President Jacob Zuma survived the August 8, opposition-instigated no-confidence vote in the National Assembly, this time by secret ballot and by a narrow margin. There were 177 votes in favor of the no-confidence resolution, and 198 against, with 9 abstentions. (There are 400 seats in the National Assembly, with Zuma’s African National Congress holding 249.) In the short term, the Zuma government survives, but Zuma faces possible impeachment in September, and in any event he will leave the ANC presidency at the party conference in December. In the longer term, the vote is significant because it establishes the precedent of a secret ballot on a parliamentary measure of the highest importance, in this case whether an administration will survive. The genii cannot be put back in the bottle: MP’s both in the ANC and the opposition will in all likelihood increasingly call for more secret votes because of the political cover it provides. As the ANC has been losing voter support, South African politics has been opening up; the concern now must be that political fragmentation encouraged by these secret ballots not trump the accountability and transparency associated with open voting in parliament. South African parliamentary politics may well be haunted in the future by the precedent established by this secret vote.
The ANC in Decline
The ANC is bitterly divided internally over Zuma’s alleged corruption, “state capture” by his cronies, including the Indian-born Gupta family, and poor financial management, which has led to the downgrading of South African debt by international rating agencies. The hotly-contested struggle for party leader, who ultimately becomes chief of state, should be resolved at the party’s 54th National Conference in December. In addition, the ANC’s electoral support appears to continue to decline, reflecting a party increasingly out of touch with its grass roots. Civil society and opposition mass demonstrations against the Zuma government are now routine, and riots over service delivery in the townships are frequent. There is concern within the party that its share of the vote may fall below 50 percent in the national elections in 2019, likely resulting in a coalition government that may or may not include the ANC as the dominant partner. Nevertheless, as of now, Zuma still has control of the party apparatus, and he is vindictive toward those who flaunt party discipline or waiver in their loyalty to him. He is at the pinnacle of a party patronage and clientage network, and many MP’s owe him favors. His populism remains popular in the rural parts of the country. Once out of office, he likely and credibly fears formal prosecution for corruption. Hence, he will not voluntarily relinquish power any earlier than he must, and he is supporting the candidacy of his ex-wife and political ally Nkosanza Dlamini-Zuma as his successor as party leader, to be chosen at the December party convention. The ANC has 249 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly. It is likely that up to fifty ANC MP’s want Zuma out, now. If they had voted for the no-confidence measure, and if the opposition had maintained its united front, Zuma and his cabinet would be out.
Secret No-Confidence Vote
There had been speculation that if the vote on the no-confidence measure were by secret ballot, many ANC dissidents would have been emboldened to support it, so great is the distaste for Zuma within a wing of the party. Following protracted judicial maneuvering, the courts ruled that Speaker Baleka Mbete had the power to determine whether the vote would be by secret ballot. She is a political ally of Jacob Zuma and has herself presidential ambitions. Hence, she might have leaned toward an open vote, thereby ensuring that ANC party discipline and some opposition from minor parties would guarantee its defeat. But, not allowing the secret ballot as requested by the two largest opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), would have highlighted that she is in Zuma’s pocket and undermined her credibility and neutrality as speaker. Moreover, she probably calculated with good reason that even with a secret ballot, the measure would fail. In any event, she allowed the secret ballot to go forward.
Because the ballot was secret, the number of ANC dissidents who voted in favor cannot be known with certainty, despite rampant speculation.
ANC dissident motivation to vote against the measure appears to have been:
- Reluctance to support an opposition party move to force out an ANC government. The ANC instructed its MPs to vote against the measure. Though internally divided, ANC party discipline remained strong enough to deter just enough rebels even when the ballot was secret.
- Race likely was a consideration: post-apartheid, the DA is the party of racial minorities, especially whites and “coloureds”, while the ANC has seen itself as the voice of the black majority. ANC dissidents were likely reluctant to participate in bringing down a black government at the instigation of the DA, even though the EFF, its partner in the no-confidence effort, also sees itself as a black party. This racial factor may have also played a role in the vote against no-confidence or abstention by some of the minor black parties.
- A successful vote would have meant that the entire cabinet— not just the president—would be forced to resign. That would include those anti-Zuma members of the cabinet and those already campaigning for the party leadership election in December, such as Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
- There is still an alternative way to get Zuma out quickly but leave in place the rest of the administration: impeachment. On September 5, the Constitutional Court is due to rule on the EFF application that President Zuma has violated his constitutional obligations. If it so rules, the many in the ANC will feel obligated to vote for impeachment, which would apply only to Zuma. The rest of the cabinet would remain, and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa would temporarily become chief of state until the party conference in December.
- Otherwise, the December party conference will likely see the exit of Jacob Zuma from the leadership of the ANC. Following typical ANC protocols, though not required by South African law, it is likely that he would resign as chief of state and the new party leader would succeed him. One way or another, Zuma is likely to be gone by the end of the year.
For many in the ANC MP rank-and-file, impeachment and the approaching party conference made a step as drastic as a no-confidence vote unnecessary.
Significance of the No-Confidence Vote
The no-confidence vote occurred against a backdrop of ANC internal disarray and declining popular support. In the short term, the divisions within the ANC and its lack of direction has been further exposed, likely strengthening the credibility of opposition parties, especially the DA and the EFF, who stand to benefit in the 2019 elections. The no-confidence vote yet again became the occasion for rallies organized by civil society against the Zuma administration’s corruption and poor governance, and in support of South Africa’s formidable culture of the rule of law. But, in the long term, there is also a significant downside for South African governance: the episode has established the precedent of a secret ballot on matters of high political importance in parliament. In the future, there are likely to be measures before parliament that MP’s of all parties would prefer to vote for or against in secret.
A genius of South Africa’s system of proportional representation in a constitutional system is that in a racially divided nation, politics and political parties are not defined by formal racial quotas. A shortcoming of the South African representation system, however, is that there are only weak links between MP’s and their constituencies. MP’s are beholden for election and re-election to their place on their party’s electoral list, not directly to their constituents. It is impossible for an MP to cross the aisle; a dissident MP has no choice but to resign until the next election, when he or she would be able to apply to be on the list of another party. Up to now, these arrangements have strengthened parties as institutions by facilitating party discipline. In the future, however, with secret ballots, MPs may reject their party’s discipline. If, as is likely over the next decade, South Africa moves to coalition governments, maverick MP’s in secret balloting could introduce a new level of instability without accountability.