South Africa

2024 ELECTION ANALYSIS

Jacob Zuma and MK’s Trumpian playbook vs the institutions of SA’s constitutional democracy

Jacob Zuma and MK’s Trumpian playbook vs the institutions of SA’s constitutional democracy
Illustrative image: Chief Justice of South Africa Raymond Zondo. (Photo: Gallo Images / Papi Morake) | MK logo on the shoulder of a party member. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart) | uMkhonto Wesizwe leader Jacob Zuma. (Photo: Gallo Images / Volksblad / Mlungisi Louw)

On Thursday, Chief Justice Raymond Zondo will hand over political parties’ lists of MPs to the Secretary to Parliament, and those of MPLs to the provincial judge presidents. It’s another milestone to prepare for the National Assembly’s first sitting after the general elections — regardless of the noise from the MK party.

Former US president Donald Trump, back on the campaign trail, continues to falsely claim the 2020 election was “stolen” even after court after court dismissed his camp’s allegations of rigging. More than 50 lawsuits by Trump and his allies to overturn the results in six states have been dismissed, according to the Associated Press. However, this sustained disinformation has reduced US citizens’ trust in their electoral system, according to various surveys.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections dashboard

Ex-president Jacob Zuma and his uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) party seem to have taken a leaf out of the Trumpian playbook. The party has escalated to threats of boycotting the first sitting of the new National Assembly after its unsubstantiated claims of voting irregularities failed to halt the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) declaring the results of the 29 May elections.

“Nobody must declare [the results] tomorrow. If that happens people will be provoking us… Don’t start trouble,” Zuma said during an impromptu media briefing at the IEC results centre on Sunday.  

It was classic Zuma. A bit of insinuation, a bit of a veiled threat of violence, some victimhood and a good dose of smiling charm.

It’s all about disruptive tactics. Like showing up late for the IEC announcement ceremony on Sunday. As a former president, Zuma would know that standard procedure is to close the doors when the president speaks; it happened when he was president. So, the purpose of showing up late, knowing he would be denied entry, can’t be anything but disruption.

Against this backdrop, Zuma and his MK party’s threats over the election results aim to test the institutions of South Africa’s constitutional democracy.

ANC’s MK concerns

After all the objections were dealt with, the results of the 29 May elections were declared on Sunday, 2 June, kicking off the 14 days the Constitution allows before the National Assembly must sit to elect a president.

Given its 40% support, the ANC for the first time in 30 years can’t form a government by itself. Common sense would mean political parties come to an arrangement, be that a coalition, cooperation deal or confidence and supply agreement on specific points before the first sitting. 

It’s common sense, but not a must.

If the ANC’s internal ructions do not allow a cooperation agreement with the DA — the ex-governing party has slated the opposition as racist, elitist and anti-transformation — a deal with the EFF falls a percentage point or so below the majority threshold, unless it also includes the IFP. 

A deal with MK may land a majority but would not be possible in the MK party’s view unless President Cyril Ramaphosa is ditched. That’s not going to happen, ANC Secretary-General Fikile Mbalula is on public record as saying.

MK’s populist and anti-progressive stance on anything from gender to immigration has raised concern. In some circles of the ANC, questions are being raised about letting Zuma back into an organisation he’s effectively set out to damage.

“Now that Zuma has inflicted so much damage on the ANC from the outside, there is a rush to bring him back by his accomplices who are still embedded in the leadership of the ANC. These attempts must be firmly rejected. The counter-revolution led by Zuma must be kept away,” said former SANDF chief and ex-minister Siphiwe Nyanda in a missive making the rounds on Tuesday.

“Let those who don’t believe in its [the ANC’s] values leave as Zuma did. Now is the time for the ANC to accept that the people have spoken and should never be taken for granted again.”

First sitting

After initial informal outreaches at the weekend, the ANC on Tuesday postponed its National Executive Committee meeting to Thursday. All indications are that ANC alliance partner Cosatu is unlikely to agree to a deal with the DA, but the trade union federation is planning further meetings on Wednesday. The South African Communist Party (SACP) announced it would make a decision about inter-party cooperation at Wednesday’s meeting of its extended Central Committee. 

On Tuesday, 11 days remained of the constitutionally mandated 14.

If a cooperation deal is done, the National Assembly Speaker may be the first bargaining chip. The ANC could be persuaded to give up this key parliamentary post in what may be a deal across national and provincial spheres. 

If nothing is settled by the first sitting of the National Assembly, this could test Chief Justice Raymond Zondo’s patience.  

It seems the MK party believes that if its 58 MPs do not attend this sitting, then Parliament cannot be constituted as the Constitution stipulates its strength at 350-400 MPs. But this is a fallacious argument because the incoming MPs are deemed MPs; taking the oath of office activates their powers, to put it colloquially. So, a boycott would not collapse the National Assembly.  

Rule 45 allows the National Assembly to proceed with its business “irrespective of the number of members present”.

Quorums are defined in both section 53 of the Constitution and parliamentary Rule 96. While a decision on legislation requires a majority, of 201 of the 400 MPs, “at least one-third of the members must be present before a vote may be taken on any other question before the Assembly”. 

Electing a Speaker, or a president is just such “any other question”. So, it needs 133 MPs in the House. It’s a threshold the ANC with its 159 MPs could manage on its own.  

If the MK party decides not to pitch up at the first sitting to be sworn in, this sets off another countdown in terms of Constitutional and parliamentary rules. If a legislator is absent for 15 consecutive days, the House must adopt a resolution to approve this — and if that doesn’t happen the MP effectively has lost her/his seat in terms of the parliamentary rules. Section 47(3)(b) of the Constitution empowers such steps.

If this happens, the next 58 names on the MK party’s election candidates lists come to Parliament and it could be a case of hit and repeat.

Antidote to MK

The MK party may decide to go to court with its unsubstantiated allegations, but given that the IEC repeatedly maintained that all objections had been resolved, the party would have to prove fraud. It’s a tall order as election results can be traced from voting stations via auditors and other checks all the way to the results board.

Should an election be set aside by the courts, the president must call for a new poll within 90 days, according to the Constitution. Again, the rules and procedures are there to manage situations.

Between the Constitution, National Assembly rules and the Chief Justice’s gazetted rules for the first sitting, pretty much all eventualities are covered. Under the heading “Unforeseen Procedural Matters” the Chief Justice’s rules allow him to submit any question of procedure to the meeting for a decision and to allow debate.

When the National Assembly meets for the first time, it may be drawn out, loud and rumbustious.

But that, alongside the transparency of a sitting in the public eye and general common sense, may just be the antidote to MK and Zuma copying Trump’s playbook of electoral disinformation, noise and disruption. DM

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