Jacob Zuma. Picture: JACKIE​ CLAUSEN
Jacob Zuma. Picture: JACKIE​ CLAUSEN

Should Jacob Zuma continue to resist his recall, there is the possibility that Parliament will remove a sitting president with the backing of the majority party. Although this would be the final chapter of a process that could at best be described as "messy" it would nonetheless represent a milestone in the maturation of SA’s democracy.

The country’s constitutional framework presents us with a conundrum. Voters elect MPs to make laws and to hold the executive to account for its policies and spending plans. But they do so by voting for the party of their choice, which then allocates MPs to Parliament based on a list formulated by party structures and controlled by party headquarters.

To get on to the list in the first place does not require popularity or a record of service to a constituency, but rather to be in good standing in the party, particularly with the provincial strongmen.

The constitutional mandate for MPs is unambiguous: "The National Assembly is elected to represent the people and to ensure government by the people under the Constitution. It does this by choosing the president, by providing a national forum for public consideration of issues, by passing legislation and by scrutinising and overseeing executive action."

Whatever the cause, a spirit of renewal has begun to sweep through the marble corridor

But in reality MPs have been more inclined to listen to their political party bosses than to the voters. The effects of this distortion of accountability have been plain to see over the past two decades.

The approach of ANC MPs to holding the executive and public servants accountable has been lackadaisical at best.

In its worst moments, the governing party has used its majority in Parliament to quash arms-deal inquiries, to protect presidents from scandals such as that which engulfed Zuma’s Nkandla improvements and to force through unpopular laws affecting press freedom.

But this distortion has begun to diminish as the executive under Zuma has strayed ever further from its mandate and corruption has taken root in government departments and public entities.

With public anger mounting, and scandal becoming too overwhelming to ignore, Parliament has begun to find its feet. This may because most MPs — at least most of those in leadership positions – have become critical of Zuma’s state-capture empire.

It may also be because the ruling party’s electoral majority has been shrinking and public representatives have realised that to hold on to their own places in Parliament they need to protect the size of the ANC majority. To be on the right side of the people they must demonstrate that they are against corruption.

Whatever the cause, a spirit of renewal has begun to sweep through the marble corridors.

MPs have subjected the SABC, Transnet and Eskom to public criticism and committees looking into state capture have made for riveting television as senior officials have been grilled about their decisions.

There can be no greater expression of Parliament’s holding the executive to power than the passing of a successful motion of no confidence against a delinquent president.

Such a decision, which may occur soon, sends a powerful message that no president or member of the executive is more powerful than the legislature, which is the representative of the people.

While the judiciary may be critical of the executive, it does not have the power to remove a president or minister (other than by declaring a faulty electoral procedure null and void). It may, as several rulings — most notably the finding of the Constitutional Court against Zuma — have done, ask Parliament to consider taking action.

A motion of no confidence will go a long way towards restoring Parliament to its rightful place as the fulcrum of accountability between the people and government.