President Jacob Zuma addresses supporters in Plein Street after narrowly surviving a motion of confidence in him. Picture: DAVID HARRISON
President Jacob Zuma addresses supporters in Plein Street after narrowly surviving a motion of confidence in him. Picture: DAVID HARRISON

In his final address to Parliament in the no confidence debate, DA leader Mmusi Maimane mangled the quote, but it was apposite nevertheless. He quoted liberal stalwart and PFP parliamentarian Helen Suzman, who once said in the days of National Party rule: "I can see a shiver running around these green benches looking for a spine to go up."

The colour of the benches might have changed (in the old parliament they were green, in the new parliament they are brown) but the challenge to the ruling party is comparable.

What Suzman was doing was to challenge her colleagues across the aisle to put aside their fears, their sense of history and their own positions, and vote in favour of what they knew to be the right thing: the reform of apartheid.

Like a writhing eel, the National Party prevaricated, rationalised, justified and turned away. And then, after years of political suppression and economic chaos that seemed endless, in one dramatic moment, it changed.

Maimane’s task was similar. In a rare moment, he was seeking not necessarily to put his own party’s point, but to reach into the inner psychology of his opponents in an effort to convince them to do what they know to be the right thing, but something they also know would put them at odds with their own party and their own colleagues.

Like its National Party predecessors, the ANC writhed and wriggled. ANC speakers claimed the motion was an attempt at "regime change" and a "coup d’etat", despite, as EFF and DA parliamentarians repeatedly pointed out, the fact that a vote of no confidence is a constitutionally mandated action. Obviously it would have political effects, but trying to win support is not a crime, it’s politics.

The intellectual paucity of the ANC’s rebuttal unwittingly underpinned the arguments of their opponents. The claim of a coup d’etat was not only outrageous but ridiculous. The ANC’s difficulty — and why, in the end, it failed to grasp the historical moment — lies in its conception of itself. For many, perhaps most, ANC members, the party is more a mission than an intellectual construct. Membership of the party is an act of fealty, not a process of choosing among policy bouquets. The ANC talks of itself as a broad church, and perhaps precisely for that reason, it is held together by emotional bonds as much as it is by strictly rational processing.

But it is also held together by its status as the governing party. Parliamentarians might have voted the motion of no confidence down, but they did so looking over their shoulders. The ANC might have had several electoral shocks recently, but by voting the motion down, members are obviously confident enough that this particular crisis is not sufficiently pressing to threaten its electoral position, especially when the election is still a few years away. In that, the party is making a terrible strategic error; one that all parties with as overdeveloped sense of their own virtues tend to make.

So, where are we now? It’s important to distinguish the facts from perceptions of facts. The president’s supporters will argue that the president’s position has in fact been strengthened. The vote, they will argue, was secret so the claim that MPs would be intimidated falls away. And yet, incredibly for the eighth time, Zuma has survived a no confidence vote. Surely no more are possible and his position is now immutable.

The contrary perception about the facts is, however, also valid. The president’s detractors will argue that this vote was incredibly close, much closer than ever before, and much closer than most would have guessed. Somewhere around 30 ANC members voted in favour of the removal of their own president, something that has never happened before. This was in the face of huge pressure from the ANC whips to toe the line and the number was at the high end of estimates. These are not suggestions about arguments leaking out of closed meetings. These are concrete, undeniable numbers.

Perceptions and arguments aside, the fact of the matter is that the Zuma presidency is wounded and bleeding. For ANC members, once the initial relief at their victory has subsided, the truth will begin to dawn. The ANC is lumbered with a leader who has lost the ability lead. The economy remains weak, the administration remains uneven, the policy process has stalled and a bracing leadership battle looms.

They should enjoy their moment of victory, because the future looks grinding.

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