To say there is victory in defeat sounds like a contradiction in terms. But, this is exactly what happened when South Africa’s opposition parties failed to remove President Jacob Zuma through a motion of no confidence.
When National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete announced the results - 177 “Yes” against 198 “No” - ANC parliamentarians broke into song. But were they really the winners?
I don’t believe so. But to understand the party’s real defeat we need to go beyond the song.
Mindful of rebellious members within the ranks of its own parliamentary caucus – such as Makhosi Khoza, Pravin Gordhan, Derek Hanekom – the ANC didn’t know how many more silent rebels it harboured in parliament.
The evening of August 7, the day before the vote, will be remembered as the night of telephonic bombardment as ANC MPs got panicky calls from both their party and opposition parties. After each call, the dilemma they faced was: “Do I listen to my conscience, or ignore it?”
The human soul expresses itself through people’s faces. A smile tells us that the soul is brimming with good nourishment. A grimace suggests a troubled person. Before 2pm on August 8, the starting time for the debate on the motion of no confidence, the tormented state of the souls of both ANC and opposition party leaders was masked by a deliberate effort to feign confidence – even though no one was certain of victory. For a few hours there was a disconnect between the soul and the face.
The rest is history. Zuma remains in office – for now. How, then, could this be interpreted as a victory for opposition parties when they were clearly trounced?
It is victory because they succeeded in proving to the ANC that party bosses in Luthuli House, the ANC’s headquarters in Johannesburg, have lost control of a number of their MPs. It’s true that the ANC was divided before August the 8th. But, despite the subsequent singing, the injuries it suffered in the no confidence vote are now impossible to conceal.
The unravelling of the ANC
ANC bosses and parliamentarians no longer trust each other. Given the secrecy of the ballot, it’s impossible to sniff out all the rebels and flush them out of Parliament. It is like living with the knowledge that a dangerous snake lurks somewhere in your own house.
It is also a strong possibility that those who voted with the opposition enjoy the support of some party leaders. Given the fractiousness of the ANC, the party cannot embark on a united witch hunt against rebels in Parliament because the rebels are clearly part of an anti-Zuma campaign. It can therefore be assumed that most of them support Cyril Ramaphosa, not Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – the two frontrunner contenders for the presidency of both the ANC and the country – as the successor to Zuma. It would be self defeating for Ramaphosa to hunt them down. They are his underground troops.
Four months before the ANC’s national elective conference there is no time for the party to waste in complicated disciplinary hearings. In any event its factions are more interested in securing their own victory than chasing down those who voted in favour of the no confidence motion.
Before the vote the party could sell the propaganda that the problem was Zuma, not the ANC. By voting to keep him in the job, the party has now made it plain that the problem is the whole ANC, not just Zuma.
The bitter attitude of ANC leaders who spoke inside and outside Parliament before and after the vote added fuel to growing public anger at the arrogance of ANC power. The most shocking statement came from the ANC Women’s League president – and staunch Zuma supporter – Bathabile Dlamini who told reporters that she hadn’t voted with her conscience because her conscience had not “sent her to parliament”.
And South Africans are very angry – in taxi ranks, in churches, at funerals and in shebeens across the country. They cannot believe what has happened to the ANC of Nelson Mandela. When asked what to do, people say, “2019 is coming” – a reference to the country’s next national elections. Increasingly South Africans seem to be gaining a deeper appreciation of the power of the vote. The 2016 municipal elections, which saw the ANC lose three metropolitan councils, were a turning point.
Who’ll save the party?
Should Dlamini-Zuma, Zuma’s anointed successor, win in December, the ANC shouldn’t be surprised by the punishment meted out to them at the polls. She will be rejected overwhelmingly by citizens who are sick and tired of Zuma and the Guptas, his friends and architects of state capture.
Even Ramaphosa, her main competitor for the presidency of both the ANC and the country, will have no smooth ride to power. Indications are that, should he win, the ANC may lose voters in KwaZulu-Natal. There the Inkatha Freedom Party – which is firmly and unabashedly tribalist in its Zulu stronghold – is once again gaining groud. Even though South Africans don’t like admitting it, tribal consciousness is a feature of the country’s politics.
Should Ramaphosa succeed Zuma, he will have to do a great deal of explaining. Where was he, and what did he do, when Zuma and the Guptas were looting public resources? Why did he continue to support a discredited president? Zuma will haunt Ramaphosa like a ghost.
It doesn’t matter who takes over the ANC in December. The party will never be a united party again. After the vote of no confidence, the party is seriously injured. It will limp all the way to the 2019 elections. Such is the contradictory victory scored by the ANC on August 8.