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Demonstrators protest outside South Africa’s Parliament in Cape Town against President Jacob Zuma’s firing of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. (Reuters)
Demonstrators protest outside South Africa’s Parliament in Cape Town against President Jacob Zuma’s firing of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. (Reuters)

There is a lot of brave talk about standing up to President Jacob Zuma after the dismissal of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan amid a wider Cabinet reshuffle which has been widely condemned as disastrous for South Africa.

Predictions that the country has reached “a turning point”, is facing a ratings downgrade and plummeting investment, rising debt and negative growth vie with warnings that South Africa is headed towards becoming a “failed state”.

Meanwhile, calls are being made to all South Africans to voice their displeasure, threats to occupy the National Treasury, and the certainty of numerous protest marches around the country.

Yet the real action will take place in parliament. And South Africans can take it for granted that Zuma reckons that he can ride out the storm, survive the rest of his term, and secure the election of a like-minded crony to replace him.

So what danger is Zuma facing in parliament?

There are two options for challenging Zuma in parliament. The first, proposed by the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), is a vote of no confidence in Zuma; the second, favoured by the smaller Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), is impeachment.

To consider the prospects for these, it is necessary to turn to the constitution.

The odds in Parliament
The opposition’s best option is to seek a motion of no confidence in the President (rather than in the Cabinet, the other option provided for by the constitution). The relevant paragraph in the constitution reads as follows:

If the National Assembly, by a vote supported by the majority of its members, passes a motion of no-confidence in the President, the President and the other members of the Cabinet and any Deputy Ministers must resign. (Chaper 5, Paragraph 102 (2)).

Were this motion to pass (and a strict reading of that paragraph implies a majority of all MPs, not simply of those voting), South Africa would be in uncharted territory. There might be various outcomes. One might be that the ANC, as the majority party, would present another candidate to Parliament for election as President for the rest of the electoral term ending in 2019.

Or would it lead to an early general election? Or third, would passage of such a motion impose an absolute bar on Zuma returning to the presidency were he to hang on to the leadership of the ANC, twist arms, and return in triumph to Parliament to win reelection?

Frankly, nobody knows, and South Africans would have to sit through a roller coaster while these alternatives worked their way out.

What are the chances that the country is going to find out? This depends, obviously, on whether the DA can muster enough support to secure a majority. The ANC has 249 seats to the opposition parties’ 151. So, at the minimum, the DA has to pick up 50 seats from the ANC to secure a majority. But given that Zuma is likely to be able to pick up a handful of supportive votes from the smaller parties favouring an Africanist agenda, it is more likely that the DA would require at least 55 (even 60) ANC MPs to vote for its motion (abstention would not be enough).

The requirements for the EFF to win an impeachment motion are even more daunting. For a start, they would require a two-thirds rather than a bare majority. They would require 264 votes, which in practice would mean, let’s say, at least 70 ANC MPs to vote against Zuma.

To make the impeachment case, they would further need to justify the grounds for removing Zuma from office by convincing the National Assembly that Zuma has committed “a serious violation of the law” or is “guilty of misconduct”. (I discount the third ground for removal of a President from office, “inability to perform the functions of office”).

It might seem obvious to those who want to see the back of Zuma that he is guilty of both violating the constitution and of misconduct. But given the compromised standing of virtually all sitting ANC MPs in allowing Zuma to get away with blatant abuse of the constitution, this would require that any dissident 70 or more of them would have to eat a good dose of humble pie. And in public, too.

So realistically it would seem that a simple vote of no confidence in the president is the easiest to pursue and the most likely to succeed. But what are the chances of success, given that Zuma has survived a number of such motions before?

It is likely that the DA would be able to secure virtually all the votes of the combined opposition, save perhaps up to five MPs from smaller parties who might succumb to Zuma’s blandishments. The commitment and energy of the EFF would be invaluable. Fortunately, they have said they will back the DA motion.

But what about potentially dissident ANC MPs? ANC party “elders” often repeat the mantra that the ANC under Zuma has been led astray from the true path of virtue, and that there is need for a return to the old ways which underpinned the party during the struggle for liberation. Does this imply that the “real ANC” is now ready to stand up?

Alas, don’t hold your breath.

Alternative leadership isn’t in sight
Mmusi Maimane, leader of the DA, says he’s already been contacted by dissident ANC MPs with promises to support the DA motion. That is good and well – and promising. Yet there is a long way to go, and the stakes for the ANC and individual MPs themselves are extraordinarily high. If the 55 or 60 ANC MPs needed for a majority were to support the DA motion, it would be the signal for total war within the party. Accordingly, it would have to be assumed that they have the appetite for it.

Given the likelihood that Zuma controls the party machinery more than they do, they would run a severe risk of losing their places on the party’s list at the next election. This in turn would force them to consider whether to align themselves more openly with the DA or the EFF, albeit perhaps, in some new political combination.

Are there enough of them to take that risk, or will they play for safety by either simply abstaining, or arguing that it is better to keep the fight within the party, and postpone the real battle to the ANC’s congress in December?

These dissenters will need the assurance of good leadership. Perhaps we will see this emerging over the next few days. Yet the signs to date are not good. Yes, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has publicly stated his disagreement with Gordhan’s dismissal, yet he did so in tones highly respectful of the president’s constitutional authority.

Meanwhile, those ministers disagreeing with Zuma have discounted the option of resigning in mass. This is justified by the need to prevent Zuma stuffing his Cabinet with even more of his cronies. However, if they are to justify their decision, we should expect that they should be vocal rather than keeping their heads down. Will they take that further step of moving into outright rebellion? Will the Deputy President be bold enough to lead the charge?

I fear much talk but no action.

Unless, perhaps, Gordhan, the popular hero of the hour, provides one further great service to the nation.

Roger Southall, Professor of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand