Guest Column

No-confidence crisis averted - so why is the ANC destroying itself?

2017-08-29 09:31

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Mike Roussos

Background – what happened and why?

The opposition parties called for a vote of no-confidence in the president, due to all the revelations of corruption and state capture.

Many ANC parliamentarians wanted to vote against a president who has come to symbolise everything that the ANC had always fought against, but they were told that this would create a ‘national crisis’ as the ANC factions would not be able to agree on a successor. This would lead to a stalemate and possibly the fall of the ANC government – who had been elected by the voters to lead the country. 

They were told that it was better to suppress their anger and disgust until December of this year, when they could elect a new ANC president and thereby remove the problem.

The Speaker flabbergasted everyone by taking account of the guidance given by the constitutional court and deciding to conduct the no-confidence vote by way of a secret ballot. This means that no-one really knows who voted to remove the president – and who voted to protect him.

All we know is that 198 MPs voted to protect the president and 177 MPs voted to remove him – 9 MPs abstained from voting either way, and 16 were not there or did not bother to vote at all. 

This meant that of the 249 ANC MPs, 51 of them either did not pitch, had died and not been replaced, abstained, or voted to remove the president who had been placed there by the ANC.

If some of the smaller opposition parties (eg. 3 of the NFP MPs) did as they had threatened and voted to protect the president – then at least 54 of the ANC MPs – or 21.7% of the ANC MPs – did not (for the various reasons explored above) vote to protect the president.

This was a devastating event that clearly shook the ANC to its core. The thugs immediately cried out for revenge and set about trying to break the secrecy of the ballot, by ‘analysing’ who ‘betrayed the party’. 

The president called for the Constitution of the party to be enforced, by acting against those who had ‘broken the rules’! It was clearly a call for a witch-hunt to determine who should be ‘disciplined’. 

Let’s explore the merits of the various responses to this ground-breaking event.

Proportional representation and accountability

Our electoral system does not allow us to vote directly for members of Parliament. We vote for the political party of our choice – having examined who they put forward to go into Parliament (the party list) to ensure that we are happy with the calibre of people who will represent us. 

Party members who participate actively in putting together such lists have a greater influence on the process. The rest of us can only look at the list closer to elections, to decide whether this bunch is sufficiently palatable to make it possible for us to vote for the party of our choice.

Or, if we find many of them too repugnant at that late stage, one alternative is not to vote at all, or to close our eyes and pick some other party at random – thereby hoping to demonstrate our disgust with our party. (I voted for anyone but you!!!)

Having done all that, we will then have elected 400 members to represent us in Parliament – 400 people whose job is to be part of the legislature and thereby help govern our country. 

These 400 people then elect the president of the country, who then appoints his Cabinet and deputy ministers, who together make up the executive. They are the ones who run the government, through the civil servants who are employed within the various departments that they oversee. 

The legislature is there to keep the executive accountable. Those who are given the power to actually control the government, need to be kept accountable and answerable, in case they lose sight of what they were elected to do. 

Power tends to tempt those wielding it; it tempts them to ignore the rest of us, and the Constitution creates various checks and balances that are there to limit such temptation.

Political parties and accountability – in a proportional representation system

The party list system means that MPs face the ongoing danger of being ‘replaced’ on the list if the ‘powers that be’ in their party decide that they are no longer ‘toeing the line’.

Although it is quite difficult to actually remove an MP from Parliament (unless they are thrown out of the party), the fact is that one’s future within government relies on staying on the right side of the senior people within their party. 

We have seen that most of the political parties have been able to ‘persuade’ individual MPs to resign, if they decide that they need to bring someone else in. All of this make MPs very wary of stepping out of line, as their careers and salaries depend on staying on the right side of those in charge.

When we vote for a party, we assume that the people we have elected will ‘do the right thing’, will be true to the values and policies they were elected to fulfil. 

But what happens when some of the senior party people start going astray – become involved in corruption or in state capture – for personal gain? Can we expect individual MPs – who we may have voted into power – to stay true to the principles we elected them on, and to fight the corrupt leadership? The top-down system we explored above seems to make this very unlikely.

The Chief Justice made it very clear in the constitutional court judgement on the secret ballot issue, that MPs, when taking office after their election, “are required to swear and affirm faithfulness to the Republic and obedience to the Constitution and laws”. 

He goes on to say that, if there arises a “conflict between upholding constitutional values and party loyalty, their irrevocable undertaking to in effect serve the people and do only what is in their best interests, must prevail”. 
In plain English, even if you fear the consequences of voting against your party leadership, if they are going against the mandate you got from the people when you were elected; that is what you swore to do when you took office in Parliament. You don’t have a choice if you want to remain true to your oath.

What does this mean for the ANC and its witch-hunt?

Legally, it almost certainly means that ANC officials could face legal challenges to any action they take against ANC MPs who exercised their right to vote in accord with the oath of office that they took – rather than voting in line with instructions from party officials.

Morally, it is embarrassing to watch leaders of a party that championed the struggle for the values and policies that are currently being trampled upon by the president and his family/friends, make statements that attack the constitutional obligations of their MPs, in the name of adhering to party instructions.

If nothing else, this appears to be contrary to their stated commitment to strive for party unity in the lead-up to the ANC congress in December.

The leaders should be making it clear that ‘whatever happened in the no-confidence vote is now behind us – we need to focus on the lead-up to the party congress’.nAnything else would appear to be electorally suicidal.

It also appears to be self-defeating – in the light of all the conflict to come between the factions in the lead-up to the congress in December. 

They should be concentrating on finding the most conflict-free path to the congress, in the hope that it delivers a result that rescues the party from splintering.

What does this mean for ANC voters witnessing this behaviour by their MPs?

ANC voters are facing a difficult time in the months ahead. Many are disgusted with the revelations of corruption and abuse of power that have increasingly unravelled over the past year or two. 

The statements by some key ANC leaders (both inside and outside Parliament) in the lead-up to the vote of no-confidence, led many to hope that their party would finally emerge from the swamp of corruption and deceit, to take decisive action.

Instead they witnessed a party that vacillated between brief moments of light;
– when the speaker and chair of the ANC decided that a secret ballot was the appropriate voting mechanism (despite the ‘danger’ that it would embolden ANC MPs to finally take a stand against their president)

and extended moments of extreme darkness;
– when a number of leaders and party structures vowed to ‘hunt down and punish’ those who decided to take a stand in accord with their constitutional obligations to the people – rather than follow party dictates.

It would be difficult to imagine that such ANC voters would emerge from this process feeling anything but disgust for most of their elected representatives in Parliament. 

As such, it appears that those who had hoped for a resurgence of the ANC of Luthuli, Sisulu and Mandela, are currently feeling very disappointed. 

Many are now openly discussing the need for their party to split – to give them an organisation with integrity, that they can feel excited about supporting in the 2019 elections.

- Roussos was a trade unionist during apartheid and a social activist for many years. He has been the CEO of a number of companies, ranging from IT to legal insurance to metal manufacturing. He has worked for government as a consultant and as a Head of Department. 

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Read more on:    parliament  |  anc  |  no confidence vote  |  secret ballot
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