Moral duty:  While opposition parties have submitted a motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma, MPs are bound by their constitutional oaths to  serve the country and not their leaders, and to remove the president when he is in breach of his own oath of office. Picture:  GCIS
Moral duty: While opposition parties have submitted a motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma, MPs are bound by their constitutional oaths to serve the country and not their leaders, and to remove the president when he is in breach of his own oath of office. Picture: GCIS

As part of the drastic about-turn made on April 5 by ANC officials opposed to President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet reshuffle, the party’s secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, said that its members of Parliament (MPs) would oppose the April 18 motion of no-confidence in the president.

Mantashe said "no army general can allow his forces to be commanded by the enemy forces". He made it clear that "no ANC member will vote in a motion of the opposition".

This was a clear reaction to the statement made by former finance minister Pravin Gordhan who, shortly after being fired by Zuma, indicated that he would vote with his conscience in a vote of no-confidence.

Opposition party leaders have indicated they had been contacted by ANC MPs who were considering the same. Mantashe clearly wanted to nip such intentions in the bud.

Mantashe’s remarks are disconcerting and inappropriate. He uses a war metaphor to stop ANC MPs from voting according to their moral convictions.

There is a lot of competition and there are many verbal skirmishes between rival political parties, but this does not make politics the same as war.

Politics in a constitutional democracy is about winning the support of citizens for a political vision and policies.

The only power that is appropriate in a democratic dispensation is the power of persuasion. Political parties have the right to persuade citizens — and even opponents — that their vision and policies are the best for the country. So, to appeal to tactics that are relevant only in armed conflict is inappropriate.

Even if politics could be likened to war, the ANC would still be wrong to call on its members to ignore their moral instincts in the vote.

This was illustrated in Nazi Germany and apartheid SA, where people involved in atrocities tried to defend their conduct by claiming they were simply obeying the orders of their military commanders. Their justification was found wanting — there is ethics even in war.

In politics and war, people cannot simply switch off their moral consciences. Should they do so, history will not judge them kindly.

Mantashe also implies that obedience to the ANC and its command structure overrides the moral conscience of its MPs. The highest loyalty of the president and of all MPs should be to the Constitution. That is what they pledged in their oath of office.

To call on ANC MPs to put their loyalty to their party before all other considerations constitutes a breach of their oaths.

Should there be a conflict between loyalty to a party and loyalty to the Constitution, the country’s founding document should always prevail.

In article 1 of the Constitution, the core values underpinning it are clearly articulated. They include "supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law" and a "democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness".

The motion of no-confidence has been tabled in Parliament because the president failed to uphold these values.

After the 2016 Constitutional Court finding on Nkandla, a motion of no-confidence was brought before Parliament because opposition parties were convinced the president was in breach of his oath of office and did not respect the supremacy of the Constitution.

Although the motion was defeated, the president’s lack of respect for the Constitution and his oath of office remains a consideration in the current motion of no-confidence.

The way in which the president reshuffled his cabinet also raises serious concerns about his commitment to govern the country according to the constitutional values of accountability, responsiveness and openness.

Although Zuma has the constitutional prerogative to compile the Cabinet as he deems fit, it does not excuse him from his duty to govern the country in a manner that is accountable, responsive and open.

Zuma kept his own party and the country in the dark for days, which sparked uncertainty and speculation that ultimately contributed to the country’s economy being embarrassingly diminished to junk status.

The Constitution gives parliamentarians the duty to remove the president when he is in breach of his oath of office or the Constitution. They are expected to be true to their own oaths to protect the Constitution.

ANC MPs cannot be forbidden to vote with their conscience on the no-confidence motion. The issue is rather whether they will have the moral conviction and moral courage to do so.

• Prof Rossouw is CEO of The Ethics Institute

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