“Ultimately, Zuma must be removed from office,” was Julius Malema’s parting shot at an Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) press conference last week. The fiery briefing saw Malema shift the agenda from making President Jacob Zuma compensate the state for upgrades at his Nkandla residence to hounding out the president’s friends, the Gupta family, from the country and removing Zuma from power. This is no idle threat. Malema has Zuma squarely in the crosshairs and much rests on what happens at the Constitutional Court on Tuesday. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the South African Constitution. In his State of the Nation Address (Sona) on Thursday, President Jacob Zuma is likely to acknowledge the milestone and use it as a hook to affirm the healthy state of our constitutional democracy. Zuma might even quote from the haunting beautiful “I am an African” speech delivered on the occasion of the adoption of the Constitution on 8 May 1996 by a notable Facebook letter-writing talent.
Of course there might be an extended ad break, courtesy of the EFF, before he even gets that far into the Sona.
Ironically, it is Zuma’s adherence (or not) to the very Constitution we will be celebrating that will be argued in the Constitutional Court two days before. Provided the judges of the Constitutional Court will allow the hearing to go ahead, the EFF and Democratic Alliance (DA) legal teams will ask the judges to pronounce whether Zuma’s response to Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s report on the Nkandla upgrades was in breach of the Constitution. Madonsela, and now Corruption Watch, have joined the case to affirm the Public Protector’s powers.
It will take a few months for the judges to consider the matter and there will be a lot riding on that judgement, not only for the future of the Office of the Public Protector but the Presidency. For President Zuma, that judgment could hold particular significance for his political life.
The drafters of the Constitution (most notably the ANC’s lead negotiator and chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa) probably never envisaged that, within 20 years, so many people would be interested in the clauses pertaining to the removal of the president and motions of no confidence.
Those sections of the Constitution were read closely in September 2008 before the ANC national executive committee (NEC) discussed the fate of former president Thabo Mbeki and decided that the best option would be to “recall” him from office. This prevented a long and messy procedure that would have required the ANC caucus tabling a motion of no confidence or moving to impeach its own deployee to the presidency. The recall was instead a knife-to-the-jugular procedure behind closed doors.
Since Zuma became president, the DA has made numerous attempts to remove the president through a motion of no confidence. The DA’s latest request for a motion of no confidence in the president, on the basis of his removal of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister in December, is still pending.
After Nene’s firing and the resultant bloodletting in the economy, an ambitious but misguided #ZumaMustFall campaign called for Zuma to be “recalled”, using the term as a holdall for removing Zuma from office. The #ZumaMustFall campaign had no strategy or mechanism through which their demands could be channelled or achieved.
A “recall” would require the ANC to again decide to remove a sitting president from office. It will not be an easy decision for the organisation to unseat two presidents in quick succession, as this will reflect badly on the ANC’s leadership capabilities. A recall would also require the ANC NEC to have a lot more independent-minded and outspoken members as the committee is currently weighted with people fiercely loyal to the president. Unless Zuma volunteers to leave office, it will be a lot more difficult for the ANC to remove him than it was to recall Mbeki, who did not hold any office in the ANC at the time.
Now EFF leader Julius Malema has defined his ultimate goal as removing Zuma from office. At the EFF media briefing on Thursday, Malema said Zuma was in breach of his oath of office as he did not protect the public purse. Malema would not reveal much more about the EFF’s strategy after the Constitutional Court case or whether this will bring an end to the Nkandla saga.
“We will have to wait for the day Zuma pays back the money. Once he has paid, we will call you to announce the next action,” Malema said. He did say, however, that Zuma paying the money for the Nkandla upgrades would constitute an admission of guilt.
But what does the EFF intend to do with all this?
The Constitution provides for the removal of a president from office only on the grounds of “a serious violation of the Constitution or the law; serious misconduct; or inability to perform the functions of office”. The case before the Constitutional Court therefore is not only about forcing Zuma to do what he said he never would – pay back the money – but could also provide the basis for “a serious violation of the Constitution”. Depending on how the judges feel about the conduct of the president pertaining to his handling of Madonsela’s report since March 2014, they could also deem this to be “serious misconduct”.
Of course it would all be open to interpretation. And the removal of the president requires a resolution adopted with a supporting vote of at least two thirds of the members of the National Assembly.
But in terms of strategy, Malema and the EFF always seem to think out of the box, including with parliamentary rules. Who would have thought they would have dragged out #PayBackTheMoney for as long and as doggedly as they did? While they could not have envisaged that Zuma would have held out for so long, the switch from Parliament to the Constitutional Court happened at exactly the right time – after they had built up public anger at the president’s refusal to be held accountable and the ANC’s efforts to protect him.
The EFF’s new campaign against the Gupta family, the president’s friends, will pump up the pressure against Zuma. The ANC is unlikely to jump to the Guptas’ defence now, particularly when there is so much resentment within the party against the family. Zuma is already on the back foot in the ANC over his relationship with the Guptas and his gamble with the economy after Nene’s firing.
While the ANC Youth League president Collen Maine said on Sunday that is need be, his organisation would “declare civil war” to protect the president, Zuma’s recent flip-flops and serial blunders would make many people wary about mindlessly defending him. In an election year, ANC structures will focus on local issues and probably try to distance themselves from the president’s troubles.
The tough economic climate and higher food prices is likely to increase public hostility against the president, who caused mayhem with the Rand and a loss of investor confidence with his gamble with the finance ministers. A lot less people trust him now.
Malema and the EFF have pushed Zuma to the point where he is now, desperate to make the Nkandla matter go away and wobbly in his position. Much hangs on the Constitutional Court case on Tuesday and what the judges might say in their ruling on the matter. The EFF is on the hunt for ammunition against the president and this case will not only deliver the long-awaited payment for Nkandla but possibly give rise to a whole new onslaught on Zuma.
Photo: President Jacob Zuma in Parliament during SONA2015, 13 February 2015. (Greg Nicolson)