Carol Paton Deputy editor: Business Day
Picture: DAVID HARRISON
Picture: DAVID HARRISON

It was a narrow escape for Jacob Zuma, with only 11 votes separating the ayes and nays.

Afterwards, both sides said they had won.

For the DA, to pull about 28 votes off the ANC — 37 if abstentions are counted — was a huge victory. Not only that, but it was the opposition’s day: they put people on the streets; they put up a great fight in the house; they created the show; and they nearly won.

For the ANC, to hold 198 MPs to the party line in an environment in which it is deeply divided and keenly aware of the damage Zuma is doing to its image — and in the face of enormous public pressure — was also a victory. Apart from that, to have lost the vote would have been devastating: while knee-deep in chaos it would have had the pressure of putting a new government together. It was a consequence that many — including some who want Zuma gone — found too terrifying to contemplate.

It is clear that the appetite in the ANC to remove Zuma is growing. But it wants him removed on its own terms and in its own way, in the hope that it will be able to control the succession process that follows. Between the lines of some of the speakers, this was the coded meaning.

Deputy chief whip Doris Dlakude put it like this during the debate: we are aware of all the issues raised, we acknowledge our mistakes and will correct them, we aspire to do right.

It is quite widely accepted in the ANC that after December everything changes, including the president and the executive. In party discussion a parallel is often drawn with the removal of Thabo Mbeki, arguing that he could be removed because he was no longer party president, but the time for Zuma to go has not come yet. The ANC will now be assured that all it needs is to hold on until December and weather the Gupta leaks and the storm around it until then.

The EFF, though, still has a card to play. It launched an application for Zuma’s impeachment in the Constitutional Court several months ago. Impeachment requires a two-thirds vote, but the point will be not so much to remove him as to force a parliamentary inquiry before which Zuma will have to appear and answer questions. The bad times for the ANC might not quite be over.

Apart from the two main winners, South Africans and the Constitution also won big on Tuesday. It was through a constitutional process that the motion was brought and it was through a judgment of the Constitutional Court that a secret ballot was held. It was also through loyalty to the Constitution that the 28 ANC MPs broke ranks and voted to be true to their oath of office rather than their political party.

SA is a young democracy and nothing makes this clearer than the education we are steadily receiving on what it means to be a constitutional democracy and the implications that has for how each one of us should behave. First came the Nkandla judgment educating us on the role of the president; now we have the secret ballot decision, again educating us on the responsibilities of MPs.

While 198 ANC MPs chose not to learn that lesson, 28 have the values of the Constitution to heart. This is 28 more than have ever done so before.

While breaking ranks is difficult and risky and generally met with recriminations in most political parties of the world, in the ANC it is particularly difficult. While a liberal party, for example, at least in theory sees the individual as the most important unit of society, in a liberation movement such as the ANC, the collective is paramount and revolutionary discipline trumps all.

After the vote, a visibly relieved Jackson Mthembu said: "The ANC members of parliament have not sold out on our national democratic revolution. We have defended the vote of our people."

This is more than just rhetoric and is an expression of the fundamental philosophical tenets that underlie the ANC’s objectives and its policies. Because it always places the national democratic revolution at the centre, it has been reluctant, or perhaps even found it impossible, to put the Constitution at the heart of our democracy and remains so. It is a small step from here to fervent belief in the bogeyman arguments invoked by the ANC in the assembly during the vote. The true agenda here, said Dlakude, was "to collapse government and sow the seeds of chaos in society to ultimately grab power".

Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa blamed "the imperialist agenda of regime change", which wanted to "win through the back door what it had lost at the ballot".

It is this philosophical battle that those in the ANC who say they are on side of the good will need to win if the ANC is to be saved and set on a new course. Just like wining the vote of no confidence on Tuesday was for the opposition, it is a tall order.

Please login or register to comment.