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It's game on, a big moment for SA's democracy - analyst

Aug 08 2017 12:45
Paul Vecchiatto, Sam Mkokeli and Mike Cohen, Bloomberg

Cape Town - “This is game on - a big moment for South Africa’s democracy,” said Richard Calland, a political analyst and associate law professor at the University of Cape Town ahead of the no confidence vote in President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday.

He said National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete realised that to make a legally rational decision and follow the guidance being provided with such clarity by the Constitutional Court, she really had no alternative but to call for a secret ballot.

“I have considered the environment and heard voices expressing doubt in the integrity and values of our 20-year-old constitution,” she told reporters on Monday in Cape Town.

“We therefore have to use this opportunity to show responsiveness to our people,” Mbete said, in a surprise decision that may increase the chances of Zuma's ouster.

The no-confidence motion requires the backing of a majority of the 400 MPs to pass. A secret vote increases the odds of Zuma’s ouster because members of the ruling party can vote him out without risking losing their jobs. Zuma, who’s due to step down as leader of the African National Congress (ANC) in December and as president in 2019, has defeated previous attempts to oust him.

The rand gained the most against the dollar since mid-July, jumping as much as 2%. On Tuesday it extended its rally, trading at R13.14/$ by 12:40.

South Africans took to the streets across the country on Tuesday to call for Zuma’s removal.

Zuma’s chances

Ben Turok, a former ANC legislator and outspoken Zuma critic, expects the president to survive the ouster bid.

“Few ANC lawmakers will support it,” he said by phone. “Some may abstain but it won’t be enough to carry the motion. The announcement of a secret ballot was a surprise to me and it is a victory for democracy.”

The main opposition Democratic Alliance filed the no confidence motion in April after Zuma’s decision to fire Pravin Gordhan as finance minister prompted two ratings companies to downgrade the nation’s debt to junk.

The opposition argued that since Parliament elects the president by secret ballot, it should be able to use the same process to remove him. The nation’s top court ruled that the speaker should determine the voting procedure. 

ANC MPs

“Today’s decision gives us the best opportunity to set South Africa right,” DA leader Mmusi Maimane told reporters in Cape Town. “Zuma must be removed on behalf of millions of South Africans. The secret ballot gives the opportunity to ANC lawmakers to freely and fairly exercise their consciences.”

While there is mounting disgruntlement with the ANC over Zuma’s leadership and his immersion in a succession of scandals, the party says it will resolve its leadership issues internally and won’t allow its MPs to side with the opposition to bring down Zuma’s administration.

The ANC said it accepted Mbete’s decision.

'Frivolous motion hyped up as Damascus moment'

“We have no doubt that this frivolous motion, which has been hyped up by opposition parties as some sort of Damascus moment, will fail like many before it,” the party said in a statement. “Where there are concerns with the leadership of the ANC, the ANC will continue to engage and work with our people to resolve these challenges in the interest of the country as a whole.”

While the ANC's alliance partner the South African Communist Party is yet to decide if its members will support the motion on Tuesday, removing Zuma would be the “best thing” for the country, the party’s first deputy general, Solly Mapaila, said on Talk Radio 702.

The ANC has ruled the economy since apartheid ended in 1994 and has a 62% majority in the National Assembly. Fifty ANC MPs and all opposition legislators would have to back the no confidence motion for it to pass - a move that would force Zuma and his entire Cabinet to resign.

The chances of Zuma being ousted are slim, said Robert Schrire, a political science professor at the University of Cape Town.

“My feeling is that most anti-Zuma members of the ANC think it is better to keep Zuma in place until the end of the year than to tear the party apart,” he said. “He is already on the way out. He is a lame duck.”

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