Times are hard for Jacob Zuma. His woes range from the cosmic to the personal. His leadership of the governing African National Congress is likely to be challenged at the December party convention. The Farlam Commission investigating the Marikana massacre may hold the state accountable for murder of mine workers. If so, the Zuma government could fall. (In South Africa, unlike some other African states, official commission reports that embarrass the government cannot be suppressed.) Two international agencies have cut South Africa’s credit rating. Unemployment is up. The perception is that corruption is increasingly out of control. It is widely believed that Zuma is trying to politicize the judiciary. He is under heavy personal criticism for the use of public money for “security enhancement” of his private farm. And then there is the government’s failure to deliver textbooks to children in Limpopo Province.
Accordingly, eight of the eleven opposition parties have tabled a motion of no-confidence in the Zuma government. Should it pass, the Zuma government would be forced to resign. It will not pass, and it will probably never even reach a vote because of the ANC’s overwhelming majority in parliament. (If all of the MPs from the eight opposition parties voted for the measure, it would still need the support of more than sixty ANC MPs to pass.) More than 60 percent of the MP’s are ANC, and many of them dislike Zuma. But, it is highly unlikely that they would vote to bring down an ANC government. The ANC leadership can, using legitimate parliamentary tactics, ensure that the measure will never even reach the order paper stage. Indeed there is already an ANC counter-motion proposing Parliament "reaffirm its full confidence in the able leadership of President Jacob Zuma."
So, is this a fruitless exercise? No. In the short run, the no-confidence motion ensures nation-wide public discussion of the government’s shortcomings in the run-up to the ANC party convention. In any democracy that is healthy. There are signs that it is already bringing pressure on Zuma, though it is not clear what the short-term consequences will be. Perhaps of greater importance, the fact that eight parties–ranging from the Democratic Alliance (the official opposition) to the Inkatha Freedom Party to the Congress of the People–are cooperating in this endeavor may be a step toward the emergence of a united, credible opposition party that could someday challenge the ANC’s overwhelming dominance of parliament. That, too, would be good for democracy.