South Africa's governing African National Congress has got itself into one hell of a pickle. Next week the National Assembly will debate an opposition motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma.
Were the motion to succeed, Zuma and his entire cabinet would be forced under the constitution to resign. The Speaker of the House would then become Acting President for up to 30 days while it goes about the business of electing a replacement, who would then serve as state president until the expiry of the present term of parliament in early 2019.
Yet the reality is that, save a political tsunami, the motion won't succeed even though it's common currency that Zuma is irredeemably corrupt and that he has sold his country out to the Gupta family. He has also alienated many of the ANC's traditional allies, and the performances of the government and the economy under his rule have become increasingly shambolic.
Key figures in the ANC have indicated that their party's MPs should vote with the opposition. These include former President Thabo Mbeki who has proclaimed that ANC MPs should vote in the national rather than the party interest. Similarly, the recently dismissed finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, has urged MPs to allow their consciences to dictate their votes.
Despite such calls, only two ANC MPs, Makhosi Khoza and Mondli Gungubele, have openly declared that they will vote with the opposition. The ANC has indicated it will subject Khoza to disciplinary proceedings. Gungubele may well face a similar fate. If the ANC follows through on its threats, both may lose their jobs (for if a party expels an MP from party membership, the MP concerned can no longer sit in parliament).
There are certainly other MPs sitting on the ANC benches who recognise the damage that Zuma has done. But it appears they have been held back from speaking out because of the threat of dismissal from parliament and the loss of salary and status that would involve.
It's for this reason that the opposition has set such store on securing a secret ballot - reckoning that this will allow ANC MPs to vote in favour of the motion while circumventing the risk of party discipline.
When faced by the request of the opposition parties that she allow a secret ballot on the no confidence motion, Baleka Mbete, the Speaker of the House (and a member of the ANC's National Executive Committee) declared that she did not have the power to grant the request under the rules of the Assembly. However, after being approached by opposition parties, the Constitutional Court subsequently ruled that a secret ballot was permissible, throwing the decision back into her lap. Mbete has yet to make public her decision.
The likelihood is that she will seek to deflect criticism by announcing in favour of a secret ballot - but only at the last minute.
But even if enough ANC MPs were to align themselves with the opposition to unseat Zuma, the ANC would remain in control of the immediate situation because it would retain its majority in the House, and it would be another ANC MP who would be elected to serve as president.
Yet win or lose the vote, the consequences for the ANC are dire.
Options for the ANC
The party faces three possible options:
The ANC wins the vote by a substantial majority, with only a handful of ANC MPs voting with the opposition. Supposedly this would be a massive victory for the ruling party, yet it will fly in the face of not just the parliamentary opposition, but a massive body of popular opinion throughout the country. The ANC would have voted to keep a deeply corrupt president in power, with probable long term disastrous electoral consequences. Any internal ANC "reform" project will be more likely to fail.
The ANC just scrapes home by a small majority, indicating that a substantial body of the party's MPs have voted for Zuma to go. Cue internal party turmoil. Will the dissident MPs own up? If they do, will they face party discipline? What would happen if the dissidents were known to include party heavyweights (and potential candidates for the party leadership at the party's national congress in December 2017) such as Cyril Ramaphosa and Lindiwe Sisulu? Subjecting them to party discipline would risk not just massive intra-party division, but a split within the party - and the further danger that they might team up with the opposition.
The ANC loses the vote, and Zuma is forced to stand down as state president. In this case, the ANC is openly divided, and all hell would break out within the party ahead of its conference in December. An ANC MP, probably Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, would be elected as state president, but Zuma would remain as party president.
The ANC would be at war with itself, with little or no prospect of it facing the electorate in 2019 in one piece. Were the ANC to offer Zuma an amnesty from prosecution, they would face a massive public backlash. If they didn't, they would face the very real prospect of his having to face trial, with the party's extraordinarily dirty linen being washed in public for the foreseeable future.
Whatever happens, Zuma will work ceaselessly and ruthlessly after the debate to secure the party presidency for his former wife, (and favoured candidate) Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, reckoning that in so doing, he will retain the power to shape events (and not least, to keep himself out of jail).
Meanwhile, those opposing Zuma will need to rapidly group behind one leader (presumably the new state president) if they are to stand a decent chance of securing enough control over the party organisation to defeat Dlamini-Zuma in December. Rivalry between the prospective anti-Zuma candidates for the party leadership (notably Ramaphosa, Lindiwe Sisulu and Mathews Phosa), would only weaken their chances of victory.
Tim Cohen, editor of Business Day, has indicated, sagely, that the Zuma presidency has begun to wind down as the #Gupta Leaks - the series of emails detailing the extent of the Gupta family's control of the state - reveal more and more dirt. More and more ANC rats will desert the sinking ship and seek safety on a new (anti-Zuma) ANC vessel.
Yet even if the anti-Zuma campaign was to gain enough momentum for victory in December, it will come at massive cost. Not the least of these dangers is that the already alarmingly high rate of intra-party killing of rivals will increase.
It's difficult to imagine that the ANC will be in any reasonable shape to face the electorate in 2019. Although ostensibly it may yet put on a decent show, it seems inevitable that it will lose numerous votes and a large swathe of MPs.
The looming danger is that in facing the risk of defeat, the party will be tempted to subvert a contrary result in the 2019 election.
Roger Southall receives funding from the National Research Foundation