This was no attempted coup d’état

Mervyn Bennun writes on the ANC's dangerous rhetoric around the motion of no-confidence vote

In an effort to defeat the Opposition’s motion of no confidence designed to remove Jacob Zuma from the presidency, the ANC’s Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu compared voting in favour to ‘throwing a nuclear bomb at the country’. If Mthembu has any sense of history, he would not have used that ugly and inappropriate simile.

The ANC has always understood clearly that the struggle for freedom and for peace are inseparable. In Britain, for example, it was a matter of policy that members of the ANC in exile should join demonstrations organised by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and march under the ANC’s flag. We needed little urging, for we understood well what the effect of nuclear war would be. The struggle against apartheid was at every moment a struggle for peace, and it was no secret that the apartheid state was developing its own nuclear weapons.

Nuclear war would unleash a holocaust that humanity would be unlikely to survive. This is not the place for a description of what a nuclear bomb can do; suffice it to say that the end of apartheid rule in South Africa and the end of the Cold War are intimately related. Humanity is not out of danger yet – states with nuclear weapons still constitute a threat to democracy.

The ugly rhetoric from the Chief Whip was matched by how the ANC responded to the motion. I have been a rank and file ANC member for over forty years and I have no brief to advise other parties how to present their case – they must find their own paths to heaven or hell. However, the manner in which the ANC responded is most certainly a matter I feel free to comment on.

Sec. 102(2) of our Constitution states that ‘If the National Assembly, by a vote supported by a 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’. We did not include this in order to embark on the literal or metaphorical destruction of our country. We included this to deal with a situation – however unlikely, and however distasteful – when our democracy is endangered if the person chosen to be president continues in office.

Contrary to what Jackson Mthembu has said, the use of sec. 102(2) by the democratically-elected National Assembly endangers neither our democracy nor our Constitution. On the contrary, the section protects these and ensures that they stand secure. The section gives force to the fundamental purposes of our Constitution as set out in its Preamble: to –

‘Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law.....’

What Jackson Mthembu told us is that the situation in South Africa is so bad that Parliament should do nothing to address it.

The Constitution states that –

‘The National Assembly is elected to represent the people and to ensure government by the people under the Constitution. It does this by choosing the President, by providing a national forum for public consideration of issues, by passing legislation and by scrutinizing and overseeing executive action’.

The right to pass a motion of no confidence is essential to the exercise of the duties of the National Assembly to scrutinise and to oversee executive action. To compare the use of the section to throwing a nuclear bomb at the country is nothing less that blackmail, and implies that the use of the section would be a great treason.

In the course of the no-confidence debate in the National Assembly on 8 August, the ANC speakers attacked the Opposition and defended the ANC, but none defended President Zuma. As Stephen Grootes wrote in the Daily Maverick, ‘There was no pointing to his myriad of achievements, no recitation of his track record, there was simply no reasons given as to why he, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, should stay on as President’.  There was no denial of the accusations against him that lie at the heart of the reasons advanced for the no-confidence motion. Having retained the confidence of the ANC’s MPs and leaders in the teeth of these reasons, then what would be sufficient for him to lose it?

The motion was described variously as an attempt to effect ‘regime change’, and as a coup d'état. The ANC Women’s League described the motion obscurely as an attempt at a ‘diplomatic coup’. The Opposition were also accused of attempting to drive the ANC out of office – as if this was something that the Opposition in Parliament was not supposed to do.

The claims that the use of sec. 102(2) of the Constitution constitutes an attempted coup d'état or directed at ‘regime change’ are utter balderdash. Clichés tend to become a substitute for critical thought, and if MPs can make such statements about the use of sec. 102(2) in the belief that they are true, then they would readily believe that the earth is flat and circled daily by the sun, moon, and stars.

A coup d'état is a sudden, unconstitutional and illegal take-over of the government of the state and would be treason. So far as ‘regime change’ is concerned, if the MPs who invoke this cliché mean that an attempt is being made to overthrow the established legitimate constitutional order of South Africa, then this is no different from a coup d'état. Or are they whining and crying ‘Foul!’ because the ANC is being challenged by the Opposition in the course of normal political life? Ag, shame...

What happened is that having determined to oppose the motion of no confidence in President Zuma, ANC MPs had to make speeches providing reasons for doing so. But as Zuma has put himself beyond the reach of sincere defensive rhetoric from MPs who do not believe in a geocentric universe, the MPs were forced to contrive a case to the effect that the motion itself had a sinister purpose. This they did by falsifying the effect of a motion of no confidence.

The claim that it was an attempt to make a coup d’état results in an interpretation of sec. 102(2) of the Constitution which is comparable to the comic operetta The Mikado. In W.S Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s crazy satirical fantasy the Mikado, who rules the town of Titipu, has decreed that flirting is a capital crime and insists that someone must be executed.

