CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – JUNE 22: President Jacob Zuma addresses Parliament during a question and answer #ZumaQandA at the National Assembly on June 22, 2017 in Cape Town, South Africa. When asked about the Constitutional Court’s judgement regarding the secret ballot voting for no confidence against him, Zuma said that he is not convinced […]

Read: The dummies’ guide to voting on the no-confidence motion

Finally, we have a date – August 8th.


CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA – JUNE 22: President Jacob Zuma addresses Parliament during a question and answer #ZumaQandA at the National Assembly on June 22, 2017 in Cape Town, South Africa. When asked about the Constitutional Court’s judgement regarding the secret ballot voting for no confidence against him, Zuma said that he is not convinced […]

There will be a lot of heat generated over this No-confidence vote, more heat than light.  So for the 400 MPs who have to decide and the 55 million people that they represent, here is a road map…

In South Africa’s Constitution, the 400 seats in the National Assembly are filled by MPs who are appointed by their party.  So they are not elected by their own “riding” or constituency.  But we citizens assume that these deployees are quality legislators, not just party stooges?  So while we wait to hear whether this vote will be secret or not, here is a useful framework for MPs.  Essentially, your decision how to vote is based on three factors – as illustrated in the triangle below:

Do MPs have to toe the party line?  Thabo Mbeki weighed in saying that MPs should be capable of making up their own mind how to vote – assuming that their Party sent up good quality legislators to Parliament.  The party is micro-managing to tell MPs how to vote.

Should MPs rather vote with their conscience?  Part of being a good quality MP should surely be integrity?  How else could Parliament be expected to provide ethical oversight of the Executive Branch?

Or should MPs poll their constituents, even though they are only indirectly connected to the Electorate?  Should they canvas their community and vote on behalf of the voters that they serve?

Suicide bombers

The President wasted no time in promoting an open vote, only hours after the Constitutional Court announced that the House Speaker could hold a secret vote, but that it is up to her to decide.  This was echoed by the ANC at its recent Consultative Conference.  Here is the way they want it to work:

The problem is that we all know the amount of bullying that goes on in the ANC.  The prevailing view is that it would even be political suicide for one of the 250 ANC MPs in Parliament to “break ranks” and vote with the Opposition.

But Parliament is composed of 400 MPs – 150 who are in the Loyal Opposition.  To pass a No-confidence vote, only 201 votes are needed (out of 400).  So only 51 of the 250 MPs deployed by the ANC need to break ranks to bring down the Zuma government.  That is one out of five.

Conscientious Objectors

It is not inconceivable – given the fragmentation that is going on inside the Ruling Alliance – that 1 out of 5 will vote to remove Zuma.  Especially if they are listening to their personal and corporate consciences:

Personal conscience

There are people who are fed up with the bullying, the malpractice and the plundering that is going on.  Battered women may still love their husband when they decide to bolt and move into a place of refuge.  Of course, their husbands will be angry and upset but there comes a point when enough is enough.

Some people call it that “still, small voice” speaking from inside of you.  What will it be saying to ANC MPs in the light of State Capture and the trove of emails that recently came to light?  How can a dairy project in the Free State pay for the costs of a wedding of a family that even the ANC admits has undue influence over government’s Executive Branch?  What about the culture of patronage and corruption that is well-documented?  Can we continue to live with that with another election on the horizon in two years?

Corporate conscience

The Stalwarts are a good example from inside the organisation.  The SACC is a good example that is external.  MPs will have to listen to voices such as these, reminding them of the ANC’s founding values and guiding principles.  If the Zuma government has wandered too far from these, then MPs will be well advised “to do the right thing, even if it is not doing things right”:

Within the ANC there are two views about the Stalwarts.  President Zuma takes a hard line and wants to ignore them.  Whereas SG Mantasheis articulating a softer approach – to keep talking to them.  The Stalwarts were denied a 2-day pre-conference in June, so they have scheduled their own Consultative Conference in September.  The ANC is fragmenting, and the Zuma government’s constant rejection is causing the party to shrink.

The SACP bloc can also be a key factor.  Its conference is in July – before the No-confidence vote.  Will it decide to contest the 2019 election in its own right?  Close to 20 votes of the 50 “swing-votes” needed to pass the No-confidence motion could come from the SACP.  It has defiantly spoken out against corruption and waste.  It tends to be the disciplinary voice in a Ruling Alliance that is rife with graft and bullying.  Unions are also leaving the Ruling Alliance in droves.

