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18 December 2017 20:30 (South Africa)
South Africa

No Confidence Vote: The Politics & Numbers at Parliament

  • Marianne Merten
    Marianne-Merten.jpg
    Marianne Merten
  • South Africa
Photo: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (C) speaks to journalists at a news conference after meeting with leaders of opposition parties at Tuynhuys in Cape Town on Tuesday, 18 November 2014. The opposition members who met Ramaphosa for more than two hours on Tuesday included Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane, EFF MP Khanyisile Litchfield-Tshabalala, the United Democratic Movement's Bantu Holomisa, the African Christian Democratic Party’s Kenneth Meshoe, the Congress of the People’s Mosiuoa Lekota, and the Freedom Front Plus’s Pieter Mulder. Picture: Department of Communications (DoC)/SAPA

Parliament is an intensely political institution amid its rules, procedures, protocol and precedence. The ANC, which holds 249 of the 400 National Assembly seats, has used its numbers to ensure law-making, statutory appointments and oversight unfolds its way, or at least the way of its dominant faction at the time. That sometimes is done magnanimously, and sometimes just blatantly. There is nothing more political than a motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma, or a motion of impeachment. And the rules of Parliament can be used to whip everyone into line to support the president even at a time of unprecedented contestation in and outside the governing party. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

There was a brief breath of fresh air about a decade ago. That’s when ANC MPs found their voice in the oversight of the administration of the then still president Thabo Mbeki in the machinations around the ANC Polokwane national conference, where Jacob Zuma was elected party president. It ended with Mbeki’s recall by the ANC national executive committee (NEC) in September 2008 and his decision to resign, rather than let it come to an impeachment in Parliament.

But factional politics in the governing party have resurged and are playing out in Parliament where the depth and extent of oversight depend on issue and committee and who holds sway in a divided parliamentary caucus.

In late 2016 an ANC motion established the parliamentary ad hoc committee inquiry into the troubled SABC after the party was sufficiently embarrassed by the ban on visuals of protests ahead of the 2016 local government elections. This had given those looking to act – in the long-standing financial and governance turmoil at the public broadcaster that the parliamentary communications committee did not tackle – the political backing to act.

Without this political support, the SABC inquiry would never have got off the ground or taken a turn like the ad hoc committee on Nkandla that absolved President Jacob Zuma of any liability even as the public protector ordered the repayment of a percentage of the cost of the security upgrades at his rural homestead. Amid a public outcry, internal dissatisfaction and opposition party politicking, the ANC in Parliament established Nkandla probes – there were three in total from 2014 – and proceeded to use the rules to manage the parliamentary process on the scandal.

Contestation moved elsewhere. In the Nkandla saga, the EFF approached the Constitutional Court, which on March 31, 2016 ruled Zuma had failed to uphold his oath of office in the Nkandla saga, and Parliament’s parallel ad hoc committee process as “inconsistent with the Constitution”. The ANC held an extended national working committee (NEC) meeting, and accepted Zuma’s so-called apology for the “frustration and confusion” in this saga. The message of unity was cascaded down the structures, and everyone was to shut up.

With regards to the SABC, where the parliamentary inquiry recommended that an interim board must speedily start forensic and other investigations into mismanagement and misspending, Faith Muthambi on her last day as communications minister told board members they could not start until they obtained security clearance by the State Security Agency. The five interim board members complied and it now remains to be seen how newly appointed Communications Minister Ayanda Dlodlo plays this set of cards.

All unfolds under parliamentary rules, processes and protocols, even if it is an intensely political process. And so are the motions of no confidence in Zuma called for by the DA and EFF. While opposition parties have said they are talking to ANC MPs disgruntled with Zuma’s track record, the ANC has a long-standing tradition of closing ranks amid invocations of unity when under outside pressure.

Motions of no confidence are constitutional motions under Section 102 of the Constitution: “If the National Assembly, by a vote supported by a majority of its members, passes a motion of no confidence in the President, the President and the other members of the Cabinet and any Deputy Ministers must resign”.

That means 201 MPs of the 400 strong National Assembly must support it. The ANC has 249 seats. Even if all 12 opposition parties sign up to support the motion that could remove Zuma, and his administration, as six of them indicated after their meeting on Monday, they fall short. Hence the approaches to ANC MPs disgruntled with how Zuma does his job in the search for at least 51 MPs, preferably more like 70 or 80 if, and when, this motion is debated.

Calls to the ANC MPs’ conscience, and urging them to uphold their oath of office, are all good and well, but without a secret ballot, levels of courage from among a party that has emphasised unity and not discussing one’s dirty linen in public remain in doubt.

Yes, there may be the around 17 South African Communist Party (SACP) members, who are at the national legislature on an ANC ticket, and whose political call has asked Zuma to resign. Yes, there may be a handful of former ministers and deputy ministers shafted in last Friday’s midnight ministerial shuffle. It’s not enough, even if the opposition banks on disgruntlement.

If ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu calls a three-line whip, all the party’s MPs are bound to be present in the House and to vote according to the party line. The only permissible reasons for absence include sickness, backed by a doctor’s certificate, or government business. Rare are the instances like the vote on the 1996 Termination of Pregnancy Bill, where ANC MPs could seek permission not to be present if their conscience did not allow a vote for the Bill. Some ANC MPs did so then.

But simply not pitching, as some in the opposition have called for, is not an option. In any case, at least 201 MPs are required to be in the House for the motion of no confidence to have any chance of succeeding. While National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete, who is also ANC national chairperson, might close her eyes to a lack of quorum, the vote will show attendance. If not enough MPs are in the House, a vote on the motion could possibly be invalid, and have to be retaken at a later stage when there are sufficient numbers in the House. Would the ANC really – in these high-stakes political times – want to run that risk?

MPs have their votes recorded.

Technically there is nothing preventing a secret ballot. The rules of the National Assembly are silent on this. It is not inconceivable that a motion for a secret ballot could be brought, but it would need the agreement of the majority of MPs to agree to it. And it would require Mbete to allow such a move in the first place.

With the ANC in fight-back mode, that’s not going to happen. Already, Mbete has expressed criticism of her fellow top officials – Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe and Treasurer Zweli Mkize – for their unprecedented move in publicly speaking out about Zuma’s reshuffle.

We have a way we do things. We have a culture. We have meetings. We are brutally frank in those meetings. There are things we don’t do, but we will discuss those things in the meeting‚” Mbete said on Sunday after cutting short an Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting in Bangladesh. This was to consider the requested motions, but even last week Parliament issued statements to the effect that Mbete was applying her mind to the requests from the EFF and DA.

This culture of discussing differences “in a room” to emerge unified in public was also emphasised by ANC national spokesperson Zizi Kodwa on ANN7 on Monday as the party’s top six officials met.

And Mpumalanga Premier David “DD” Mabuza, close to Zuma and a key mover in the unofficial lobby group dubbed the premier league, has cautioned any ANC MPs not to vote with opposition parties. “We are going to remove you. We are going to deploy another comrade there (and undo the vote result) because we are the majority,” Mabuza said on eNCA.

He’s not quite correct on the removal part. For an ANC MP to lose his or her seat, he or she needs to resign before being replaced with the next name on the public representative lists submitted to the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC). It’s a process, but it could be done.

The political bottom line, however, is simple: the ANC would not allow opposition parties to have a say in their internal organisation. And so in last year’s two motions of no confidence in Zuma, the ANC united – even if individual MPs have deep misgivings they might express privately. On March 1, 2016 the motion was defeated 225 votes against, 99 for, with 22 abstentions. The margins narrowed by November 10, 2016: 214 voted against, 126 for and one abstention.

Perhaps it is on the back of this that opposition parties have joined in their call for the urgent scheduling of the motion. “Should we not be satisfied with her response, court action supported by opposition parties will be taken. Given the crisis engulfing our society, we are confident that Members of Parliament will stay true to the Constitution and their oath of office,” said the joint statement by the DA, EFF, United Democratic Movement (UDM), IFP, Cope, and African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP). The Freedom Front Plus also supports the motion.

It is Mbete’s prerogative under National Assembly rules to consider a motion of no confidence, scheduled through the programming committee, and to conduct the required consultations with the leader of government business, Ramaphosa, and the ANC chief whip. But Parliament is in recess and on constituency period for the whole of April, and Rule 129(4) states: “The Speaker must ensure that the motion of no confidence is scheduled, debated and voted on within a reasonable period of time given the programme of the Assembly”.

This may assist the ANC, if it decides it would be better to wait for the thunder to pass, as the isiZulu saying goes.

Mbete, who is the National Assembly’s political boss, nevertheless could argue that she has no power to reconvene Parliament. Section 51(2) of the Constitution gives the president the power to “summon the National Assembly to an extraordinary sitting at any time to conduct special business”. This is another area in which the arguments are not clear on paper – and up for the political taking.

I must stress that I am alive to the extreme challenges and sense of anxiety our young democracy is going through at this moment. Our people are looking to Parliament to play its part and exercise its constitutional responsibilities,” Mbete said on Sunday. “I therefore assure South Africans that this legislative arm of the State must and will rise to the occasion.”

But Parliament has already been found wanting, most damningly in the Nkandla saga. DM

Photo: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa (C) speaks to journalists at a news conference after meeting with leaders of opposition parties at Tuynhuys in Cape Town on Tuesday, 18 November 2014. The opposition members who met Ramaphosa for more than two hours on Tuesday included Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane, EFF MP Khanyisile Litchfield-Tshabalala, the United Democratic Movement's Bantu Holomisa, the African Christian Democratic Party’s Kenneth Meshoe, the Congress of the People’s Mosiuoa Lekota, and the Freedom Front Plus’s Pieter Mulder. Picture: Department of Communications (DoC)/SAPA

  • Marianne Merten
    Marianne-Merten.jpg
    Marianne Merten
  • South Africa

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