The ANC caucus in parliament has promised to stop the proposed motion of confidence against President Jacob Zuma by blocking it from being tabled in the order paper of the National Assembly. The decision is unsurprising, and so is the complete lack of factual reasons to explain their own decision.
The African National Congress was always going to push back on the motion of no confidence tabled by eight opposition parties in parliament. This is a party that is severely allergic to outside criticism, even as it convulses with internal strife. A push that comes from outside tends to unite, even for a very short time.
The motion was brought last week by Lindiwe Mazibuko on behalf of the Democratic Alliance, the Congress of the People, the Inkatha Freedom Party, the United Democratic Movement, the African Christian Democratic Party, the Azanian People's Organisation, the Freedom Front Plus and the United Christian Democratic Party.
The list of infringement points against the president is impressive, for the wrong reasons: "The Marikana tragedy; the appalling 'Nkandlagate' scandal; the failure by the government to deliver textbooks and workbooks to school children in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape; the downgrading of South Africa's credit rating by two major ratings agencies; the mounting disrespect for our Constitution and judiciary; the growing number of our citizens who must face the indignity of unemployment; and the uncontrollable and rising tide of corruption in the public service - all of these collectively point to the reality that ours is a country which lacks decisive leadership and vision."
More specifically, and related directly to Zuma's constitutional mandate, the opposition parties said that the justice system has been weakened and politicised; corruption in the public service has spiralled out of control; unemployment levels continue to increase; the economy is weakening; and the right of access to quality education has been violated. Also, the cost of public mismanagement has soured by more than 717% in just four years, according to a Public Service Commission report.
The ANC quickly tabled a motion of confidence in Zuma, but decided that this wasn't enough, and following a meeting of its caucus, has decided to block the other motion from ever being debated in parliament.
The ruling party's chief whip said that the reasons given for the motion of no confidence were frivolous and without fact. He specifically pointed to the ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeals, which ordered the National Prosecuting Authority to make available any material it had at its disposal when it decided to drop corruption charges against Zuma.
Since it was the NPA that was given the order, and not the president specifically, the logic is that he can't be held responsible for the fact that no tapes have been forthcoming so far.
"If the people of South Africa, the majority of whom overwhelmingly mandate this president and the African National Congress to lead this country, were to learn that this august institution has entertained a Motion of no Confidence in the President on the basis of such frivolous allegations, their trust in the ANC and this Parliament would have been violated," the ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga said in a statement.
"It is not the first time that the Opposition has tabled such a frivolous motion. Problematic and frivolous as the 2010 Motion of No Confidence was, we agreed to it to prove and make a point to the sceptical detractors that we are committed to parliamentary democracy and that this movement never shies away from a debate. Indeed we emerged with flying colours from that debate and Parliament reaffirmed its confidence in the president."
The statement concludes by saying: "Caucus has therefore unanimously decided to oppose the programming of this motion on the Order Paper of the National Assembly."
The DA parliamentary leader, Mazibuko, has promised to write to the speaker, Max Sisulu, who also chairs the programming committee that decides what goes on the order papers and therefore what gets debated on the floor.
"A motion of no confidence is provided for in terms of the Constitution, as a mechanism available for members to test the confidence that the house has in a sitting President. Since the President is elected by the National Assembly, it is also given the right to withdraw its support at any time through a majority vote," Mazibuko said.
"To block this vote would be to violate this provision explicitly and set a precedent whereby the ANC can prevent the National Assembly from holding the President accountable, as the Constitution envisages."
The straightforward difficulty for the opposition parties is the majority that the ANC has in Parliament. Not only would all opposition MPs need to vote for the motion if it ever reached the floor, 68 ANC voters would need to back it too. It won't be voted on in any likelihood, because the ANC will be sure to block the motion within the programming committee. That's what a 65% majority in parliament buys you.
Whilst the DA said that it would raise issues of constitutionality if Sisulu decided not to allow the motion, it isn't clear what routes of appeal are available. Section 102 of the Constitution (specifically dealing with motions of no confidence) says: "If the National Assembly, by a vote supported by a majority of its members, passes a motion of no confidence in the Cabinet excluding the President, the President must reconstitute the Cabinet; If the National Assembly, by a vote supported by a majority of its members, passes a motion of no confidence in the President, the President and the other members of the Cabinet and any Deputy Ministers must resign."
A layman's reading of the rules makes it seem like a successful ANC block of the motion at the programming committee would be the end of it.
If Sisulu were to allow the motion, by what calculation does the opposition group think that 68 ANC MPs would come to the party? We are in the run-up to the Mangaung elective conference, where Zuma hopes to secure a second term as ANC president, and his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe may run against him. There has been some lobbying by people within the party who don't want another Zuma term, but even with the swell in negative publicity aimed Zuma's way, it cannot be enough to prompt his parliamentary detractors to dump him. Simply put, the ANC closes ranks when outside pressure comes. It doesn't relent.
The DA has even failed to convince the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), an ANC ally which has been far less of a lackey to Zuma than the communists, to so much as issue a joint statement when policies are identical.
It isn't for the first time that the ANC and its tripartite allies have complained that the ruling party's near-absolute majority meant that the country was fully behind it and its president. South African Communist Party general-secretary Blade Nzimande likes to say that the DA is part of an "anti-majoritarian liberal offensive" that is afraid of black majority rule, and thus goes running to the courts to try and rule the country by proxy.
In 2010, the parliamentary Cope leader Mvume Dandala led a motion of no confidence in Zuma, saying that "it is common knowledge how the president has failed this nation by his repeated risky sexual behaviour, thus weakening the crucial fight against HIV/Aids and setting a poor example". The defence minister of the day (now at correctional services), Lindiwe Sisulu, drew the short straw during the debate and gave the party reply. It was astounding in its shrillness.
In a parliament where the ANC held 264 seats out of 400, the motion was defeated by 241 votes to 84 with eight abstentions. We are still in the same 25th parliament of the republic, and the mathematics will surely be far more interesting given that Zuma does not enjoy the same party support that he did then. The opposition need 116 more votes than they got last time to give the president a serious fright, keeping in mind that the latest bid has far more opposition support than the 2010 one did. This is a big "if", though.
The idea by the opposition parties may have been to show publicly how damaged the ANC in parliament is. And indeed, some in the public may get that. Probably the real consequence is that Zuma now has something to gloat about as he prepares to pack his bags for Bloemfontein.