected the people’s movement in our focus on governance,” said Zuma.
Political polls have indicated that COPE could dent the ANC at the polls, and University of Free State analyst Choice Makhetha said South Africans were hungry for a party that honoured promises and led by example.
“I think the launch of COPE should be the biggest wake-up call for the ANC,” he told AFP.
The party has already attracted nearly 500,000 supporters, according to party leaders.
Among supporters of the country’s youngest political party was 25-year Kabelo Mokoena, who hitchhiked to the event, telling AFP that “this is history in the making”.
“I believe in the Congress of the People’s policy and their vision for this country,” he said.