Melanie Verwoerd

Motion of no-confidence a tactical error

2016-11-16 08:01

Last week the opposition forced another vote of no-confidence in the president in Parliament. Although there had been similar votes before, this one had a different feeling to it. The ANC caucus had been openly divided for months and the opposition smelled blood. There were lots of whispers that this time they might possibly get 52 ANC members to vote with them in order to get the required 50% to pass the motion.

There were texts flying around and letters sent to ANC MPs in the hope that they would be convinced to do “do the right thing”.

On the day of the vote a gale force South Easter was blowing in Cape Town, turning the sky dark. Inside Parliament proceedings were equally stormy. But as many of us knew, these were not the winds of change – yet.

As before, the gallery was packed. On one side there was a sea of blue, with DA supporters in blue T-shirts with “#Zuma or South Africa” on them. On the other side the ANC Women’s League in their usual green jackets and black skirts filled the aisles. Bright yellow T-shirts with Zuma’s face on the front and “Hands-off Mkhulu Zuma” on the back were passed to those who were not dressed in uniform. Unlike previously, there was no visible EFF support (possibly since Malema was also not in attendance). The only red was a sprinkle of SACP supporters, who didn’t sit among or even next to the ANC supporters. That was also true of ANC deputy secretary general Jessie Duarte, who sat far away in the presidential box right across from the ANC members on the floor. There was no doubt that the ANC NWC was there to keep a close eye on all its MPs.

Behind me was a mixture of ordinarily dressed citizens. One lady from the Cape Flats entertained those around her with running comment. “Naai, die goed vat darem te lank”, she complained about the various report adoptions that happened before the vote of no-confidence. Others agreed with “dis waar, dis waar”, while some sweets were passed around from the Women’s League, many whom had fallen asleep by this stage.

Finally Mmusi Maimane got up to speak and everyone woke up with a sense of excited anticipation. “Die mannetjie praat baie mooi”, said the tannie behind me. However, it was the Women’s League that intrigued me. They sat quietly, most of them with their arms folded firmly across their chests. But as Maimane spoke passionately about corruption, economic distribution and the dreams for this country, many of them could not help themselves and nodded in agreement. This was ANC language after all, except that confusingly, it came from the opposition. Their discomfort was palpable.

Then the ANC rolled out the big Zuma guns. First was Minister of Water-money-for-me Nomvula Mokonyane. She ranted and raved and then shamefully called Maimane “a black face used by the opposition to protect the interest of the white minority”. DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen objected to the racist language and asked the deputy speaker to rule on it. It was a simple ruling, clearly guided by the rules of Parliament that prohibit any racist references. But then the ANC showed its cards. Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu jumped to the minister’s defense, arguing that it was not racist. Deputy speaker Lechesa Tsenoli decided not to rule on it and the minister continued to loud applause.

It was clear this was a totally different ANC from a few weeks ago. They were ready for battle and they were there to protect Number 1. They howled and shouted and made endless points of order. Their own members got standing ovations and many “Amandlas”. This continued until Gatsha Buthelezi slowly made his way to  the podium. “Haai, shame. Kyk hoe oud is hy”, said the tannie behind me. There was a lot of sympathetic tutting from the ANC Women’s League. Then for the first time total silence fell around the House.

Chief Buthulezi spoke from the heart: “It is time to recognize that the call for the president to stand down is coming from all the corners of this country. But the president won’t listen. Instead he trivialises the comments of comrades who worked with him in the struggle for decades. He won’t even listen to his own conscience.”

By this stage there was an interrupted stream of sighing and tutting from both DA and ANC supporters. “If the ANC is destroyed – the whole continent will suffer a blow,” said Buthelezi as he wrapped up. An old man with an ANC badge in front of me shook his head sadly and said loudly: “Yo, yo, yo!” I tried to will Duarte to look over at the loyal ANC supporters, but she was too busy to keep a beady eye on her rowdy flock on the floor. If she had, I am sure she would have been shocked to see their stunned and confused expressions.

In the end, after much confusion about a secret ballot, someone who needed to go to the loo, and some MPs being locked out, the opposition lost the vote … by far.  

Was anything positive achieved by it all? Many analysts argue that the continued pressure on Zuma and the ANC are positive steps towards the president’s downfall. I totally disagree with that and believe it was not only a big tactical error by the opposition to push for the debate, but also demonstrated a shocking lack of understanding of how the ANC works.

The ANC functions at its best when put under pressure by an opposing force. It was and remains a liberation movement which for years fought a powerful enemy. To turn that same energy towards the DA or EFF is a no-brainer. There is no question that until very recently the ANC caucus in Parliament was seriously divided. In fact many ANC members would quietly suggest that the majority were not supporting the president. An anti-Zuma movement was quietly and carefully gaining traction. Of course the DA was aware of this, but prematurely decided to seize the moment, naively thinking that these MPs would risk their jobs and personal safety by voting with the opposition.

The ANC responded by doing what it does best. It consolidated under pressure. The president came to the ANC caucus to impose his authority, and with the help of NEC members the caucus was whipped back into line. And so the caucus that was a month ago quiet and uninterested during the president’s question time, hollered and howled in defense of President Zuma last week.

The opposition can only blame themselves for this. If they were truly interested in passing a motion of no-confidence, they should have waited another year or so – closer to the next election. They should have made sure that at least 50 ANC MPs (roughly the number of ANC members who would lose their seats if the ANC were to receive the same national support in 2019 as in this year’s local government election) would be offered other alternatives in terms of positions and income. Instead they greedily pushed ahead. In the end this was not just another vote lost. The debate last week destroyed many of the advances made by those in the ANC who want to see change.

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and SA Ambassador to Ireland.

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Read more on:    jacob zuma  |  parliamant  |  anc

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