By Gaye Davis and Andisiwe Makinana

Feisty cleric Dr Allan Boesak, who has joined the Congress of the People (COPE) after being at the centre of a tug-of-war between the ruling ANC and the new party, is already being tipped as COPE's Western Cape premier candidate.

The struggle icon joined COPE on Tuesday after being actively wooed by both the breakaway party and the ANC.

After spurning efforts by the ANC to bring him on board, he will now be using his considerable oratorical skills to campaign for COPE in next year's elections.

Boesak was given a hero's welcome by 4 000 COPE delegates at the party's inaugural congress in Bloemfontein on Tuesday.

In a rousing speech that had the crowd on its feet chanting "Boesak!", he told them he had not asked what position he would get but whether he could serve.

Boesak later confirmed to the Cape Argus that he'd been the centre of a tug-of-war between the ANC and COPE, with each courting him in a bid to secure his services - and political capital - for next year's national and provincial elections.

ANC sources told the Cape Argus that two weeks ago the ANC had asked Boesak to run as their premier candidate in the Western Cape - as province party strategists are concerned the ANC may lose.

Sources close to the ANC headquarters, Luthuli House, said Boesak had been called to the national working committee's meeting, where for three hours the NWC tried to woo him to run as their Western Cape premier candidate.

On Tuesday Boesak told the Cape Argus that he had been in talks with the ANC in the province as well as with ANC president Jacob Zuma, who invited him to a meeting with the ANC's "top six".

At the same time, he was the focus of efforts by COPE President Mosiuoa Lekota who approached him as early as September - well ahead of Lekota's breakaway when he served the ANC with "divorce papers" in October.

"I told the ANC that I can't with conviction tell people to vote for the ANC," Boesak told the Cape Argus on Tuesday.

However, he said he had told the ANC leadership he was willing to serve South Africa in an ambassadorial role.

An ANC National Executive Committee source told the Cape Argus on Tuesday that Boesak had wanted to represent the country at the UN.

Boesak told the Cape Argus that he had bluntly told the ANC he would not campaign for the party in the Western Cape.

"I told them I can't, in six months, try and rectify what has gone wrong over so many years."

That the ANC approached Boesak at all is surprising, given that he launched a stinging attack on the party in July, accusing it of entrenching racial divisions rather than unity.

Boesak and his wife Elna signed as members of COPE on Tuesday morning after what Boesak said were "intense discussions" with Lekota and COPE Deputy President Mbhazima Shilowa on Monday night and early on Tuesday morning.

COPE's leadership positions had meanwhile already been decided after a marathon and often strained meeting that stretched into the early hours of yesterday morning - which meant there was no leadership position for Boesak.

There was also strong sentiment within COPE that positions should not be carved out for individuals - so Boesak now joins the party as one of its 30 additional executive members.

Lekota told journalists on Tuesday that Boesak's position was "under discussion" and that an announcement would "be made later".

However, the Cape Argus has been reliably informed that the party's top 30 members will not necessarily also be the first 30 names on the lists it will be compiling of election candidates - so the way is open for Boesak to emerge as its lead candidate in the Western Cape, or even higher up.

Boesak said while COPE could not promise him any position his talks with Lekota and Shilowa had persuaded him that the party would provide a non-racial, social-democratic alternative - something he has been pushing for.

"One can't reinvent the United Democratic Front," Boesak said.

"Circumstances have changed. But you can try to get the same enthusiasm and energy, the genuine belief that these things are valuable and can be attained."

He said he realised this was a decision that would determine the rest of his life, as he was now 62.

Boesak had some delegates in tears day when he told them it was not too late "to build a home for all".

"We will not be dictated to by hopelessness," he said.

"We will not be dictated to by fear."

Boesak was pitched into the political wilderness after his conviction on fraud and theft charges over donor funds amounting to R247 000.

He served his time during 2000 and painstakingly put back his career within the church.

Former president Thabo Mbeki gave him a presidential pardon in January 2005 which expunged his criminal record.