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War of attrition against South Africa’s President ‘Zupta’ is in full swing

Protesters march ahead of a vote of a no confidence against President Jacob Zuma. Reuters/Mike Hutchings

The first big surprise was that Baleka Mbete, the speaker of the National Assembly, ruled in favour of the opposition parties’ request for a secret ballot in the eighth vote of no confidence against the president of South Africa.

Writing from memory, this is the first time that this speaker’s rulings have ever gone against Luthuli House, the headquarters of the governing African National Congress (ANC), or the preference of the party’s chief whip, Jackson Mthembu. The significance is that a vote of no confidence is a three-line whip: where the caucus decision is binding on all MPs of a particular party. A secret ballot enables dissenting MPs to sidestep threats of party disciplinary action.

Her ruling will also recall memories that President Jacob Zuma dumped her to back Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as his preferred successor. In short Mbete apparently perceives her career, as chairperson of the ANC, has nothing more to gain from remaining beholden to Zuma.

This is another interesting example of how Zuma’s power is unravelling.

Her ruling gave rise to intense media speculation about how many MPs from the ANC would vote with their conscience, as ANC MPs Pravin Gordhan and Makhosi Khoza had publicly urged. The Economic Freedom Fighters and others in opposition claimed that they had a list of 60 ANC MPs who would vote for the motion of no confidence. The result proved that they were kidding themselves.

The huge build-up in media hype made the result anti-climactic. Nonetheless, that there was only a margin of 21 to defeat the eighth no-confidence motion is unprecedented. It also shows the biggest erosion yet of Zuma’s support in the ANC caucus. At least 30 ANC MPs must have voted to remove Zuma from his presidency.

It’s not the parliamentary caucus, but the ANC’s elective conference which will elect Zuma’s successor in four months’ time, and its composition will be subject to fierce tussling. Still, the caucus contains a weighty cross-section of ANC players. The shift is therefore significant in terms of the Cyril Ramaphosa versus Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma contest to replace Zuma.

The power of the party

Does the vote imply that a majority of ANC MPs would vote for Dlamini-Zuma as opposed to Ramaphosa? This is not clear: many ANC MPs would agree with the caucus argument – you cannot vote with the opposition for an opposition motion.

In Westminster-style democracies a no-confidence debate is an annual fixture in the parliamentary calendar. But for a united front of opposition parties and civil society associations like Corruption Watch to organise mass marches and demonstrations outside parliament and across the country is certainly not routine. The smaller religious groups and pro-Zuma factions of the ANC who organised demonstrations against the no-confidence motion show mobilisation of their groupings as well.

South Africa is a Westminster-derived democracy, so this situation brings precedents to mind. While votes of no confidence have not directly removed any British Prime Minister from office, one such narrow vote did lead to Tory caucus leaders telling Neville Chamberlain to step down in 1940 before he was voted out. Similarly, it was Tory leaders withdrawing their support from Margaret Thatcher which compelled her to resign in 1990.

In South Africa, the national leadership structure of major political parties such as the ANC and main opposition Democratic Alliance dominate and control their parliamentary caucuses more than in the UK or other Commonwealth countries. Their national conferences also have greater significance.

In view of the media coverage, it is important to emphasise that the Gupta family conglomerate, which is at the heart of state capture allegations, is merely the wealthiest example of networks of “tenderpreneurs” – businessmen who enrich themselves through government tenders, often dubiously. They are found across national government, the provinces and municipalities. There are many others and the work of investigative journalists will no doubt uncover them.

But the Gupta web of influence is certainly the one that’s received the greatest attention. Malema’s coining of the name “Zupta” aptly and pithily captures the fusion of the Zuma and Gupta families, the neo-patrimonialism which sucks out public funds for private enrichment.

Crumbling empire

This eighth vote of no confidence shows that civil society has organised a war of attrition against both Zuma and his system of subverting the procurement mechanisms in the public sector. This push back against corruption to defend the institutions of state will continue until Zuma is no longer in office. It is pivotal. The Auditor General has already expressed concern that there haven’t been any consequences to his reporting on fraud and corruption in public sector accounts.

The good news is that the Gupta empire seems to be crumbling. For one thing they can no longer laugh all the way to the bank – in an unprecedented move in the country all the banks have, one by one, dropped this particular lucrative corporate client.

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