Ahead of the no-confidence vote in Parliament earlier this week, the perceived wisdom among the political commentariat was that turkeys are not renowned for their propensity to vote for Christmas. The poultry metaphor was apt, but only to a point. Because it depended on what kind of turkey one was dealing with — a short-sighted one or one of those that take the longer view — and, therefore, which Christmas one had in mind: the one later this year or the one two years hence, at the end of 2019?
This was the political beauty of the manoeuvre for the opposition and the awkwardness of the political bind the ANC found itself in.
Politics is fundamentally about power, and about strength and weakness. There was no plausible way in which the opposition could have emerged weaker from Tuesday’s vote.
If the motion had carried, the opposition could have claimed a great victory — the removal of a president and his government. Lose the vote, and the opposition could point fingers at the ANC for protecting a rogue, corrupt leader. And, as the opinion polling and local government election results from last year show, Jacob Zuma has become the opposition’s greatest electoral asset and his own party’s greatest liability.
Bring on 2019, says the opposition. Please can we just get to December more or less still intact, says the ANC.
The ruling party simply can’t see beyond its five-yearly national elective conference in Midrand. It limps along, battered and bruised, mainly by self-inflicted wounds perpetrated by its leader and his cronies, children and succubus acolytes.
Or, as ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa quixotically asked on Twitter the morning after: “How did we get to this precipitous and perpendicular point of political discombobulation[?]” He must have had a long night to prompt such a bout of alliteration, but I think we get the point: the ANC is all over the place and can barely tell its arse from its elbow.
There were some other striking and, to a large extent, groundbreaking aspects to this week’s dramatic political events. First of all, National Assembly speaker Baleka Mbete’s decision to exercise the discretion that the Constitutional Court ruled on in June — and thus to permit a secret ballot for the no-confidence vote — was extraordinary.
Legally, she had no choice. But this was not the act of political heroism that some people proclaimed it to be, presumably so shocked were they that they lost all sense of perspective. This, finally, was merely a speaker doing her job properly and obeying the law.
Helpfully, senior counsel Marumo Moerane had provided Mbete with decisive, unambiguous advice: that the only legally rational choice to be made, given the evidence from Makhosi Khosa and others of intimidation and disciplinary proceedings and other forms of reprisal, and the recent guidance of the Constitutional Court, was to grant a secret ballot.
What was more significant than the speaker managing finally to put aside her severe conflict of interest — as the national chairperson of the ANC and as someone with skin in the game for Midrand (at least in her mind) — was that expectations are now so meagre, and standards have dropped so low, that simply following the rules of the game and doing one’s job properly is regarded as extraordinary and worthy of special note.
Even more importantly, the talk of izimpimpi and askaris that preceded and followed the vote was a reminder of the ANC’s ugly underbelly, and of the gangster tendencies of some parts of the Zuma faction.
There was genuine apprehension among members of the ANC caucus. I was reliably informed that one ANC MP, on hearing news of Mbete’s announcement, texted to say: “I better stop texting; [intelligence minister David] Mahlobo will be getting busy now.”
This is not the ANC of old. Yes, it has always placed a high premium on discipline and fidelity to the movement’s leadership, lore and rules.
But it has also — or used to — attach importance to the need for open and critical debate in its structures. Yet rational, considered discussion in the ANC’s higher organs is no longer possible. The air is too toxic, the corrupt interests too entrenched and the factions too bitterly opposed to one another.
And, more than anything, the leadership is too weak and incapable of holding the whole complex, messy thing together. That, along with state capture, will be Zuma’s dismal legacy.
The ANC used to be rather skilled in political management. Nowadays, this capability has evaporated under Zuma’s negligent leadership to the point where one of the side effects (which undoubtedly had a big influence on ANC MPs as they prepared to cast their votes) was a genuine concern about what would happen next if Zuma was voted out of office by the National Assembly.
I am talking here about the turkeys that can see beyond the next tender or juicy Gupta-arranged public appointment — those who are still thinking clearly enough to play the tape through at least a few more episodes. The problem was simple: there was no consensus about who the ANC caucus in Parliament would have supported when, within 30 days, the National Assembly would have had to reconvene to elect a new president.
It is unlikely that the noisy Zuma supporters would have done anything other than stand violently in the way of any attempt to say that “convention” requires the deputy president (Cyril Ramaphosa) to take the helm, not least because the ANC caucus takes its line from the party’s national executive committee, over which Zuma still has an apparent hold. Which, in turn, takes us back to Midrand and December.
Yet concern about the potentially very messy process that would have followed a Zuma removal — including a scenario in which the ANC was unable to settle on a single candidate and Parliament was dissolved for an early general election — makes the otherwise hyperbolic talk about “regime change” that emerged as spin from Zuma’s supporters and the paid social media crowd a little less contemptible.
This was the core — in fact, the only — argument that was put by the ANC during a depressingly low-calibre debate on Tuesday afternoon: that the party’s hold on power must be preserved. It was an appeal to sentiment, not reason. And, as such, it was putting the party ahead of the country.
Even putting aside the ugly banter from both sides of the House throughout the fractious debate, there was hardly any focused, let alone forensic, examination of Zuma’s fitness to lead, given the harm his reckless use of power has caused to the economy and to the interests of the working class.
Because, in constitutional theory at least, this was supposed to be a debate about Parliament’s confidence in the president these MPs voted into power in 2014 and, therefore, about executive accountability — in other words, about the government and not the party.
In the end, it was ritual foreplay to the main event: all that mattered was whether the opposition had managed to penetrate the previously impregnable unity of the ANC caucus in Parliament.
And the answer proved to be a substantive “yes”. Again, most political commentators and journalists were taken by surprise: not one of the 11 political journalists or analysts from whom I extracted R50 for the sweepstake (itself no mean feat, given the market) were on the high side of the final figure of 177 “yes” votes.
That at least 30, possibly 35 — and, if you include abstentions, more than 40 — ANC MPs defied their whips to vote with the opposition was a watershed moment. Remember the context: not once in 23 years had more than one or two ANC MPs voted against their own party.
It was an impressive display of constitutional democracy in action, from which encouragement should be drawn. Yet the bottom line can’t be avoided: an anti-transformation, dangerously corrupt, unaccountable president remains in office, if not in power.
The ANC is in deep denial about its political plight. It is sleepwalking towards electoral defeat in 2019. That much is clear. What is less clear is what this means for South Africa and the future of progressive politics, social justice and sustainable economic growth.
So, where to now for progressives? Like much of the ANC, sit tight and wait for December. Hope that after Zuma’s term in Luthuli House is over, things will get better because his power will be inevitably and significantly diminished.
But that is too paltry a note on which to end this tale. No. Perhaps another moral of the story is that, though Parliament may or may not be in the process of regaining a meaningful place in the political system, extraparliamentary activism matters more and more. That is when the real vote of no confidence will take place: in 2019.