Recalling the president is the best option as even a failed impeachment process would humiliate party
The anger of the nation, engendered by a seemingly irrational (and certainly unpopular) cabinet reshuffle, is palpable. It is now common knowledge that the president did not, as is the custom, consult his party on the wide-ranging changes made, nor has he tried, at least in public, to justify the retention of underperforming ministers such as Bathabile Dlamini and Faith Muthambi.
The latter minister was actually promoted, a move that has lifted many an eyebrow, especially among members of the parliamentary committee that recently inquired into shenanigans at the South African Broadcasting Corporation and made certain recommendations that have clearly been ignored.
Mass mobilisation to give vent to the anger is taking shape. This is as it should be. Ours is a participatory democracy in which active citizens have the right to express their dissent; “to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions”, as the Bill of Rights puts it.
The fading promise of a “better life” that the Constitution posits is still worth fighting for and it ought to be simple to do so in our new order, in which the values of openness, accountability and responsiveness are foundational.
It appears to be dawning on increasing numbers of citizens that the president is a bad person, a poor leader, a flawed man, a compromised character and conflicted soul. He inhabits some of the darker corners of the ANC and has outlived his usefulness to the once-glorious liberation movement.
It seems clear that calls for the president to resign are falling on deaf ears. The president is too conflicted and too compromised to do so without attaching a host of conditions that are unlikely to find favour either in law or with his detractors inside the ANC and in the greater population of the country.
There is the possibility of a recall. This was done when former president Thabo Mbeki got out of step with the leadership elected at Polokwane in 2007. It could be done again if the ANC’s national executive committee is able to make a majority decision to do so.
The trouble is that the president has ensured that sufficient members of the ANC are so beholden to him that it is unlikely they will vote to recall him any time soon. The self-interest of too many remains wrapped in the colours of “team Zuma”.
A vote of no confidence in the president is pending in Parliament, which is on its Easter recess. To succeed, that vote must attract the support of a simple majority of the members of the National Assembly, the body responsible for electing all presidents.
The ANC has 249 representatives in the assembly. If the necessary 201 members pass a motion of no confidence in the president, the president and the other Cabinet members must resign.
An elective college of the National Assembly is then convened by the chief justice, or a judge designated by him, to fill the vacancy in the office of the president. The new president then appoints a cabinet, which is accountable collectively and individually to Parliament for the exercise of its powers and the performance of its functions.
In the no-confidence debate that is in the offing, it is going to be interesting to see how the members of the South African Communist Party (SACP), who are all ANC members of the National Assembly, cast their possibly decisive votes. The SACP has made it known that the president should resign. Whether this translates into a vote in favour of the DA’s no-confidence motion remains to be seen.
An abstention en masse would be a cowardly way of, in effect, voting against the motion. Assuming that the entire opposition supports the motion (not necessarily a correct assumption), reaching the 201 votes for the motion will involve successfully lobbying about 50 members of the ANC caucus to vote with the opposition.
The SACP has more than 50 of its members in the National Assembly.
It is already public knowledge that vulnerable members of the ANC caucus are being lobbied by those supporting the motion. Their vulnerability is due to the fact that they find themselves low on the party list and likely to lose their seats in the same way as many local government ANC representatives lost their livelihoods in the elections held in August 2016.
The same fate awaits junior members of Parliament whose names lie towards the bottom of the ANC party list.
A sense of self-preservation should make it fairly simple to persuade this group that their chances of re-election in 2019 will be enhanced should the unpopular Zuma administration end now and the next two years be devoted to restoring the reputation of the ANC under fresh leadership that eschews looting and corruption in favour of constitutionalism and respect for the rule of law.
If a sizeable number of ANC members do support the motion of no confidence, whether or not it is won, the fracturing of ANC unity and the exasperation of those still in the ANC who want Zuma out of office will be deleterious to its electoral prospects in 2019.
All members of the National Assembly either swear an oath or affirm that they “will be faithful to the Republic of South Africa and will obey, respect and uphold the Constitution and all other laws”.
Members of good conscience will be alive to the importance of their oath of office as they ponder their votes, their future political careers and prospects of surviving long enough in Parliament to earn a pension.
Those caught between party loyalty and their oath ought to be aware that their greater duty is to the country, not the ANC. It ought to be plain to all right-thinking parliamentarians that a vote in favour of the motion of no confidence is a means of demonstrating faithfulness to the country. There is no tenable argument to the contrary given the sustained shenanigans and recent outrageous conduct of the president.
Then, as a backstop, should the vote of no confidence not cause a breaking of party ranks by sufficient ANC members for it to carry, there is the prospect of an inquiry by Parliament into the removal from office of the president. This impeachment option is the subject matter of a recently launched application to the Constitutional Court by the EFF.
The ANC is sure to be advised that the EFF application is well-founded. It is also unlikely to want to suffer the electoral damage that will be sustained when Julius Malema and his fellow EFF members get to question the president during the televised sessions of the inquiry into Zuma’s fitness for office.
The electoral damage this process will do and the prospects of the ANC not holding a majority in 2019 ought to persuade the leadership of the party that there is no sense in allowing the inquiry to proceed, even if it is unlikely to succeed.
The damage to the popularity of the ANC should be more than loyalty to “team Zuma” can endure or stomach.
In all these circumstances, and given the need for party unity, it seems that if common sense prevails, it ought to be clear to those who lead, support and enjoy membership of the ANC that there is no good purpose in retaining the president when his continuation in office only strengthens the opposition and weakens the position of the ANC.
A swift recall of the president by the ANC is the least damaging and most efficient way of addressing the crisis now at hand. Looming criminal proceedings ought to be the clincher in the recall decision, although there is no guarantee the ANC will see it this way.
• Hoffman, an advocate, is a director of Accountability Now and author of “Confronting the Corrupt”