THE BLOG

President Zuma’s Messy Victory May Be Better For Constitutional Stability

Zuma will not be the ANC’s president in 2019, but the party will have suffered further damage if he is still in power on the eve of the election.

09/08/2017 09:18 SAST | Updated 09/08/2017 09:18 SAST
Mike Hutchings/ TPX/ Reuters
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma celebrates with his supporters after he survived a no-confidence motion in parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, August 8, 2017.

The ANC won the parliamentary vote of confidence in a messy way -- fewer than half of the National Assembly's members voted to keep Zuma, slightly fewer than that voted him down.

The ANC will claim victory. The party's critics, and Zuma's critics in the ruling alliance will remind the ANC that perhaps thirty MPs defected from its ranks, confirming that the party is divided. As if we didn't know.

Whatever the spin, Zuma survives once more. A large majority of ANC members of the National Assembly support his continuation in power. We will never know who voted how. That's what a parliamentary secret ballot means. What combination of factors –- self-interest, party loyalty, anti-opposition animus, taboo -– motivated them to vote for Zuma and his cabinet remains a mystery.

Here is a consoling thought for Zuma critics. The consequences of Zuma being voted out by secret ballot would not necessarily have been good. Zuma's many rural and KwaZulu-Natal supporters would have cried 'constitutional coup'. The move would have been highly divisive. This outcome may be better for constitutional stability.

This result leaves the ANC looking more fragile than before despite its victory; the opposition can hope to exploit this fragility further in months and years ahead. It can do so without having to fend off charges that it gained its victory by subterfuge.

And support for ANC might erode more quickly with Zuma leading it than it would otherwise. Zuma will not be the ANC's president in 2019, but the party will have suffered further damage if he is still in power on the eve of the election.

The ANC's capacity for what Susan Booysen calls 'regeneration' should not be underestimated.

If Dlamini-Zuma takes over as party leader in December, she may suffer the electoral punishment in 2019 that voters never got to deliver to Zuma in person -– or at least never got to deliver outside the big cities.

Still, the ANC's capacity for what Susan Booysen calls 'regeneration' should not be underestimated. If Zuma doesn't get to anoint a successor at the electoral conference in December, the party will be able to present a fresh face in 2019.

Doing that worked well enough post-Mbeki, when Zuma was, if not a fresh face, then at least a balm to the wounds of many Mbeki critics and a boon for the ANC in KZN and rural areas.

The regeneration of the ANC would not be good news for opposition parties, but at least in this scenario, the Zupta kleptocracy will have suffered a huge blow, perhaps an irreversible one.

A more worrying legacy for the country is that of the secret ballot itself. Speakers at the national, provincial and municipal level will now be tempted to employ this device against opponents, with their right to do so affirmed or refuted by courts that will be drawn into repeated partisan battles.

The ANC's use of a secret ballot of municipal councillors to rob a DA-led coalition of its electoral victory in Mogale City offers a window onto how this could all backfire on opposition parties.

The parliamentary secret ballot is a far from obviously democratic idea, and my cynical view is that opposition parties supported it in an opportunistic way.

Notwithstanding this, the Constitutional Court decided to wade into a constitutional lacuna, and into democratic theory, by, in effect, steering the parliamentary speaker to endorse a secret ballot.

It decided that the greater good of bringing a rogue executive to account should trump the principle that parliamentarians are accountable to voters, either directly or, in a party-list system, indirectly via parties.

The ANC's use of a secret ballot of municipal councillors to rob a DA-led coalition of its electoral victory in Mogale City offers a window onto how this could all backfire on opposition parties, just like floor crossing did.