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ANC and Vote of Conscience – An Oxymoron?


Dr Brij Maharaj is an academic and civil society activist.

On 8tAugust 2017, President Jacob Zuma and his Cabinet might face their eighth Parliamentary vote of no confidence. Regardless of the hype about whether this will be by secret or public ballot, this is likely to be a non-event in the South African Parliament as the majority of the democratically elected, spineless MPs, paid by taxpayers, will refuse to do the right thing and act in the best interests of the country, which they were sworn to: “I … swear (or solemnly affirm) that I will be faithful to the Republic of South Africa and will obey, respect and uphold the Constitution and all other law of the Republic, and I solemnly promise to perform my functions as a member of the National Assembly … to the best of my ability. So help me God”.

As Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng emphasised, there is no constitutional reference to “loyalty to a political party … Central to the freedom ‘to follow the dictates of personal conscience’ is the oath of office”. A conscience (or “inner voice”) vote allows MPs to act independently, according to the dictates of their morality, without being forced to toe the party line.

Mogoeng emphasised the severity of a no-confidence motion which “constitutes… a sword that hangs over the head of the president”, and his Cabinet as well. He emphasised that if a president is ousted by a vote of no confidence, then the entire Cabinet will also be forced to resign, as they would also have been implicated and compromised by any alleged connivance of the head of state.

Furthermore, the Chief Justice contended that the “voting process is not a fear- or money-inspired sham but a genuine motion for the effective enforcement of accountability”. The real possibility of being displaced from office “would serve the original and essential purpose of encouraging public office-bearers to be accountable and fulfil their constitutional obligations”.

The ANC leadership warned that those who may support the vote of no confidence in Zuma will face disciplinary action (or be “whipped” into line). It is noteworthy that when members join the ANC, they do so “voluntarily and without motives of material advantage or personal gain…”.

Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe, that conundrum of contradictions, stated that ANC members could not support a motion from the opposition. Mantashe said ANC MPS were not allowed to vote with their conscience: “I don’t know where this notion comes from that we are a collection of individuals who have conscience.” According to media reports, he contended that if “MPs had a conscience, they should have followed it before they went to Parliament on an ANC ticket”. Perhaps in anticipation, the Chief Justice had argued that a secret ballot allows MPs to vote freely “without undue influence, intimidation or fear of disapproval by others”.

Interestingly, a recent survey reported in TimesLive indicated that about 60% of ANC supporters believed that MPs should vote according to their conscience, rather than follow the dictates of the party. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng stressed, “those in Parliament have to ensure the will of the interest of the people find expression in what the state does”.

Former ANC Treasurer-General, Matthews Phosa, warned that if MPs toed the party line, then future generations could accuse them of perfidy. He appealed to MPs to vote with their conscience in the no confidence vote against President Zuma. The SA Christian Leaders Initiative also urged MPs to vote with their conscience: “You stand at a crossroads where you can either choose to continue to put the country through its current trauma or you can choose hope, and to focus on the common good, by ensuring this president is removed as soon as possible.”

Magda Wierzycka, the CEO of Sygnia Asset Management, has posed some soul-searching questions that ANC MPs should consider as they participate in the vote of no confidence in President Zuma:

  • Do I want to preserve the noble legacy of the ANC as a liberation movement which freed the majority from the oppression of the minority and served the people of South Africa?
  • Do I want an ethical, moral, strong and principled ANC which maintains majority rule in the 2019 elections?
  • Do I want to proudly explain to my children, grandchildren, family and friends how under my watch South Africa thrived economically, providing them with quality education and well-paying jobs?
  • Do I want a president I am proud of, who puts the interests of South Africa ahead of his or her own, who respects the Constitution and who will work tirelessly for the ANC and for South Africa so that it can, once again, take its rightful place as a world leader in democracy?
  • Do I want to retire from Parliament with my head held high, having done the right thing, in compliance with the law and my own conscience?

The reason why matters have come to a head in SA is that ANC MPs (without a conscience) had abdicated their watchdog role, to keep the executive in check in order to ensure the implementation of the SA Constitutional mandate to uplift the poor and disadvantaged in a manner that is responsible and accountable. This was especially so in matters relating to corruption and frivolous use of public resources, and some prominent examples included the R16-million Sarafina scandal, the R80-billion arms deal; Nkandlagate; and state capture. The reason for this state of affairs was perhaps inadvertently revealed by ANC chief whip in Parliament Jackson Mthembu: “No ANC Member of Parliament is a free agent. They are deployees of the ANC in Parliament and take their directive [read ‘instruction’] from the party.”

On 17 August 2011, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe presented the 10th Annual Ruth First Memorial Lecture in which he maintained, “after racism, corruption is the second most serious malady staring humanity in the face”. He argued that regardless of “how effective the laws of the land are, the fight against corruption boils down to the individual’s sense of right and wrong.” This derives logically from ethical or moral principles that govern a person’s thoughts and actions. In other words, his/her moral sense or conscience.

Veteran journalist, Barney Mthombeni, presented a succinct, candid, no-holds barred argument in support of the vote of no confidence motion (secret or not): “President Zuma, elected to protect the country’s sovereignty, has almost driven it over a cliff. He has committed treasonable acts. There is no kinder or gentler way to put it. He has wilfully betrayed the country whose interests he has sworn to uphold. Those who have abetted him are complicit in this grave act of betrayal. They too are traitors … South Africa, for generations a skunk but then brimming with promise for a while, has become a laughing stock of the world, increasingly mentioned in the same breath as Zimbabwe … The wheel has turned a full circle. We’re on a slippery slope, again”.

A positive outcome of the vote of no confidence in President Zuma is that it has brought the actions of the ANC under the microscope of public opinion. Those ANC MPs who want to return to Parliament after 2019 may want to change tack. However, ANC MPs have failed to hold President Zuma to account for his various indiscretions since he assumed high office, in their caucus or in Parliament. So do not wait with bated breath for them to do the right thing. An ANC vote of conscience is an oxymoron. DM

Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.


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