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Going through the motions, no sweat: It’s No Confidence time again

Going through the motions, no sweat: It’s No Confidence time again

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Tuesday’s DA motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma snugly fits into this definition – and highlights the limitations of party politicking with parliamentary tools in a national legislature where numbers matter. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

It’s no surprise the motion of no confidence was defeated 225 against, with just 99 for and 22 abstentions, after a terse debate. The governing ANC, with 249 of the 400 National Assembly MPs, pulled together for a show of unity as is its wont in times of pressure. Regardless of reservations individual ANC MPs may hold about their party and president, an opposition-sponsored motion of no confidence in the president is simply not the place to step out of line. Parliamentary tools come in handy to enforce discipline. The ANC called a three-line whip, which is parliamentary lingo for everyone having to be there, and to vote according to the party position. Not doing so has serious consequences.

The ANC has full confidence in President Jacob Zuma to lead South Africa as the country’s president… The people of South Africa have seen these strides and have trusted President Zuma and the ANC to continue with this work and tackle the challenges that continue to plague us,” said ANC national spokesperson Zizi Kodwa in a statement headed, “Our confidence in President Zuma is unshaken”, which also described the DA as “racist” and “the party of white privilege”.

Meanwhile, the DA did its own politicking by touting the online support for its motion of no confidence, and a call on ANC MPs to support it against the party line. DA leader Mmusi Maimane styled it as the opportunity to put South Africa first. “… (T)his is millions of South Africans urging ANC MPs to put our country first and vote with their conscience in this motion of no confidence. All 249 ANC MPs have an opportunity to place the country and its interests before the ANC,” he said.

All that happened in the run-up to the debate on the motion, the second DA one in in a year, and the fifth brought by various parties since 2010.

Tuesday’s debate united the majority of opposition parties, whose leaders and senior MPs found different ways to say Zuma was no longer fit to lead South Africa. “This president failed this country,” said IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, while United Democratic Movement (UDM) leader Bantu Holomisa again called for a “dignified exit strategy” for Zuma, saying the ANC should not be afraid to discuss this. Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald said Zuma broke his oath of office to serve all South Africans and demanded he apologise to white South Africans for saying whites stole the land.

The Economic Freedom Fighters did not speak although its MPs remained in the House, and African People’s Convention MP Themba Godi slammed the motion.

But the ANC focus was squarely on Maimane, who repeatedly described Zuma as a “sell-out” in a hard tackle on the ANC’s labelling of the DA as racist. A barrage of points of order from ANC benches for not calling the president “honourable” or “his excellency” interrupted his flow. As ANC chief whip Stone Sizani put it: “As long as he (Maimane) continues we will not stop disrupting him.”

Despite the deployment of this parliamentary tool to stall the speech of the speaker at the podium, Maimane got his point across. “Everything this man (Zuma) does is to protect himself, his friends and his family at the expense of the Constitution, his oath of office and the people of South Africa,” he said.

Comfortable with their numerical dominance, the ANC fielded three speakers. Their speeches focused on casting the DA as racist and making a lot of noise in the House, being disrespectful of the Constitution by running to the courts to settle disputes it could not settle in politics, and focused on bringing frivolous motions. Instead the ANC delivery track record, and historic mission to free South Africa, was touted amid calls for everyone to take out a membership card. Curiously, Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu ended her speech with a message to ANC: remember what we did to those who betrayed us!

The DA pushed ahead with the motion of no confidence, and a vote, amid a call on ANC MPs to follow their conscience. However, such votes are rare: the 1996 vote on the Termination of Pregnancy Bill allowed ANC MPs to absent themselves with their chief whip’s permission, and 11 did so.

Occasions like an opposition motion of no confidence in the president are a political showcase, regardless of which side of the House an MP sits. Party politicking reaches another level, particularly in an election year like this one with the pending municipal poll, although parliamentary rules and practices moderate the agitation.

Brought in terms of Section 102(2) of the Constitution, the motion of no confidence requires the support of a simple majority of the National Assembly. Once passed, the President, the Cabinet and deputy ministers must resign. Given this, DA chief whip John Steenhuisen asked the 72-strong executive to be excused from the motion of no confidence debate, over their personal interest in this. Of course, shaving off ministers’ and deputy ministers’ votes brings down ANC numbers. But Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli ruled: “I’m not aware of any rule or law that allows for (their) exclusion”.

And so the predictable parliamentary game of rhetoric versus numbers unfolded.

In March 2015 the DA motion of no confidence largely over the Nkandla saga was defeated 211 against, with 113 in favour. That vote came about two weeks after AgangSA abandoned its motion of no confidence as it got under way because a secret ballot was not guaranteed and Speaker Baleka Mbete, also the ANC national chairwoman, did not recuse herself. These points were subject to a court challenge the party lost.

In November 2012 the DA’s motion of no confidence went nowhere except to court, where then DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko obtained a ruling that Parliament needed to fix the “lacuna” in its rules on such motions. With the legal wranglings finally settled in the Constitutional Court in late 2013, Parliament changed its rules on motions of no confidence. But 2014 was an election year, and Zuma got a break. Instead Mbete faced a motion of no confidence in September 2014, largely over her bias claimed by opposition parties. The motion was defeated on the back of ANC numbers.

A year later, in September 2015, the DA attempted to impeach Zuma over the controversial departure of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir from the African Union summit at the Sandton Convention Centre, notwithstanding an International Criminal Court warrant of arrest for genocide and crimes against humanity. The impeachment attempt under Section 89(1) of the Constitution was always ambitious as it requires at least two-thirds support in the House; it was defeated 211 against, 100 for with 17 abstentions.

In March 2010 Cope brought a motion of no confidence in Zuma over his appointment of Advocate Menzi Simelane as head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). The motion was turned into one of full confidence following ANC intervention, although in late 2012 Simelane’s appointment was ruled unlawful in a unanimous ruling by the Constitutional Court.

Closing Tuesday’s debate, which was brought in his name, Maimane told ANC MPs that none of them had told him why he should support Zuma: “All I see before me are members, to borrow a famous quote, have stopped putting South Africa first… You are here secure in comfort.”

ANC numbers held sway over a united opposition front. It’s a pattern, not only in Tuesday’s debate but in committees and in sittings to pass legislation. It was the case on the various Nkandla reports the National Assembly adopted to clear Zuma of any wrongdoing or repayments, as it was with the Protection of State Information Bill, dubbed the Secrecy Bill.

Sometimes numerical arrogance backfires: opposition walkouts on occasions mean there’s no quorum. Last week he Expropriation Bill, which garnered 202 votes in the 400-strong National Assembly, would not have made it through without the IFP support. But such occasions are rare, and do not happen on showcase days such as motions of no confidence.

The question faced by opposition parties is: play by the rules and know you’ll get thumped every time on the numbers, or try something different? Clearly the EFF have decided on different; others have not. The result? Parliament is in a repeat pattern of pushing parliamentary rules and proceedings against numbers to do the same thing over and over again with the same result. DM

Photo: (L) President Jacob Zuma responds to questions in the National Assembly at Parliament, Cape Town, Wednesday, 11 March 2015. Picture: Department of Communications (DoC)/SAPA (R) South African opposition party Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane addresses the president during an answering of questions session by South African President Jacob Zuma in parliament, Cape Town, 06 August 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA.

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