President Zuma escapes censure for no show in South Africa

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In this post, our co-editor Nic Cheeseman explores recent events in South Africa’s National Assembly, which led to a motion to censure President Jacob Zuma. This post originally appeared on the Presidential Power blog. 

The South African National Assembly has voted to reject a motion to censure President Jacob Zuma for allegedly failing to conform to the rules of the House. The president had angered legislators by failing to answer oral questions since 21 August 2014. However, the stranglehold enjoyed by Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC) party in the government ensured that the president avoided a formal sanction. Despite this, his reputation has suffered another blow.

The incident that sparked the president’s reluctance to appear before the House was a chant by opposition MPs from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) that he should pay back some of the money spent on lavish upgrades of his private home in Nkandla, which had embarrassed Zuma the last time he entered the legislature. Despite some criticism of this strategy, the EFF – which is led by notorious former ANC youth winger Julius Malema — pledged to keep up the heat on the president through the use of similar tactics. Matters came to a head on 14 November when an attempt by riot police to forcibly remove EFF MP Reneilwe Mashabela from parliament descended into a fistfight.

Mashabela had earlier repeatedly called the president a thief, a statement that she continues to stand by. In response, House Chairperson Cedric Frolick, an ANC MP, ordered her to withdraw her comments and, when she refused, to leave the House. It was after Mashabela refused that the presence of riot police was requested, although it is not yet clear who made the call. The determination of ANC leaders to shut down criticism of the president by ordering an elected MP to leave the chamber, and the intrusion of riot police onto the Floor of the House, shocked many commentators. According to the Mail & Guardian newspaper, “The presence of police in the chamber, while the House is in session, is a violation of the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act, which prohibits the police from being in Parliament unless they have been instructed to be there by the speaker, her deputy or any other of the presiding officers. Section 58 of the Constitution prohibits criminal or civil procedures from being brought against MPs for what they say in Parliament, and forbids their arrest in such matters.”

The motion of censure was subsequently introduced not by the EFF, but by the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). The vote split the legislature down the middle. The EFF and other opposition parties largely agreed that the president had undermined the constitution, which requires him to account to the legislature for his actions, and to answer questions in the Assembly at least four times a year, once in each quarter. However, ruling party MPs defended the president and claimed that opposition MPs did not accurately understand the law. Ultimately, the ANC’s numerical dominance carried the day, and the motion was defeated by 217 votes to 78.

Efforts to negotiate an end to the impasse are ongoing, having begun two days before the vote when Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa initiated a dialogue between the ANC and opposition leaders with a view to generating a more harmonious and productive working environment within parliament. However, it is not clear how successful this endeavour will be. The Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader, Mmusi Maimane, in whose name the motion of censure was tabled, has said that meetings with Ramaphosa were positive. He was particularly pleased that the ANC leader affirmed the principle of executive accountability and that the executive should appear before parliament. However, he also noted that Ramaphosa had failed to agree a date by which the president would appear. Unless this happens soon, Maimane intimated, there would be no let up in the position of the DA.

But while there may not be any major changes to the tension that has pervaded the legislature in recent months, the debate has resulted in a significant change to the mood music of South African politics. Most notably, by refusing to present himself to parliament, Jacob Zuma has further undermined the ANC’s reputation as a party of law and order. In doing so on the legislative stage, he has handed the EFF – often characterised by the ANC as a populist rabble – the moral high ground. Always able to spot a political opportunity, Malema and the EFF seized their opportunity well. As the Mail and Guardian wrote in the wake of the vote, ‘The biggest surprise of the evening came from the EFF MP Sipho Mbatha, who delivered a calm and heartfelt speech directed at the ANC.’ Transforming the EFF into the voice of reason would be a catastrophic mistake for Zuma’s ill-fated presidency.

For now, the ruling party’s grip on power appears unassailable. But with missteps following mistakes, the question is for how long.

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