No confidence vote: a victory for Zuma, but a defeat for the ANC

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma celebrates with his supporters after surviving a no-confidence motion in parliament. Reuters/Mike Hutchings

Jacob Zuma is a natural born political survivor. Yesterday South Africa’s president overcame an eighth no confidence vote, despite the mountain of evidence of corrupt conduct that has emerged in recent months.

But it may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory – for him and most certainly for his party, the African National Congress (ANC). “Hollow” was the word that one opposition leader, Bantu Holomisa, used afterwards, while the Economic Freedom Fighter’s leader Julius Malema employed a well-known Africa proverb: “When you want to eat an elephant you do it bit by bit”.

Zuma’s political death is proving to be a protracted affair. There was an air of expectation yesterday that recent allegations of “state capture” – attested to by a welter of evidence from the so-called #guptaleaks – would be enough to persuade a sufficient number of the members of the ruling ANC to support an opposition-sponsored no confidence vote.

In the event, after a fractious two-hour debate scarred by ugly banter across the floor of the National Assembly, the motion fell short of the 201 votes required to remove Zuma and his cabinet. But yesterday was remarkably different. On the previous seven occasions that the opposition have tabled no confidence votes since Zuma’s power began in 2009, the ANC has remained steadfast in its support for its beleaguered president. Yesterday’s vote was a watershed for the liberation movement that brought an end to apartheid in 1994: around 30 of the 223 ANC MPs who voted yesterday sided with the opposition.

As the ANC’s chief whip, Jackson Mthembu, ruefully observed afterwards, this is true pause for reflection for the ruling party. Never before has such a significant number of the parliamentary caucus rebelled and defied the party whip.

Zuma’s streetwise political skills are well-known. So too is his adeptness at using executive patronage to secure the loyalty of party members as has been made clear in the revelations arising from his links to the Gupta family.

The secret ballot saga

But the back story to the unprecedented rebellion within his own party was the method of voting as much as Zuma’s political skullduggery. For the first time, parliament was compelled to allow MPs to vote in secret. This followed a legal challenge to the rules by Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement.

In its 22 June judgment, the Constitutional Court – an institutional beacon of excellence and integrity in the context of the “capture” of other state bodies – had held that the speaker of the National Assembly had the discretion to order a secret ballot in exceptional circumstances.

Since the ruling, a number of ANC MPs have gone public with testimony of intimidation and even death threats in the case of Makhosi Khoza. In turn, the ANC shot itself in the foot when one region of Zuma’s home province, KwaZulu-Natal, demanded that disciplinary proceedings be brought against Khoza after she had called for Zuma to go. The intervention served to underline the need to depart from the generally established principle of open voting.

Accordingly, speaker Baleka Mbete had little legal choice but to opt for a secret ballot, even though it would encourage dissenting voices among the ranks of the ANC caucus. Politically, she had probably done the political mathematics and, as the national chairperson of the ANC, was confident that regardless of the shield that she said was necessary to protect ANC MPs so that they could vote with their conscience, the numbers would still work out in Zuma’s favour.

And so it proved: 177 MPs voted for the motion, and 198 against (with 9 abstentions). Since the opposition has 151 MPs, at least three of whom were absent through illness, it means that that at least 29 and possibly as many as 35 ANC MPs jumped ship.

Win-win for the opposition

But it was a win-win situation for the opposition. Afterwards, in the unseasonably balmy winter’s evening outside the parliament in Cape Town, one after another of the leaders of the opposition spoke cheerfully about the political future and of the health of South Africa’s democracy.

They may have lost the battle, but they feel confident that they will win the war. After all, it is clear that Zuma is now their greatest electoral asset, with several polls (including the respected Afrobarometer), showing that across race and class, trust in Zuma has collapsed since he was returned to power for a second term in 2014.

Last year, the ANC suffered its first major electoral setbacks since the advent of democracy in 1994 when it lost control of three major city governments in Pretoria, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth. Now, its political management skills appear to be in disarray as factionalism and deep, painful divisions dominate internal party politics. This is all unfolding in the run-up to what is likely to be a bloody five-yearly national elective conference in December, at which the ANC will elect a new President of the party to succeed Zuma.

That may or may not mark the start of a new era of renewal for the ANC. But Zuma’s term as President of the country is only due to end in 2019. A lot more damage could be done to the country’s economy and its prospects for growth.

The consequence of that, however, is that the ANC will face the prospect of losing its majority at the national polls for the first time since Nelson Mandela’s historic victory in 1994.

Yesterday may have been a victory for Zuma. But in the longer term it is likely to come to be seen as a major defeat for the ANC.