Over the weekend of November 27, Jacob Zuma faced his greatest political challenge to date, a vote of ‘no-confidence’ from within his own party, the African National Congress (ANC). He had previously survived three no-confidence votes in parliament, where the party rallied around him. This time, however, the challenge, orchestrated by four ministers, was within the National Executive Committee (NEC), the highest governance body within the ANC.
The motion of no confidence was introduced by Minister of Tourism Derek Hanekom. According to the media, it was supported by Health Minister Aaron Motsoledi, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, and Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi. All four are commonly known to have deep political roots and run their ministries well. The issues were, essentially, credible accusations that Zuma is corrupt with unusually close ties to an influential business family, the Gupta’s. The Gupta family itself is accused of “state capture” in search of lucrative government contracts. The backdrop was the ANC’s significant losses in the August local government elections.
Despite media anticipation of a vote, none was taken. Instead there was a three-day discussion of whether the party should “recall” Zuma as the leader of the party. If it had done so, under South Africa’s system of proportional representation, he would likely have resigned as president; current Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa would then become chief of state. According to the media, the debate was fierce and emotional.
Zuma has survived, and in public statements the ANC is calling for party unity. But, the episode has likely further weakened Zuma politically within the party. The opposition Economic Freedom Fighters has applied to the speaker of parliament for yet another urgent vote of no confidence. Its spokesmen suggest that there is enough support within the ANC for Zuma’s ouster that, in combination with all of the opposition parties, the vote might succeed. While this is unlikely, even a small number of ANC votes for a no-confidence motion would be yet another indication of Zuma’s declining political power. The danger that Zuma might successfully suborn South Africa’s constitution and tradition of the rule of law for the financial benefit of himself, his family, and close associates such as the Gupta’s seems to be receding.