While South Africans grapple with Jacob Zuma’s one-upmanship of the country’s political order, a disturbing narrative is creeping into the mass action call for the president to step down, which could ruin the gains of democracy in the country.
This narrative, a call on MPs, particularly those of the ANC, to break ranks with their political parties and vote with their consciences on the no-confidence vote against Zuma is dangerous.
The call was first made by former rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State Professor Jonathan Jansen on social media where he wrote: “How I long for a country in which the elected representatives of the people vote their conscience and not their careers.”
It was followed by a similar call by former president Thabo Mbeki, who wrote: “MPs, each elected to this position by the people as a whole, and never by individual political parties, including their own, must act in Parliament as the voice of the people, not the voice of the political parties to which they might belong.”
This call, which comes from some of South Africa’s most eminent minds, seeks to disentangle the ANC’s dominant position in Parliament, which has frustrated previous efforts by opposition parties to remove the president.
It seeks to be a Plan B to force Zuma to step down.
Yet this suggestion, which looks logical and could be the solution to immediate problems, is fraught with dangers that will haunt the country in the aftermath.
Some of Africa’s worst dictators had to break the unity of multiparty political formations to secure their grip on their countries.
From Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana to King Mswati III in Swaziland and for more than half a century the argument has been the same: party politics deprive individual MPs the right to vote with their consciences in Parliament.
Political parties, the argument further goes, do not serve the interests of the people but are beholden to the dictates of their manifestos, which do not necessarily reflect the wishes of citizens.
If Jansen really wishes to see a political system where MPs do vote with their consciences, without any political party affiliation, all he has to do is jump over the fence into Swaziland and visit our Parliament when it is sitting.
He will find that there, too, motions for votes of no confidence in the government have been moved several times without any success. He will also find that careerism and individual self-interest are just as rife as it is in South Africa.
Zuma’s presidency has tested the endurance of South Africa’s democracy in an unprecedented way. It is during his presidency that the structures of Parliament’s function have been exposed for their weaknesses and the executive’s failure to govern has been laid bare.
It has, just as frighteningly, also put immense pressure on a judiciary that has had to withstand the strain brought about by the collapse of Parliament and the executive in the failure to execute their constitutional duties.
The call for individual participation in Parliament to remove the president is, however, not the solution to South Africa’s problems. Who will stop ANC MPs from doing the same in future where their collective mandate is necessary to take the country forward?
A secret vote based on individual conscience would, in effect, make the ANC’s majority in Parliament redundant. Where collective thinking no longer guides the political direction of a country, it takes a shrewd political leader to exploit that vacuum and rise to be an absolute dictator.
It is easier to use the divide-and-rule tactic on a people who do not have to answer to a collective.
Africa, including South Africa, has no shortage of such politicians.
It is also worrying that this call for individual preference on how some MPs should vote is directed particularly at the ANC, the majority party in Parliament, which is predominantly composed of black voters.
Black people are again being used as pawns for the continued prosperity of groups of power-players hellbent on getting their hands of South Africa’s economy while they wait for the crumbs.
What should South Africans do if removing Zuma is all important?
South Africa’s Constitution is a beautiful document with all the answers to its problems. In its founding provision, it guarantees a multiparty system of democratic government. A vote that seeks to defeat this would, therefore, be unconstitutional.
A collapse of South Africa’s democratic structures is not in the country’s interests. Neither is it in the interests of regional politics. Nor, for that matter, will the rest of the continent and the world be any better if political solutions are sought outside the constitutional precepts.
Persuading ANC leaders and those in its various structures to remove Zuma may be the only solution. It may be a long, arduous and tedious task – but, it is a journey that South Africans may have to take.
Bheki Makhubu is the editor of The Nation in Swaziland