Melanie Verwoerd

A vote of no confidence could make things worse

2017-04-05 07:01
President Jacob Zuma (AP)

President Jacob Zuma (AP)

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It seems that many people are holding out hope for a vote of no-confidence to pass in order to get rid of President Zuma after his latest disastrous actions. Leaders of both the DA and EFF have been mentioning to the press that various ANC MPs are talking to them, implying that this time such a vote might be successful.

But given the way our electoral system and the ANC works, is this really a possibility? My sense is that it remains highly unlikely. And even if it does pass, what happens then? As the unseating of Thabo Mbeki taught us: be careful what you wish for. 

So let me explain. There are only three ways to get rid of the president: (1) He resigns, (2) a vote of no confidence is passed in Parliament, or (3) a vote of “impeachment” is passed in Parliament. 

For an “impeachment” (the Constitution does not actually use this term), a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament is required and it can only be entertained on certain grounds. Although many would argue (as the EFF is currently doing in court) that there are enough grounds for impeachment, I don’t believe that in the short run this option is likely to succeed. So we are left with a vote of no confidence or his resignation.

In order for a vote of no confidence to pass, a simple majority, ie. 201 votes, is required in the National Assembly. Right now the ANC has 249 votes and together the opposition has 151 votes. Technically the opposition would therefore only require 50 ANC votes to pass the motion, but it can be assumed that some opposition parties like the NFP will not support the motion.

Some MPs might also be ill on the day or “accidentally” locked into the toilet (these things happen) so to be sure, the opposition requires closer to 70 ANC MPs (almost a third of the ANC members) to vote with them. I will get back to this.

Of course, the easiest option is for the president to resign, but we all know by now that he will not go voluntarily. He not only enjoys, but also needs the power, money, access to people, security etc. that the position provides. So it will be up to the ANC to remove him.

Given this unprecedented situation, there is lot of confusion about processes within the ANC. ANC insiders have confirmed to me that neither the National Working Committee (NWC), which consists of the top six and 14 additional members, nor the National Executive Committee (NEC), which consists of a 104 members, can recall the president. It can only happen at a full electoral conference. However, according to them, it is possible for the NEC/NWC to suspend the president. Constitutionally, it would then be up to Parliament to pass a vote of no confidence to remove him as president of the country.

It is questionable whether the balance of power has shifted enough for the NWC/NEC to suspend him – especially since one can assume that some business people might throw money at the members of the NEC to retain the status quo.

If indeed the majority of NWC/NEC members have finally discovered their moral backbone and agree to suspend the president, it follows that they would be happy for a vote of no confidence to either be tabled by the ANC in Parliament or for ANC MPs to vote with the opposition. It will be game over for the president. So what happens then?

According to the Constitution the president, his deputy and the entire Cabinet would then have to resign. In the meantime the Speaker would become president. The vacancy must be filled within 30 days. The problem is that the ANC would need to have an electoral conference to elect a new president who would also serve as president of the country, or put in place a Kgalema Motlanthe-type caretaker.

Given the logistical challenges, an electoral conference could not take place before, at the earliest, June or July. An undue rush would be dangerous since it could give rise to membership manipulation which could swing the vote back into the Zuma camp. Given that the vacancy has to be filled within 30 days, the timing of a vote of no confidence would be crucial.

In the more likely scenario of the NEC/NWC not agreeing to suspend the president it is, of course, theoretically possible for the NEC to use a vote of no confidence in Parliament to put the decision in the hands of the MPs. For the motion to stand any chance of succeeding, the NEC would have to promise no reprisals or any form of retribution for those who vote for the motion. Nothing is impossible, but it would be unprecedented for the ANC.

Given also that there would be a large block of ANC MPs who would vote against the motion it would cause a serious split in the ANC. It is therefore highly unlikely that the ANC would agree to this if there has not already been a decision to suspend the president.

The only other option that then remains is for a block of ANC MPs to go “rogue” and vote for a motion of no confidence with the opposition against the wishes of the NEC. This is the option Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema are referring to.

As made clear by Speaker Baleka Mbete, a secret vote is not allowed under the current rules of Parliament (except in the case of the election of the president). So, for a vote of no confidence to pass, at least 70 MPs would have to be willing to give up their jobs.

Even with all the unhappiness in the ANC this is unlikely to happen and on the very small chance that it might, it could actually bring about an even more negative scenario than what we have now.

If the vote of no confidence passes, the “rogue” ANC MPs would almost certainly be recalled from Parliament and most probably lose their membership – thus strengthening the Zuma camp both in Parliament but also in the ANC generally. This makes it almost certain that we could end up with another president from the Zuma camp. And make no mistake, there are worse possibilities than even President Zuma.

The only way that someone like Ramaphosa could then still become president is if he was to stand against the ANC nominated candidate. There would then have to be another split in the ANC and a similar number of ANC MPs (against the wishes of the party) would have to vote for him in Parliament and, importantly, the whole opposition would have to do so as well. This would require some horse trading with the opposition and for everyone to act for the greater good and not for purely party-political benefit.

And this begs the question: Does the DA really want to get rid of President Zuma? I doubt it. It is openly said in the DA that he is their biggest asset. The DA knows that as long as Zuma is there they rake in the votes. But with Ramaphosa at the helm, many disillusioned voters from all races would go back to the ANC.

The bottom line is that the vote of no confidence is not only unlikely to pass, but could actually cause further damage and create a worse scenario. Realistically, the only way that President Zuma will go prior to an ANC electoral conference is if the NEC moves against him and then gives the ANC MPs the green light to vote for a motion of no confidence. Whether there are enough NEC members with the moral backbone to agree to this, remains to be seen. Let’s hope, because it is hard to see that the country can survive much longer under this current president.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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