On Tuesday afternoon President Jacob Zuma survived another vote of no confidence in Parliament. Despite the massed forces of the opposition to his rule, both outside and inside the ANC, he is still the President of the Republic of South Africa. On the face of it, he has reason to swagger. There was a secret ballot, and he survived. But beneath that, the story is much more complicated. The group of ANC MPs, who owe their political allegiance, their salaries and their careers to the African National Congress, rebelled against party discipline. In some ways, Tuesday’s vote looks like just the start of a much more turbulent phase in our politics. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
First, the maths. The simple part of this political equation is this: There are 151 members of the National Assembly who do not belong to the ANC yet 177 members of the house voted to remove Zuma. Which means, obviously, that more MPs voted to remove Zuma than there are members of the opposition parties. Of course, it wasn’t enough: 198 ANC MPs voted to keep Zuma as president, and 177 MPs who voted to remove him were well short of the magic 201 number.
But it does not end there. There are several opposition parties who said they would vote in Zuma’s favour. The PAC (remember them) has one single MP. He said he would vote to retain Zuma. The party itself issued a statement saying he had been expelled. Even more farcically, the National Freedom Party appeared split down the middle with three of its MPs voting to remove Zuma and three to retain him. It’s the stuff that Poplakian dreams are made of.
In short, we will not get a proper definitive number of ANC MPs who voted against Zuma. Unless the secret vote is not secret and David Mahlobo is actually reckless enough to tell us who did what.
That said, we know that at least 26 ANC MPs voted to remove Zuma, and another nine abstained.
This is important.
Put yourself, for a moment, in the shoes of one of those people. Gwede Mantashe himself has spoken to you in a caucus meeting and explained that if you vote to remove Zuma you could be setting the ANC up for an early election and on the road to lose power (well, more quickly, at least). At stake for the party is actual government itself. At stake for you, as an MP, is probably the only political life you have ever known. Never mind that if the ANC had to contest an election now, it could lose. Which would mean you would lose your seat in Parliament and thus your income.
And yet, you did it anyway.
For months, the anger and frustration from senior and important ANC members has been palpable. There have been open signs of defiance, the Mondli Gungubeles and Makhosi Khozas of the world have openly rebelled against the party. People like Mantashe, Zweli Mkhize and of course Cyril Ramaphosa himself have sharply criticised the president’s behaviour. Now we know: even people whose very livelihoods depend on keeping Zuma in power right now are prepared to rebel against him.
There are those who will say that none of this matters, that what matters is that Zuma is still in power in the Union Buildings. Well, maybe. But political power is calculated based on the power people think you have at the moment and the power they think you will have in the future. No one expressed their public support for Thabo Mbeki when he was in power as President but out of power in the ANC. And Zuma has not had the power to punish those who have defied him. Khoza and Gungubele, Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas, they know they’re free to continue their crusade, to cajole, criticise and condemn Zuma, and his “good friends” the Guptas. This is significant. Because, as long as they continue, as long as other people in the ANC are able to rebel against Zuma and get away with it, as around 30 did on Tuesday, then more will be inspired to do so.
It is important to remember who spoke for Zuma in front of the crowds of ANC supporters outside Parliament. Nomvula Mokonyane said that “white people cannot urinate on our democracy”, Bathabile Dlamini said her “conscience didn’t land her in Parliament”, Kebby Maphatsoe looked like he was cooking something up while standing behind Zuma. And of course there was Carl Niehaus, utterly non-resplendent in some sort of camouflage uniform. In short, it was the people you would expect. Nothing more.
Where were the senior Cabinet ministers, and other top ANC figures?
Also staggering in its importance was the content of the speeches delivered by ANC MPs in Parliament during the debate before the vote. As Twitter was quick to point out, every single one of them attacked the opposition and defended the ANC. Not one defended Zuma. There was no pointing to his myriad of achievements, no recitation of his track record, there was simply no reasons given as to why he, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, should stay on as President.
There are probably two good reasons for this. First, there are really good reasons they could quote. In Zuma’s time in office we have lost jobs, economic growth has disappeared, we have been downgraded, politics has become factionalised, the ANC has lost support, people have lost money and many are losing hope. Some people even want Mbeki back; no one can spin that.
Second, who wants to be quoted directly defending Zuma? When in just a few months you could find yourself completely out in the cold?
This gets to the heart of what happened in Parliament on Tuesday. Many of the ANC MPs who voted to retain Zuma did not do so because of the power he holds, or because they support him. They voted to retain Zuma because they did not want to provoke an early election, they did not want to create the kind of political chaos that could affect the ANC’s December conference. In other words, they voted to retain Zuma not for his sake, but for structural reasons. He can go and sing all he likes, this vote in his favour was for the ANC and for the outcome in December, it was not to protect him.
And despite these very compelling structural reasons, over 30 ANC MPs still did not do what the ANC instructed them to do…
The question of how much power Zuma still has rests on what happens next. If he is able to somehow retaliate against those he thinks voted to remove him, then he still has power. But if he does not, which has been the case all year, then he will appear very weak indeed. This is where things get interesting. Which is another word for complicated and perhaps even dangerous.
Already the opposition parties are talking about another vote, or even a move to impeach Zuma. There are rumours about deals where Zuma has 30 days to resign, Bloomberg is reporting through the impeccably sourced Sam Mkokeli, that he may be forced to remove Mosebenzi “Gupta” Zwane from the position of Mineral Resources Minister. These are indications that the game has changed, that Zuma has to deal to stay in power. It is hard to see what options he has to regain traction now. Yes, he can play dirty. But even that, despite what the doubters believe, has its limitations. It may, only may, be possible to turn this country into a dictatorship. But there would be very little left over which to dictate.
In the end, it boils down, once again, to who you think is going to win in December. At the moment, with momentum behind Ramaphosa, and Dlamini-Zuma spluttering around somewhere in KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma will look weak. It is now his move. But the founder of the Robben Island Chess Club is running out of knights, bishops and even pawns. He must move now, or find himself in check. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma sings and dances for a crowd of his supporters in Cape Town on Tuesday evening after surviving a vote of no confidence in Parliament. (Katie Warren / DM Chronicle)