On March 17, South Africa’s National Assembly voted against a no-confidence motion tabled by the opposition party Agang SA. With 113 members in favour, 221 opposed and eight abstaining, it was an easy win for the President. Beyond the official vote tally, however, this was a hollow victory. It left Zuma and his government on the defensive while raising constitutional concerns regarding South Africa’s political system.
The March 17 no-confidence motion was not the first Zuma has had to face as President. In March 2010, after only 10 months in office, another no-confidence motion was defeated by 241 votes to 84, with eight abstaining. The main justification for the vote then involved Zuma’s admission that he had fathered a child out of wedlock and concern that he had not declared his financial interests on time.
Since this first vote, the list of charges against Zuma has ballooned. The main justification for the latest no-confidence motion was Zuma’s failure to address allegations that he misappropriated R246m of taxpayers’ money to upgrade his country home in Nkandla. During the parliamentary debate, MPs also accused Zuma of fuelling patronage politics in the ANC, mismanaging South Africa’s economy, and sending police to Marikana to kill striking mineworkers in 2012.
The debate was all the more heated given the backdrop of last month’s State of the National Address. The usually polite and rule-governed parliamentary chamber looked more like a boxing ring as plain clothes police forcibly removed Economic Freedom Fighter MPs after they interrupted the President’s speech, demanding to know when he would pay back the Nkandla money.
The response from government also indicates Zuma and his close allies are on a back foot. During the no-confidence debate itself, Minister of the Presidency Radebe was full of bravado, declaring that for the vote of no confidence to succeed, pigs would fly and hens would grow teeth. Shortly after the vote, however, he issued a detailed statement defending Zuma’s record, much of which Africa Check has revealed is either ill-founded or ‘nonsense.’
Zuma too seems to be veiling any insecurities in a fresh volley of bullish statements. He has again brushed off Nkandla critics. He also sent ripples through the media with his recent ‘If I was a dictator’ speech. In a rebuff to critics both in and out of parliament, Zuma accused people of ‘exaggerating’ their problems and of relying too much on the state for help. He went on to lament how people blame him personally: ‘Anything that goes wrong in the country it’s “that Zuma.” I’m sure even if a person falls from a chair – “This bloody Zuma man made me fall.”’
The fact that Zuma’s hold on power remains so unshakable despite widespread public outcry has led opposition to point a finger at South Africa’s electoral system. During the no-confidence debate, the United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa called for a reform of the current system so as to enable voters to elect their President directly. At present, the only way Zuma could be ousted before 2019 would be if the ruling African National Congress decided to ‘recall’ him in the way Thabo Mbeki was removed as president in 2008. There appears, however, to be little appetite within the ANC to engage in another leadership battle. As one observer argues, too many high ranking party cadres, as well as rank and file MPs, see their own political fortunes as somehow tied to the President.
While another no-confidence motion is certainly possible, it would likely be a repeat of the past opposition efforts, leaving Zuma unscathed. Given South Africa’s constitution, the electoral dominance of the ANC and the state of internal party politics, demanding accountability from President Zuma is a formidable challenge. In the end, Minister of the Presidency Redebe does not seem so far off the mark. When pigs fly…