President Jacob Zuma addresses supporters in Cape Town on Tuesday night. Picture: REUTERS
President Jacob Zuma addresses supporters in Cape Town on Tuesday night. Picture: REUTERS

IF this is a win for constitutional democracy, it is hard to imagine how a defeat would look.

Opposition parties have hailed the eighth defeated motion of no confidence in Jacob Zuma as a victory because about three dozen ANC MPs supported it or abstained. The vote was also hailed by several voices as a victory for democracy. The evidence tells another story. The only opposition party which may have the right to claim victory of a sort is the DA and, if there was a winner, it was certainly not democracy.

A dangerous feature of our politics is a constant failure to hold to account politicians who are on the right side of the prevailing consensus. This allows them to make promises they do not keep without losing any credibility. Both the EFF’s Julius Malema and the UDM’s Bantu Holomisa predicted that, if a no-confidence vote was held in secret, it would win. Both were wrong and have no credibility now when they claim ANC support exceeded their expectations. The DA did not predict victory and so is entitled to claim that it made progress.

This is also important for democracy, because we were constantly told that Zuma’s removal was so essential for democracy that it warranted abandoning the core principle that the public should know what their representatives do in their name (again, the DA, to its credit, did not ask for secrecy). So the purpose for which openness needed to be abandoned was not achieved, but we have lost openness in the process. This has very concrete effects.

First, we are told that Zuma and his faction have been weakened. But that is not necessarily so. Until the next election, Zuma’s fate depends on what the ANC decides. We know it is divided into factions and that one wants him gone. If those who voted against him are long-standing opponents, the anti-Zuma faction has not grown, it has simply grown willing to vote against him in Parliament. If they have just joined the anti-Zuma camp, he is weakened. But, because the vote is secret, we have no idea who they are so we can’t assess whether the vote really did weaken Zuma.

Second, a key element of accountability has been lost. The activist group Future SA reacted to the vote by accusing the 198 MPs who voted against the motion of betraying the country. But it can’t follow this up by holding those representatives to account because it does not know who they are. Ironically, activist groups who rejoiced in a secret ballot now find their public campaigning hamstrung by the secrecy they demanded.

Third, if we do find out who voted for and against it may well be, ironically, because secret ballots by MPs are not that secret after all. If so, the only credible reason for secrecy, that MPs needed to be protected, got it wrong because those who want to punish MPs for their vote know how to find out who their victims are.

Zuma’s supporters, predictably, now want the MPs who did not oppose the motion to be disciplined. They sound as if they know who they are. While that could mean that they plan witch hunts to ferret out dissidents (which are unlikely to be good for democracy), it could also mean they do know who they are. There is evidence that they might. Before the vote, the Gupta-owned ANN7 TV channel quoted "ANC sources" claiming that at least 35 ANC MPs would not support the motion.

Given its role as chief media outlet for the ANC patronage faction, we can assume that its sources were those in the ANC who now demand retribution. At least 26 ANC MPs supported the motion and 9 abstained, so the number of actual dissidents seems uncannily close to that supplied by the Zuma camp. This suggests that they know exactly who the MPs who bucked the party line are. If so, the effect of secrecy may be that the only people who know how ANC MPs voted are those who secrecy was meant to keep in the dark.

So democracy has not won. If it depends on getting rid of Zuma, he is still there, while openness has been weakened. Nor is the motion’s failure likely to halt pressure for more secret ballots, given the (deluded) claim that allowing representatives to hide their vote worked well.

Why has the opposition, in Parliament and in society, been willing to sacrifice democracy for an illusion of victory? The clue was offered by many of the opposition speeches on Tuesday.

Previous no confidence motions were not really about removing the president — they were about winning public support. Opposition members knew they would lose the vote; they were really trying to persuade citizens to support their view. And so they were talking to voters, not other MPs. On Tuesday, many of the most impassioned speeches begged ANC MPs to back the motion. The opposition — including the DA — convinced themselves that the electorate they should focus on was not the one which got them into Parliament, but the one on the government benches. They were looking for a quick fix — not the hard work of building enough public support to force change, either because voters punished the ANC at the polls or because it feared that they might, but a short cut, in which a few dozen ANC rebels voting in the darkness could deliver the prize.

The vote showed that there are no short cuts. Even secrecy could not persuade enough ANC MPs to shift – those who did were surely more influenced by open and public pressure than by the fact that they could vote in secret. Directly or indirectly, who presides over this country will be decided by voters. It is to them that opposition parties and civic activists need to talk — in the open, the only place where power can really be held to account.

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