The Auditor General is another voice of conscience.  His message is clear – that unless there are penalties, the prevailing modus operandi will not change.  MPs cannot escape their conscience.


The Constitution adopted this peculiarity – that once the votes are counted, Parties are allocated seats in Parliament proportionally.  Thus MPs are only indirectly connected to geographical constituencies – they are not sitting in the seat for a specific riding.  But of course, they are real people with homes in a community somewhere, and their own children go to school down the street.  So they can have their finger on the pulse, and bring that ear-to-the-ground dynamic to the National Assembly as well.

The so-called “PR system” plays into the party agenda.  It is a genetic throwback to the Vanguard Parties of the Soviet republics – usually deemed to be very un-democratic.

To make matters worse, Party structures dominate Constitutional structures.  For example, we hear so much about “the NEC”.  But that NEC is never mentioned in the Constitution, for it is a party structure.  It has 105 members.

Whereas the Ruling Party’s caucus of 250 members (all its MPs, not just the party elite) is the structure mentioned in the Constitution.  To the extent that a “Head of Government Business in the House” is constituted as a senior post.  (One of the “top three” according to the Constitution.  Whereas we usually hear about the “top six” – but that is party language again.)  Usually called the Parliamentary Whip, this MP’s role is to make sure that attendance is up to the minimum level required to assure that Bills are passed.

Perhaps the cleverest end-run around this role – in the history of Parliaments worldwide – is the way that William Wilberforce, a British MP, got the Anti-Slavery Bill passed.  It would never have happened in the context of good attendance.  So he waited (intentionally) for the day of the favourite horse race of the upper class, knowing that it would depress attendance, and then rammed through his motion with the support of the Opposition, which had been alerted what he was going to do.

Speaking of which, if 100 ANC MPs just don’t show up on August 3rd, only 300 votes will be counted, not 400.  Half of this is 150 – and very possibly the No-confidence motion would pass.  So MPs don’t necessarily need to break ranks, they could just stay away (and go to the horse races?!).

This strategy of stay-away could be back to haunt the ANC in 2019 if it does not soon institute corrective measures.  For there are many party faithful who could not bring themselves to vote for another party, but who may decide in 2019 to adopt this stay-away approach on a grand scale.

Sadly, it seems to be the strategy of choice for young people.  From 18 – 25 years of age, only a small proportion of voters even register.  It is lower-than-average from 25 – 35 as well.  The truth is that the 2014 election results were basically determined by people older than 35 years of age.  This is undemocratic.  We need to re-kindle the fires of freedom and democracy to inspire youth to register and to vote.  Starting with some candidates that they can relate to!

The Optimal Vote

The point of this overview is just to say that the right answer is… “all of the above”:

MPs do not have to ignore their conscience or defy the ANC, for example, if their SACP constituency says to vote with the Opposition.  After all, the Labour movement has been very vocal in calling for Zuma to step down.

Nor should MPs be frightened of what will happen if the “bring down the government”.  It happens.

Remember that Zuma himself started as an MP, deployed to Parliament by his party, where he had already been elected ANC president.  But he is State President because the National Assembly voted him in.

Also remember that at that point, constitutionally, he had to forfeit his seat in Parliament.  Or there would be a conflict of interests in him heading the Executive Branch while still sitting in the Legislative Branch.  Due to the separation of powers.  So when his team, usually called “the Zuma government” is brought down, Parliament can simply and promptly elect another President.  The ANC has a mandate until 2019.  So the National Assembly will elect anotherMP from the Ruling Alliance.  S/he will, in turn, appoint a Deputy, a House Leader, and a new Cabinet of Ministers.

Hopefully, ministerial appointments will be based on merit, not patronage.  If a Minister like Health has been doing a good job, he can be re-appointed.  But if someone has been failing – like at Communications – then she should be replaced.  The truth is that this could have a very positive effect on government.  Don’t be fooled by this argument that chaos will ensue Zuma’s departure.

MPs are encouraged to make a balanced decision and to vote not just as party stooges but as quality legislators.  An old adage says:  “Politicians think of the next election; statesmen think of the next generation”.

Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director of the Desmond Tutu Centre for leadership, however, he wrote this letter in his personal capacity.