Getting rid of a president
LAST Friday I watched the 2007 film, The Color of Freedom, rechristened Goodbye Bafana. It’s the intriguing story of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment and his interaction with his jailer, James Gregory. To my surprise, I found myself in tears several times, moved by the nobility of which some human beings are capable. This got me to thinking about the presidency and the battle being waged against the present incumbent.
Some people disapprove of Parliament electing presidents instead of it being done by our people. I disagree.
As one of those who helped draw the constitution, I can say we felt that there were too many “big men” in Africa. Presidents with their own mandate are more independent and are not answerable to Parliament and the representatives of the people. Even though we had someone of Mandela’s calibre, we did not want him and his successors to be able to ignore Parliament. Our country didn’t need a “big man”.
Presidents elected by the people are not subject to votes of no confidence or “recall” as was done by the ANC to President Thabo Mbeki. Directly elected presidents can generally be removed, to use the American term, “for high crimes and misdemeanours” by impeachment.
Our constitution provides for the removal of a president, but requires a twothirds majority of MPs and only on the grounds of a serious violation of the constitution, serious misconduct or inability to perform the functions of office.
A president whose party has a majority in Parliament need not consider the possibility of being impeached. This was how President Jacob Zuma escaped impeachment even though found by our Constitutional Court to have violated the constitution.
A motion of no confidence is a simpler and more effective procedure needing only a simple majority. That is what Zuma is set to face on August 8. I don’t expect the no-confidence motion to proceed then or any time soon.
The Rules of Parliament do not provide for a secret ballot of members on motions of this type. In response to a clamour from the media, some of the political parties and many members of the public, one of the smaller parties, applied to court for an order instructing the Speaker to arrange for a secret ballot.
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng enjoined the Speaker to exercise the powers she has and to decide for or against a secret ballot, but only on rational grounds. She has still to announce her decision. The ANC and the DA said they would abide by her decision but many of the smaller parties were adamant the vote must be secret so that MPs could “follow their consciences”. The expectation is that MPs will not vote with their consciences unless they can do so in secret, free of any adverse consequences if they defy their party whips and vote against the party leader and contrary to the caucus’s decision.
The Speaker is in the exquisite position of having major and insoluble conflicts of interest. She isn’t only the Speaker, she’s also the ANC national chairperson and a declared aspirant for the party’s leadership and South Africa’s presidency. Perhaps more significantly, given her aspirations, the constitution provides that if the motion of no confidence is carried, the president, the deputy president and the whole cabinet must resign. The Speaker becomes the acting president – a mouth-watering prospect for an aspiring president. Surely she cannot act impartially in these circumstances? The opposition is right in requesting the Speaker to recuse herself.
I predict she won’t recuse herself. She will calculate what will be in the interests of her candidacy. With one exception only, she will give in to the pressure from Zuma and the ANC hierarchy and decree an open vote. This would result in a failure of the motion because not many ANC MPs believe that an open and proud conscience vote is the right thing.
The exception is if she believes the motion will be carried in a secret ballot; she might defy the president and opt for secrecy because that would open the way for her ambitions.
Even if a secret ballot takes place, the motion will fail because not nearly enough ANC MPs, many of them happy trough-feeders, will wish to disturb matters by voting against their man in favour of an opposition motion. They have watched the corruption and the maladministration for years and remained silent.
The moment Speaker Mbete announces that the ballot will be open, she will be taken to court and months will elapse before we have a judgment. Zuma will remain president at least until after December when he ceases to be the leader of the ANC. Perhaps he will be tolerated for a while thereafter by whoever succeeds him. At least he can’t remain on after the 2019 election. The only good news is that the prospect of an acting President Mbete, let alone President Mbete, is remote.
A DUD: A president whose party has a majority needn’t consider being impeached, but a motion of no confidence needs only a simple majority, says the writer, adding that he doesn’t see it happening against President Jacob Zuma.