Signals:  ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu convened the committee that recommended Faith Muthambi be removed as a minister. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS
Signals: ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu convened the committee that recommended Faith Muthambi be removed as a minister. Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS

Something very exciting is happening in the ANC caucus in Parliament. Before the DA’s motion of no confidence was debated late in 2016, President Jacob Zuma rushed to Parliament to ensure that the ANC MPs would not support the opposition’s attempt to oust him.

It showed that Zuma was unsure of his MPs’ loyalties and that some MPs had conveyed the impression that they wanted him removed from power. Indeed, no less than ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu had weeks earlier called for Zuma and the ANC’s entire national executive committee to resign.

But, of course, in the end even Mthembu helped defeat the DA’s motion. Yet the chapter is evidence of a growing battle between pro-and anti-Zuma ANC MPs. There were 35 ANC MPs rumoured to have withheld their votes by being absent from Parliament to signal their sympathy for the motion.

In February, when Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan delivered his budget speech, almost every MP gave him a standing ovation, save for four cabinet ministers: Zuma loyalists Des van Rooyen, Lindiwe Zulu, David Mahlobo and that paragon of virtue Bathabile Dlamini.

The other MPs were by no means simply approving the technicalities of a budget speech. Rather, they were thankful that, with all the powers ranged against him, Gordhan was able to stay in his position and outline a plan to bring SA back from the brink of disaster. It was, as many analysts have said, the real state of the nation speech, which Zuma had delivered in farcical mode a week earlier. The MPs were also taking the opportunity to voice their support for the beleaguered Treasury, which has become the central site of the battle against Zuma.

Last week, the ad hoc committee looking into the malaise at the SABC had its final report approved by the National Assembly. The report called for the removal of Zuma loyalist Communications Minister Faith Muthambi — the first time ruling party MPs have called for the removal of a Cabinet minister.

Something is happening in Parliament. MPs are discovering — certainly not rediscovering — their proper function. After years of being prodded like cattle by their drivers, something is giving way. It is very likely the first signs of a revolt against Zuma, a president who is quite obviously putting his interests not just before those of the country, but at its expense.

The ANC MPs were selected by the party because they were expected to do its bidding: vote as they were told to vote and never question the party’s policies. That’s what they have been doing ever since the democratic Parliament was convened.

Now they are beginning to understand that they can flex their muscles.

“But it is more than likely that the ANC caucus is divided — as every other ANC structure is.”

The ad hoc committee under Vincent Smith has demonstrated that ANC MPs are not lacking in the critical faculties necessary for the authentic representation of the national interest.

How did this come about? Not that long ago, ANC MPs were utterly compliant, allowing Zuma to downgrade the findings of the public protector when she ruled he had to pay for certain upgrades to his Nkandla home.

Zuma has over the past 15 months been exposed as venal in the extreme, willing to bankrupt the country to secure a nuclear deal that will benefit his family and the Guptas and eager to render useless countless institutions as he escapes the consequences of his own corruption. He has also revealed a side of himself that reeks of a deep cynicism, playing with the passions of ANC supporters by calling for radical economic transformation and painting the Treasury as responsible for the lack of transformation.

His lurch to a populist EFF-like position is a classic strategy to disguise his intent.

And Zuma is not giving up the fight — he never does. Already, he is reportedly moving to replace Mthembu and install his proxies in Parliament.

And his faction is now calling for the Presidency to be vested with greater powers, which seem to include the power to determine the budget; to vet all senior government appointments and even the leadership succession at a time when the powers of the president need to be curtailed, not enhanced.

Zuma is going to try to channel the ANC’s MPs into supporting him. To do this, he has to convince them his interests are theirs, or he will have to resort to threatening them with the loss of their lucrative positions.

But he doesn’t have time on his side. He will step down as ANC president in nine months and by then he must, by whatever means, have his preferred candidate installed as his successor. Should he succeed, his power over ANC MPs is likely to be reinforced; but if he fails, he will become impotent.

The battle against Zuma is far from won. Although MPs voted in favour of the SABC report, they supported Zuma during the turbulent opening of Parliament, when the EFF was violently ejected and the DA hounded out with apoplectic expletives. But it is more than likely that the ANC caucus is divided — as every other ANC structure is. The ad hoc committee that dared to recommend the communications minister’s removal was convened by Mthembu. How the members of the committee were selected is the subject of speculation, as are most of the ANC’s opaque decisions.

But it is not too far-fetched to conclude that its members are part of the ANC caucus that wants Zuma removed. Their behaviour during the hearings showed that they were willing to act harshly against Zuma’s proxies, including for their looting and deliberate subversion of the broadcaster. They played the role of critical parliamentarians doing their jobs with distinction, questioning SABC officials who feigned incompetence to hide their corrupt dealings.

ANC MPs are beginning to realise that they need not submit to the party orthodoxy, especially since the party doesn’t have the unity to define and enforce a single line. The fluidity of the situation means that MPs can play a part in defining the party’s stance, not merely submit to policies set above their heads.

The possibilities are exciting. Since Zuma can be removed from the ANC presidency only by the national executive committee, which he has in his bag — or does he? — the only way he can be removed from the presidency of the country is if a majority in Parliament proposes and wins a vote of no confidence. This might very well be the manner in which we finally get rid of the charlatan pretending to be the president of SA.

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