It is only a little over a week ago that MPs gave President Jacob Zuma a standing ovation when he rose to answer questions in the National Assembly. That may be construed as fawning, just as some see those whom they consider people of integrity in the ANC voting against a motion of no confidence as cowardice or a lapse in their integrity.
What this behaviour signifies, in reality, is that ANC members in parliament cannot simply vote according to their conscience if the caucus decides otherwise. That is also the case with the DA and other organisations. It is one of the rules of the game when one becomes an MP or joins another of a variety of associations. That is why some DA councillors in the Western Cape were disciplined this week for disobeying a party directive on who to vote for in a local election process.
Likewise, the convention of giving the President a standing ovation may be seen as at best unnecessary - to outsiders - but it has come to be one of the practices that the ANC in parliament follows. It is also part of the hierarchical nature of the organisation, where members and other leaders are reluctant to disrespect the President and in contrast prefer to err towards an overly deferential stance.
When I was in the first democratic parliament, I was not happy with some of the decisions we were bound to follow as an ANC caucus, but because I agreed with the overall thrust of the ANC at the time, I did not resign my seat.
At a later stage, I decided that I did not want to feel obliged to consult comrades before expressing a view in some forum or writing an article and that is why I returned to academic life in 2001, after a stint as an ambassador. It was not that I was in disagreement with the ANC or its leadership then, but that there are definite constraints when one is a member of political structures, each of which has its own expectations and conventions in relation to consultation and collective action. Although I did still consult people on occasions, I wanted to explore ideas outside this directly political environment.
What happened this weekend, when a motion of no confidence in the President was proposed at the National Executive Committee (NEC), broke these conventions, albeit not in parliament but at the top - at the highest ANC decision-making structure between national conferences. We do not know precisely what happened for Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe at the subsequent press conference consciously obfuscated this in the interests of “unity”.
It is unprecedented in the time in which we live that government and ANC leaders should risk their personal fortunes in order to stand up against the President, on whom their own wellbeing depends. We have no need to rehearse how many in the ANC leadership have undermined the trust in which they were held, in endorsing Nkandla spending and obfuscating over Marikana and many other issues.
Clearly a number of factors have come together to make long-held conventions more fragile than they might have been. We do not know what weighed most in the minds of those who led this opposition to Zuma, but clearly he was seen as damaging to the organisation and the country, now and in the future. There is no doubt that it took courage to mount this action, given that it could evoke a substantial and even ruthless penalty.
While Zuma rose to power with a coalition of forces including many of those who are now calling on him to resign, the weight of support behind him has withered. The reasons for this erosion of his base may vary, but it remains a fact that it has been whittled away.
What is different about then and now is that many who supported Zuma against Thabo Mbeki genuinely believed, or at least advanced a political argument, that Zuma was preferable to Mbeki. Even if the argument and the qualities attributed to Zuma - his supposed popular and even socialist sympathies - were not valid, it was a political argument, an argument based on opposition to the macroeconomic policies and alleged centralisation of the Mbeki era.
In the almost 10 years of Zuma’s rule, the ANC has become rife with patronage and corruption (that was not absent, albeit much less intense and widespread before), reaching every level of the organisation and government. Now people “own “ branches, membership balloons in places like KZN, and many drawn into the ANC have only the slightest idea of what it may mean in political terms to belong to the organisation. Or it may be more accurate that the organisation does not demand such engagement with ideas any more.
While we may focus on pillage and corruption, for a political organisation like the ANC, an organisation that at one time hosted plenty of debates, something drastic has changed with it becoming largely depoliticised. Structures generally do not appear to discuss the way forward in any way that shows evidence of their political understanding. Members are not imbued with political ideologies for the culture of the organisation has become one of self-service rather than serving the people (I recognise that there may be romanticisation attached to that in the past).
The ideas that were said to drive the removal of Mbeki have receded into distant memory and Zuma and his associates have systematically set about pillaging the state through irregular governance, tender fraud, capturing state-owned entities and other crooked deals to benefit a close circle tied to the President. Such practices - aimed at deriving private benefit – are followed at all levels of the organisation and government, albeit involving smaller rewards at a local level.
But shocking as that may be to some veterans of the struggle, this new ANC’s sway and capacity to provide such benefits has come under threat. The organisation recently lost elections in three key metros in the local government elections. The unthinkable now confronts the organisation as a strong possibility, with the prospect of the ANC being defeated, not reaching over 50% of the vote in the 2019 national elections.
Whatever the reasons behind the call for Zuma to resign, it has created an element of flux in ANC politics and South African politics generally. Some have speculated that the EFF and DA ought to have prayed for Zuma to stay on since the continued scandals surrounding him favoured them. For some time, Zuma has been involved in acts that have aroused outrage and have caused numerous crises, but somehow he has managed to laugh about them or literally dance around them. What happens to the country has not been his concern.
But this time a substantial segment of the NEC has signalled that they have had enough of him and the damage he causes. They may not have got him to step down, but they made a statement and sent a powerful signal that has made him vulnerable. If he tries to or does purge some cabinet ministers who supported this motion, they will still in the main be in the NEC, in parliament or in the ANC at one or other level. If he keeps them in the cabinet, he has to continue to host people who clearly are seething over his continued presence as their leader.
Zuma is definitely weakened. We are dealing with an unprecedented challenge to his rule as president of the country. The ANC is bending every effort to direct dissatisfaction into discussions within the fold of the organisation. Hence its accommodation of a section of the stalwarts in a consultative conference, where all will devote themselves to building ANC unity.
But the crisis of the country is not just a crisis of Zuma. It is also a crisis of ANC rule, where we also need the input of many others, outside of the ANC. They may be in organisations of the landless or faith based organisations or citizens concerned with lawlessness and crime, or they may be foreign migrants or women or members of LGBTI communities who are not protected under the law, which guarantees them rights. They may be working for poverty wages or unemployed. They may be sections of business. All of these share an interest in clean government, legality, constitutionalism and defending the country’s resources so badly needed in order to create the “better life for all” that the ANC, from its first election manifesto, has claimed to promote.
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a former political prisoner for activities in the ANC-led liberation struggle. Currently he is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA and his most recent book is Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner