Impeachment mirage must not derail no-confidence vote

John Kane-Berman says priority must be removing Zuma from presidency as soon as possible

Predictably, Parliament has sided with the minority judgement in the recent case in the Constitutional Court seeking the institution of proceedings to remove President Jacob Zuma from office for violations of the Constitution. Among the minority of four judges, the chief justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, has accused the majority of seven judges of "judicial overreach".  

Even though Parliament says it will "comply fully" with the majority judgement, which instructs it to make rules to regulate impeachment proceedings within 120 days and to start such proceedings within 180 days, experience suggests it will find ways to be dilatory and otherwise obstructive. The court indeed pointed out that the National Assembly had previously acted unconstitutionally in protecting Mr Zuma.      

Even if Parliament were now to surprise everyone by "fully" complying with the court's instructions, Mr Zuma can be relied upon to find numerous ways of giving any impeachment proceedings the run-around so that he remains in office until his term expires in the middle of next year. He will continue to treat Parliament with as much disdain as he does the courts. For a start, even if Parliament gets around to drawing up the rules mandated by the court, Mr Zuma will probably try to get them upset on appeal. Impeachment may never happen.       

The case successfully brought before the Constitutional Court by the Economic Freedom Fighters, the United Democratic Movement, and the Congress of the People would then turn out to have been a pyrrhic victory which leaves Mr Zuma the winner.

Of course, there is a view that it would actually be a good thing for Mr Zuma to continue in office. The argument is that he would continue to do so much damage to the African National Congress (ANC) that it would lose the national election due around the middle of next year. On the other hand, if he were to be replaced as president of the country by Cyril Ramaphosa, a supposedly new-look ANC would mop up support that might otherwise have gone to the Democratic Alliance (DA).   

If nothing else, however, electoral considerations give the ANC an interest in getting rid of Mr Zuma as soon as possible. Whereas impeachment is a quasi-judicial process, at the end of which removal would require a two-thirds majority, there is a much swifter, cleaner, and simpler solution. This is the parliamentary no-confidence vote, which is a political remedy that requires only a simple majority.       

Until now, Mr Zuma has survived eight such votes, the most recent of which was in August last year. In an unprecedented secret ballot, he survived it by only a handful of votes after some 30 ANC MPs had turned against him. The question now is whether Mr Ramaphosa can ensure that he does not survive the next no-confidence vote. To put his own stamp of leadership and control upon the ANC, Mr Ramaphosa has no choice but to axe his rival. Either Mr Zuma quits after being "recalled" by his party – which would avoid impeachment – or Parliament throws him out.     

No doubt many ANC MPs will be tempted by the chance of kicking the ball into touch by arguing that the impeachment process should take its course, so leaving Mr Zuma in office. But there will no doubt also be many who supported Mr Zuma in last year's no-confidence vote but who are now willing to dump him and join the winning side led by Mr Ramaphosa.               

Unlike a no-confidence vote, impeachment carries a punitive sanction in that Mr Zuma will lose benefits – which for many people may be a reason to prefer that route. But getting rid of Mr Zuma by a no-confidence vote as soon as Parliament meets – even if he is able to keep his pension and other benefits – is more important than whatever punishment impeachment may involve.

Apart from being speedy, dismissal of Mr Zuma by a no-confidence vote would carry another advantage for Mr Ramaphosa and for the whole country: Mr Zuma's entire cabinet would be out of office as well, along with all their deputy ministers. That would mean a Happy New Year for all of South Africa.     

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.