A shrewd bit of politics by South African opposition parties

Naysayers be damned, the decision made by almost all* the opposition parties in the National Assembly to bandy together today to table a motion of no confidence against president Jacob Zuma in terms of section 102 of the Constitution is a shrewd political maneuverer and a doffing of the cap to our democracy. Yes, they’ve been shrill and at times over wrought in the past, but had they not attempted this, they would not have been acting as ones faithful to the Republic of South Africa, as their oath requires.

The merits of such a motion are self-evident, but just in case there was any doubt, they spelled them out. They said (hyperlinks my own): “President Zuma no longer has the confidence of our political parties to serve as president on the grounds that under his leadership:

In addition to these general failures, there were specific ones, too. Because of the Zuma administration’s failure to ensure that there existed effective public order policing, despite repeated warnings that a problem existed, several lives were lost and innumerable injuries inflicted. This unnecessary loss of life includes the deaths of Andries Tatane and 34 striking Marikana miners, some of whom were allegedly gunned down while hand-cuffed or hiding. The enraging tales of the police attempt to cover up their actions in Marikana are currently being relayed to the Farlam Commission, which was set up to investigate the actions that led to the massacre and the events thereafter.

The Zuma administration failed, too, at the simple task of ensuring Limpopo learners had textbooks and workbooks in time for the school year. And the administration also continues to obfuscate in the face of growing scrutiny of the R200 million spent on security upgrades to Zuma’s Nkandla homestead. Through his lawyer, Zuma has also created the wholly undesireable situation where the National Prosecuting Authority could be held in contempt of court for not handing over the reduced transcripts of the tapes that it relied on before dropping the charges of corruption against Zuma in 2009.

So by tabling the motion, opposition parties were living up to what this democracy expects of them.

The move was shrewd, too, because while probabilities are slim that it will succeed, a tiny chance still exists. Given the case made, it was a chance they had to take.

The motion’s chances of success rests on layers of contingencies, which means it’s speculation, hopefully informed, from this point onwards, folks. The first contingency is the motion surviving the chief whips’ forum and the Speaker. It’d be mind-boggling if it didn’t and I’d be quite interested to hear the reasoning acrobatics required to stop it at this stage.

The office of the ANC chief whip reacted angrily to the motion, calling it a waste of the House’s time, and proposed a counter-motion to reaffirm confidence in Zuma. But I can’t see how they can stop the no confidence motion from being put to the vote next week.

The next contingency depends on whether MPs will be allowed a secret ballot, as requested. The opposition parties asked for a secret ballot because they know there are ANC members, many of whom are MPs or able to influence MPs, not happy with Zuma’s performance. Many of them are in the so-called Anybody But Zuma camp, which appears to have congealed under the less negative-sounding ANC Youth League-sponsored “forces of change” banner, but there are others genuinely concerned about the quality of leadership under Zuma’s stewardship.

But easily it could be argued that given the wide-reaching effects of the motion, it would be counter to the principles of accountability and transparency to hold a secret ballot. The National Assembly uses secret ballots to elect the president and the speaker when more than one nomination has been received, but I think removing the president is a whole other matter, which is why I doubt a secret ballot will be allowed.

A secret ballot, then, is unlikely. But either way, it’s high stakes stuff this. For the motion to pass the opposition, which has just under 33% of the seats in the National Assembly, needs to woo by my calculation** 66 ANC MPs to vote with them. Not in the history of any of the proceedings in Parliament have that many ANC MPs voted against party instructions.

For these 66 history makers, regardless of whether the ballot is secret or not, it would mean throwing their party to the flames hoping for it to turn phoenix, for if the motion passes it will set about a chain reaction that if not controlled could see the ANC implode. Let me explain.

If the motion passes, they’d also have to ensure that come December, Zuma is not re-elected party president. You’d think chances would be nil, but we’re talking about the guy who survived a rape trial and corruption charges to become president of the country, so I wouldn’t count him out. Should Zuma be booted out of the presidency and retain the ANC presidency, he could, metaphorically speaking, rule from the grave given how the party list system means MPs are answerable to and can be removed by their party. There would be two centres of power—one at Luthuli House and another in the presidency. But given how the former effectively appoints the latter, Luthuli House would remain in control.

An open ballot would also mean Zuma would be able to purge the assembly of those who sowed the seeds to his downfall.

But Mangaung is only a month away. Most of the 4,500 delegates deciding the party’s leadership for the next five years should by now have the mandate from their branches, the majority of which, by all indications, are that the current leadership, including Zuma, be retained. It’s going to take a helluva lot of footwork to undo that. Thus the 66 who vote in favour of the motion could, if they don’t stop Zuma’s re-election, be sending themselves into the political wilderness only to have what effectively would be another five, instead of seven, years of Zuma in power.

To save the country and themselves, the 66 and their backers would need to prevent a Zuma re-election. I cannot see this happening without further widening the existing, well-documented divisions. Thus to save the country, they’d need to put their political future and their party’s stability, possibly existence, at risk.

The other complication is that many in Zuma’s cabinet are on the slate put together by the so-called forces of change, including their favoured candidate for president, Kgalema Motlanthe. It could get a little awkward.

All of this then is a big ask and relies on so much else occurring, nonetheless the motion is not frivolous. At the very least it should give the ANC something to think about as it battles to renew itself. If they fail to respond and continue as they have, support (and National Assembly seats) will diminish and more motions of no confidence will come and one is sure to stick.

But what I like most of all about the motion is that it’s bucked the trend. Usually something first happens at Luthuli House before it’s rubber-stamped in Parliament. Now something has started in Parliament that could potentially, however remote, shake up not just Luthuli House, but the country’s entire political scene. It’s also going to force some more people to read the Constitution, National Assembly rules and take a keener interest in Parliament—I hope.

_

* In favour of the motion are ACDP, AZAPO, COPE, DA, FF+, IFP, UCDP and UDM. According to DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko, the PAC could not confirm by the time of tabling, and APC and MF said no.

** My calculation assumes a full sitting of the 400-member house, which almost never happens. Between section 102 and the National Assembly’s quorum rules, I can’t discern whether a full sitting is required, only a majority sitting as is needed to pass a Bill (rule 25(2)(b)), or at least a third as required for all other matters (rule 25(2)(b)). To be safe I just went with the full sitting and assumed APC and MF would vote no. Any number of possibilities could occur depending on who shows up and what their intentions are. I expect that given what’s at stake, all the parties will issue a three-line whip, meaning members must attend or face reprimand.

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