If the ANC gets its way, the controversial debate and vote of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma will take place in the last week of February next year, two weeks after he delivers his State of the Nation address and in the same week Pravin Gordhan presents the 2013 Budget.
The ruling party could not have chosen a worse time. If they really wanted to protect the president, they would dispense with the debate this week. By February, the maelstrom of controversy around Zuma will swirl even faster than it is now.
In a spectacular backpedalling exercise, the ANC chief whip in Parliament Mathole Motshekga announced on Wednesday that the ruling party had “no misgivings” about debating motions in the House, including the motion of no confidence in the president.
“There is no question as to whether or not this matter has to be scheduled,” Motshekga said.
Spot the difference in his statement last week:
“It is a cause for grave concern that this institution should be abused with a flurry of frivolous motions which are motivated by nothing other than a desire for cheap publicity. It would be a complete travesty and an unsustainable precedent if we were to allow a frivolous motion, which is based solely on spurious allegations rather than facts, to be afforded the dignity of consideration and debate by Parliament,” Motshekga said then.
The ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) meeting at the weekend decided that the motion should be allowed to be debated but that it was not a matter of urgency. This was after the NEC was advised by the Speaker of Parliament Max Sisulu that it would be unconstitutional for the ANC to continue to block the motion from being debated.
Motshekga has been forced to make a public climb-down on his previous hardline opposition to the motion. This has also been prompted by the eight opposition parties who proposed the motion of no confidence making an urgent court application in the West Cape High Court to force Sisulu to schedule the motion before the National Assembly’s last sitting for the year on Thursday.
The parties, led by Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko, brought the motion of no confidence against Zuma earlier this month on the grounds that “under his leadership the justice system has been politicised and weakened; corruption has spiralled out of control; unemployment continues to increase, the economy is weakening, and the right of access to quality education has been violated.”
Judge Dennis Davis, who has been placed in the awkward position of having to decide whether the judiciary can force Parliament to debate the future of the president and the executive, will deliver judgment on the matter on Thursday.
But in a move designed to present Davis with the option of leaving Parliament to decide on its own affairs, the ANC has proposed scheduling the debate next February. If the judge does rule in favour of the opposition parties, the debate would have to take place on Thursday afternoon or the Speaker could call a special sitting of the National Assembly during the recess.
Still, Motshekga says calling a full sitting after the National Assembly rises would be an impractical and costly move.
“The parliamentary programme of 26 November to 7 December entails committee meetings, oversight visits across South Africa and international study tours by MPs. Cancelling these commitments or summoning back all MPs for a special sitting would be a place a significant administrative, logistical and financial burden to the institution,” Motshekga said.
“This type of motion is also serious in nature and could have far-reaching implications for Parliament, this country and our democracy, and therefore cannot be arranged hastily or impulsively.
Members would also need to adequately prepare to enable them to meaningfully engage in this matter,” he said.
The ANC is proposing that the debate be held in the week of 26 February 2013. “We believe this is a reasonable timeframe for which a motion of such magnitude should be considered by Parliament,” Motshekga said.
As a gesture of goodwill to appease and sell the idea to the opposition, the ANC says that while all motions lapse at the end of the last sitting, according to the rules, they commit to support the revival of the motion of no confidence to ensure that it returns back to the House in its current form.
“This position does not seek to pre-empt or interfere with the court process that is currently underway, but to correct the inaccurate view that the majority party is not keen on debating this motion,” Motshekga said.
But the eight opposition parties are having none of it.
“We together reject the proposal put forward by the ANC chief whip, Dr Mathole Motshekga, that the motion of no confidence should be debated on 26 February 2013.
“This phenomenal backtracking from the ANC chief whip, who two weeks ago tried to block the motion from being heard at all, continues to undermine the critical section 102 (2) of the Constitution, which enables the National Assembly to remove a sitting president through a majority vote,” the parties said in a statement on Wednesday night.
They said the debate over the president’s future was not something that could wait three months.
“The real reason that the ANC chief whip now wants the debate only in February 2013 is because the ANC NEC has overruled his initial, rash, and unconstitutional position. He is doing nothing more than manipulating Parliament to make sure that he reaches his same desired goal: protecting President Zuma from parliamentary scrutiny at all costs,” the opposition parties said.
“If Dr Motshekga gets his way, we will have the hugely untenable situation where the president must address a joint sitting of Parliament on the State of the Nation, while a motion of no confidence remains on the order paper against him,” they said.
How would the country contend Zuma’s plan of action for the year when he would be in danger of being removed from office two weeks later? The State of the Nation address would be completely undermined.
In addition, holding a debate and vote of no confidence in the president in the same week Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan presents the Budget is ludicrous. The Budget has to be market-friendly and create economic stability, not be delivered in the midst of a huge bun fight between the ruling party and opposition, and particularly one that could see the president having to resign.
According to the Constitution, the president and entire Cabinet has to resign in the event of a vote of no confidence being passed. What kind of bizarre dilemma would Gordhan be in then, having to present the Budget and then resign? Either this has not occurred to the ANC or the proposal is a ruse to appease the court and the opposition, and will be recanted later when it becomes obvious that holding a vote of no confidence in the president in the same week of the Budget is absurd.
But if the ANC is hoping that all the controversies around Zuma would die down by February, they have another thing coming. The public protector Thuli Madonsela is investigating state spending on the president’s Nkandla residence and could present her report by then. If the report shows irregular spending by the state, which is quite obviously the case considering the costs far exceed the maximum amount that can be spent on security enhancements, this would strengthen the hand of the opposition.
The DA is also pressing ahead in its mission to get access to the documents (and spy tapes) the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) used to drop the corruption charges against Zuma. The NPA has already violated the court order by not doing so and the situation is bound to get even messier when the DA launches another court application to get access to the records. This case will be heard early next year and could add to Zuma’s woes in the no confidence debate.
The commission of inquiry into the Marikana massacre will be drawing to a close by the end of February, and there should be a clear picture by then as to who is culpable for the murder of the 34 mineworkers on 16 August. As evidence is unfolding before the commission, it is already clear that there is blood on the state’s hands, for which Zuma must take accountability.
But the biggest disadvantage for Zuma in postponing the debate to next year is that it would take place after the ANC’s Mangaung conference, where his support in the his party will be put to the test. Even if Zuma retains the ANC presidency, his detractors might decide to pursue other means to remove him as state president, and the vote of no confidence presents the ideal opportunity. They would then have two months after Mangaung to plot such a strategy.
The opposition parties are standing firm that the debate should take place before the end of the current term and are hoping the court decides in their favour. While the facts around Nkandlagate, the spy tapes and Marikana are still not clear and while the ANC can keep up the pretence that there is unanimous support for his presidency, the ANC should bite the bullet and get the debate done with.
It obviously would not succeed if it takes place now, as the opposition is unlikely to draw sufficient votes from ANC MPs to win a majority vote. But the situation could change dramatically by the end of February.
A week is said to be a long time in politics, but three months could bring a whole new world. Zuma had better hope that his luck and ability to escape destiny does not run out by then.