First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
The US Senate impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump has made for riveting late-night watching.
Not for the harrowing visuals of Officer Eugene Goodman putting himself in danger to lead Make America Great Again rioters away from the sitting Senate, or of Officer Daniel Hodges trapped. Not for the mob chant of “Hang Pence”, referencing then vice-president Mike Pence, or “Nancy, where are you?” while looking for Nancy Pelosi, the House of Representatives’ speaker.
No. It was riveting viewing because Trump’s impeachment trial set out, in arguments based on facts and backed up by hard evidence, why the ex-president should be found guilty of inciting insurrection. The party politicking and populist propaganda was mostly left to the Republican, or GOP (Grand Old Party), defence team after its constitutional argument that an ex-president can’t be impeached was defeated.
It was riveting viewing because votes of conscience and individual political accountability played out in real time, in the open. The 43–57 vote fell 10 short of the impeachment threshold, but it meant seven Republicans voted guilty with the Democrats.
Two of those Republican senators are retiring; four are secure, like Bill Cassidy from Louisiana, who posted a video message saying: “Our constitution and our country is more important than any one person…” Only Senator Lisa Murkowski is facing voters in November 2022 in Alaska, which voted for Trump in 2020. Still, Murkowski told Politico “…I cannot allow the significance of my vote to be devalued by whether or not I feel that this is helpful for my political ambition.”
Back home, Deputy Transport Minister Dikeledi Magadzi told the State Capture commission she’d again toe the ANC line against a parliamentary State Capture probe.
Yet Magadzi, like all SA’s elected public representatives, swore an oath to “be faithful to the Republic of South Africa and will obey, respect and uphold the Constitution and all other law…” In June 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled duty to country trumps party fealty, regardless of discomfort.
South Africa may well face its own impeachment inquiry – that of Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane.
The independent experts panel report must be with National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise by 25 February. If it is recommended that Mkhwebane has a case to answer it will come to the House for a vote – and to establish an impeachment inquiry.
The ANC party line on Mkhwebane remains fluid amid factional fights, but is interwoven with the radical economic transformation grouping that supports ex-president Jacob Zuma. Broadly speaking, these factional fault lines hold true, even if it can get a bit more complicated amid the ANC’s Byzantine intrigues and whispering campaigns.
As the parliamentary majority party, it will be key how the ANC decides to deal with any possible Mkhwebane impeachment inquiry. And taking a party line is how it will unfold, ANC Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte indicated a year ago. “Once the process is at the point where Parliament will have to make a decision then the chief whip and caucus will discuss and give guidance on what to do,” she told reporters after the ANC’s first 2020 parliamentary caucus. That moment is now approaching.
It’s a given that, unlike the Trump impeachment trial, any Mkhwebane impeachment inquiry won’t be quick. While Trump is the first US president to face two impeachment trials, Mkhwebane’s impeachment inquiry, if there’s cause and Parliament decides to proceed, would be a first for incumbents of constitutional office.
Political point scoring, toeing the party line or facts, it’s a choice. How MPs, particularly ANC MPs, conduct themselves in any possible Mkhwebane impeachment inquiry is an acid test for SA’s constitutional democracy. DM168
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