The Constitution is holding

Douglas Gibson says peaceful transfer of power from Zuma to Ramaphosa a sign of the system working

Transition proves Constitution is working

After a very long political career, I seldom hanker after past glories. Not having to attend the State of the Nation Address in Parliament, ever since I left to become a diplomat, has been more of a blessing than a matter for regret. This year was different, however.

As I sat watching the show on TV, I was struck again by the early evening beauty of Cape Town, the dignity and the commendable simplicity of the preparatory ceremony outside the National Assembly and the excited throng of MPs, officials and guests inside, thoroughly enjoying the occasion. Most looked very happy; a few ministers, about to face the chop, did not. Many of the female politicians wore beautiful dresses and hats, while a few sported what can only be described as unfortunate choices. But so what? I’m sure they all felt special and that is what counts, after all.

When I saw Dr Tshepo Motsepe, Mrs Cyril Ramaphosa, our new First Lady, I felt a feeling of relief. Only one First Lady, not the four plus we had to become used to! Highly accomplished, extraordinarily well-educated and without me sounding vulgar – very rich. Here is someone who is not on the make or the take and who will, I am sure, be an exemplary First Lady in the Zanele Mbeki mould. There are only four Ramaphosa children; what a relief after twenty or so. And they are anonymous, most unlikely to rival some of the Zuma children for rapaciousness and ghastliness.

Then I wondered where Jacob Zuma was. He is a man of physical courage and great strength of purpose displayed over many years from the Struggle times until the moment of his resignation. Somehow, his courage deserted him and he failed to appear. That was a mistake. He should have shown his undaunted spirit and faced the public of South Africa by sitting in the gallery, being deferred to as a former president, endured some booing from those MPs who do not know how to behave, and broken the ice by being there. He will have to use a less auspicious occasion, perhaps, to make a public appearance and try to move into the space of an elder-statesman so treasured by former politicians. On the other hand, he might be too busy preparing for his day or days in Court to worry too much about that.

All of these random thoughts drifted across my mind, but the major one was a feeling of pride about our Constitution. Some criticise it; some dislike it; some want to amend it; some want to abrogate it or even tear it up. Some lie to the poor millions and the landless and pretend that they are going to become landowners when land is taken from the current owners without compensation and then given away to those who want it. All these negatives exist, but the one truth is that a quarter of a century into our democratic era, the Constitution is holding.

We did not need the Army to move in on Jacob Zuma to persuade him to go. We did not need assassinations or threats of violence and physical harm to the president of his family; it all happened through the political process and finally played itself out under threat of a simple motion of no confidence in Parliament.

When we designed the constitution, we purposely avoided creating yet another African “strongman” post. We did not want a directly elected president who would have his own mandate from the voters and be able to show two fingers to his party and to Parliament. We wanted a parliamentary – not a presidential – form of government, where Parliament elects and Parliament sacks. This is similar to the position in many of the Commonwealth countries, although our president is both head of government and head of state, he or she could just as easily be called a Prime Minister, with a ceremonial president nominally in charge.

If we had a strong, directly elected presidency, such as the one Zuma thought he had (and which the ANC allowed him to get away with all those years), we could not have had a reasonably elegant removal. Instead, the only way would have been to put the nation through the trauma of Impeachment of the president. That might have meant months of agony, both for Zuma, for Parliament and for the people, with the possibility of court applications and actions that would have damaged further the image of our country.

President Zuma’s plaintive cry: “But what have I done wrong?” beggared the minds of many South Africans who could furnish a list containing hundreds of allegations of wrong-doing. Yet, in the final event, it did not come down to a matter of wrong-doing. That will be adjudicated upon, presumably by our Justice system in due course. He has not yet been tried, let alone convicted of criminal conduct, although there have been more than sufficient Court findings of misconduct on the part of the president. What it finally came down to was a simple question of confidence.

The ANC had lost confidence in their former leader and in concert with other parties in Parliament would have carried a motion of no confidence. When that reality (and the possible threat of the alternative of an impeachment motion) was finally understood by the president, he resigned. The Parliamentary process worked and with jaw-dropping rapidity, South Africa suddenly had a new president.

Remember that the new president will one day face Nemesis, as will his successors and one hopes that they will all appreciate that they need to retain the confidence of the people through their MPs. Upon reaching the end of their political shelf-life, a dignified resignation and a smooth transition instead of an unseemly dog-fight strengthens accountability to our constitutional democracy. The Constitution is holding.

This article first appeared in The Star.