Zuma's triumph

Gwen Ngwenya says the defeat of the motion of no confidence can't be spun any other way

ANC motion of no confidence: All for one, and one for all

In unity already exists the idea of division. We speak incessantly of unity in politics because we realise that there are constantly competing schools of thought, interests and with it ever shifting alliances. For unity there must be separate parts to hold together. The extent then to which a party or organisation is united, is not to be measured by the absence of different parts, but rather how well those parts hold together.

The outcome of the motion of no confidence last night reveals two insights: either the factions have united or the anti-Zuma faction at its fullest count is no more than 20% of the parliamentary caucus. Out of 384 MPs, 177 voted in favour of the motion, 198 against it with 9 abstentions. Much of the narrative to immediately emerge was that 'Zuma is weakened', the 'ANC is split' or the 'ANC is divided.

This cannot be an analysis of the vote I witnessed, in the vote I witnessed over 80% of ANC MPs chose to keep Zuma as president. That is assuming at the top end that 40 of the 177 votes against Zuma were from ANC MPs, and that all 198 votes in support of Zuma were also from ANC MPs. Many leaders would be lucky to receive such numbers. It is a resounding vote of support. If the ANC caucus is divided, as many opposition parties have been quick to shout out, it is at a ratio of 5:1. For every 1 MP who wanted Zuma out at least 5 others wanted him in.

Perhaps international examples might help focus our minds on how staggering a victory for the ANC this is.

Compared to other leaders who have experienced discontent rise up within their caucus Zuma is holding up well. In the United Kingdom, in 2016, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn faced a vote of no confidence among Labour MPs. Also held by secret ballot, 172 Labour MPs voted in favour of the no confidence motion, with only 40 against and four abstaining from the vote. In other words more than 80% of Labour MPs signalled they no longer had confidence in their leader.

Corbyn’s counterpart, Theresa May, may have cause for concern amidst Tory MPs; while still enjoying majority support she would envy Zuma’s numbers. A survey of Conservative party MPs suggests some would wish to see her gone by the end of 2017. The survey was conducted by the Party Members' Project, and reveals that 21% of members back Brexit minister David Davis, 17% prefer foreign minister Boris Johnson, while the third choice is backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg with 6%.

In the United States the latest Quinnipiac University poll shows 17% of Republicans now say they disapprove of the way Trump is performing in the job.

Next to the actions committed by Jacob Zuma over the years these leaders’ actions appear as minor slap-on-the wrist misdemeanours and yet their parties have been quick to turn their backs and withdraw their support. It would be difficult to think of a leader and political party, governing over a democratic country, who could survive the political storms Zuma has weathered. Certainly none in South Africa with that kind of staying power or leadership control come to mind. The Congress of the People (COPE) disintegrated over factional battles, and the DA’s first real test of unity caused it to wobble noticeably over a communication faux pas in recent months.

Zuma’s fate and that of the ANC should be separated. Zuma’s departure is inevitable as he approaches the end of his second term in office. As for the party, a motion of no confidence can have the result of making the governing party even stronger. And on the 8th of August it did. The ANC caucus didn’t put South Africa first, they put the ANC first.

Of course one may quibble whether this is good for the ANC but it does send strong signals: a) the ship is not rudderless, we may not like who is steering it but it is being steered, b) the ANC will set its own agenda, not one dictated to it by protesting plebeians on the street, and least of all by the opposition.

The attitude among many in the ANC may be echoing the UK’s Shadow Health Secretary who said of Corbyn’s vote that it, “has no meaning". "MPs don't choose the leader of the Labour Party, the party does." And since the ANC has tended to deploy its party leader as its presidential candidate, ousting the leader in parliament would be to put the cart before the horse. Thabo Mbeki’s resignation, was firstly that a resignation, but it also followed a change of leadership at the ANC electoral conference, it was not foreshadowed by parliamentary fiat.

Zuma for now is the ANC’s electoral asset. His departure even for those who want it should be well timed. The 'Zuma is gone' or 'corruption is gone' narrative is campaign message gold dust for the ANC in 2019. This is particularly true if Ramaphosa succeeds in December. Witnessing the likes of Ramaphosa, Manuel or Gordhan address a public audience is to understand that there is little anti-ANC sentiment over systematic policy failure. Quite the contrary, there is a nostalgia for the ‘good’ ANC, almost without exception in all quarters: academia, business, media etc.

The ANC could therefore head into 2019 with a renewed wave of optimism.  But an early departure, by getting rid of Zuma now, means the message becomes stale by 2019. A week is a year in South African politics, an actual year well that's enough time for people to start asking, 'Zuma is gone now what?' There is very little incentive for the ANC strategically in allowing opposition parties to force them to play their hand prematurely. Zuma survived another day, and come 2019 with a new face at the helm and a heady mix of public amnesia and optimism, the ANC too will survive.

Gwen Ngwenya is the COO of the IRR – a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.