Picture: GETTY IMAGES/SASH MORDOVETS
Picture: GETTY IMAGES/SASH MORDOVETS

Last week’s dramatic vote in parliament on the DA’s motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma was much closer than has been generally appreciated — which explains Zuma’s deep anger and ominous calls for revenge against those MPs who deserted him.

The "no confidence" motion was supported by 177 MPs and opposed by 198. Adding the nine abstentions means that 384 MPs of the maximum 400 voted (there were some vacancies and absences). Estimates say up to three dozen ANC MPs voted against Zuma.

Had just 11 more ANC MPs switched, the "no confidence" lobby would have won a majority. In that case, the "no confidence" vote would have numbered 188, to the 187 Zuma supporters in the house. Fewer than a dozen votes in a 400-seat chamber — now that’s a slim margin indeed.

This explains why Zuma, an expert in calculating the weight of his support, is outraged and gunning for the ANC rebels. He knows he has lost a substantial chunk of his caucus — about 15% roughly — as well as dozens of ANC stalwarts and members of his own cabinet.

Still, there has been something disturbingly Stalinist about his response.

Speaking in KwaZulu Natal over the weekend, Zuma said those who collaborate with "counter-revolutionary forces" should be disciplined. "You hear a person saying ‘I’m following my conscience’. Please do not have your conscience‚ have an ANC conscience," he said.

Chilling words, if ever there were any. It suggests that even those rebels who cannot be identified conclusively (because the ballot was secret), will be hunted down anyway. Punishment can be meted out on suspicion.

Of course, a handful have already "confessed".

Former finance minister Pravin Gordhan was wilier: he said he would vote with his conscience, but that is ambiguous. After all, a deputy minister, Ebrahim Ebrahim, said that for him a vote of conscience would mean not supporting the opposition under any circumstances.

Nonetheless, as this magazine went to print, the ANC said it would discipline three members for supporting the DA’s motion: Gordhan, Derek Hanekom and Makhosi Khoza.

It’ll send a fearful message to the rest to toe the line, or else — to hell with conscience. It is the instinct of ruling by fear, not consent.

Of course, for Zuma, this is a gift-wrapped opportunity to oust those who might be unhelpful to his cause in December (getting Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma elected as ANC president) under the guise of ousting "disloyal members".

But the suspicion remains that Zuma has little true power left in the organisation. In this context, it’ll be intriguing to see what happens to Gordhan, Hanekom and Khoza.

This contention is fuelled by the fact that in the past, those who have challenged Zuma remained in his cabinet — despite the ANC’s endorsement of Zuma’s prerogative to hire and fire people as he wishes. How can that be, unless he doesn’t actually have the heft to boot them?

Certainly, for Zuma to discipline the three who openly voted against him runs the risk of turning even more ANC insiders against him.

As it is, this week deputy agriculture minister Bheki Cele became another to break ranks publicly, saying the ANC under Zuma had failed SA and abdicated its governing duties to the courts.

"I am embarrassed to be a member of this [national executive committee]," he said.

Many other insiders agree. And while the party splits over exactly how to protect its ruined president, policy is forgotten and the business of government is left in the hands of rogue ministers and leaderless bureaucrats.

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