The Titipu town authorities try to frustrate the law by appointing the hapless Ko-Ko to the post of Lord High Executioner – he being a prisoner condemned to death for flirting; being the next prisoner to be decapitated, the town authorities reasoned that he could ‘not cut off another's head until he cut his own off’. When ordered to proceed with his duties Ko-Ko objects, pointing out that ‘Because, in the first place, self-decapitation is an extremely difficult, not to say dangerous, thing to attempt; and, in the second, its suicide, and suicide is a capital offence’.

The no-confidence motion was brought in terms of sec. 102(2) of the Constitution, but being an attempt to make a coup d’état, it was treason – so said the ANC MPs. Accordingly, the constitutional right for MPs to move a no-confidence motion can never be used until a successful coup d’etat sets the Constitution aside.

In The Mikado all ends ingeniously and happily, but the debate in the National Assembly lacked even barest hint of wit, decency and reason.

MPs are protected by sec. 58 of the Constitution and Rule 63 of the Rules of the National Assembly, which ensure that they have freedom of speech and are not liable to civil or criminal proceedings, arrest, imprisonment or damages for ­anything that they might say in the National Assembly.

Moreover, the Constitutional Court judgment which concluded that the Speaker had the power to decide whether the ballot on a no-confidence motion should be secret or not is bursting at the seams with explanations underlining the importance and constitutional legitimacy of such a motion.

It is thus disgraceful that the Speaker and Deputy Speaker allowed the accusations of an attempted coup d’état and ‘regime change’ to be made, for Rule 69 prohibits members from ‘making serious allegations against a member without adequate substantiation’. A point of order was raised by the EFF to the effect that the motion was aimed at the President alone and not directed at a coup or ‘regime change’. It was curtly overruled.

Rule 78(3)(a) prescribes that Members of the National Assembly must refer to the Speaker and Deputy Speaker as ‘Honourable’. The next time there is a debate on a no-confidence motion there must surely be a ruling by the Speaker that it is not unparliamentary language to call those who invoke sec. 102(2) of the Constitution ‘Honourable Traitors’.

It must be a well-founded surmise on the part of those who do not work in Parliament, and thus rely on the Press for information, that intimidation and fear now characterise the ANC’s way of dealing with Jacob Zuma, who recently threatened those who oppose him not to ‘push him too far’.

On the morning of the vote, Gwede Mantashe and Jacob Zuma attended – unusually –the caucus meeting. As reported by News24, Mantashe drew a grim picture of the harm that he foresaw should the motion succeed and Zuma’s presidency be ended by his resignation. Mantashe predicted that it would prove to be impossible to choose a new president within the constitutionally-prescribed thirty days, and that a general election would follow. For current MPs, this might mean the end of their parliamentary careers because of the weakened state of the ANC, which Mantashe described.

The Mail & Guardian reported that the ANC’s spokesperson, Zizi Kodwa, gave ANC MPs a ‘final warning’ – that any who might consider supporting the no-confidence motion and voting with the Opposition could face expulsion from the ANC. He did not need to articulate what would follow: all knew that with expulsion from the ANC would come expulsion from parliament.

The pressure on MPs was thus immense and for those who have come to parliament from the utmost poverty and deprivation, the threats could only have been terrifying – the lowest-paid MPs earn R1,033,434 a year, or R86,120 a month.  It must have been small beer thereafter to hear the ANC’s chief whip, Jackson Mthembu, say that MPs who had spoken out against Zuma were guilty of ill-discipline.

About thirty ANC MPs supported the motion of no confidence; how many more, one wonders, wanted to but feared consequences from which not even a secret ballot and the immunity of MPs could protect them? And how angry they must be at the thirty which nearly brought ruin on them. Intimidation and fear must lead to demoralisation.

If the ANC’s current leaders think that the forced resignation of Jacob Zuma would cause the ANC such harm at the general election which would have to follow, then they must explain to rank and file members such as myself how the ANC’s prospects would be improved by being the party that tenaciously protects a president so utterly contaminated that in the debate on the motion of no confidence not one member of his party could say a single word in his defence.

Now, the talk is of disciplining the ANC MPs who did not vote against the motion of no confidence. The vote having been secret, only those who have spoken out can be identified: Pravin Gordhan, Mondli Gungubele, Derek Hanekom, and Makhosi Khoza. Those who are determined to proceed against them do not explain how the others would be identified, nor how any action against them whatever would be lawful.

Invoking the ANC’s constitution gives no help either, for it is subordinate to the South African constitution and legislation. The Constitutional Court made it clear that MPs have the duty – let alone the right! – to vote as their consciences direct in the interests of South Africa. Further, the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act 4 of 2004 makes it an offence (amongst others, and in summary) to improperly interfere with the performance by MPs of their functions, or to deprive them of any benefit on account of what they do. If the intention is to expel from the ANC those of its members who did not vote against the motion, then they would also be expelled from Parliament.

In 1952 Sam Kahn was expelled from Parliament and Fred Carneson from the Cape Province legislature. The following year, first Brian Bunting and then Ray Alexander were barred from replacing Sam Kahn. All were Communists who insisted on voting with their consciences because they opposed the racist lie of apartheid. Now, apparently, the intention is to expel ANC members from Parliament who vote with their consciences against a president who has been found to have violated his oath of office and lied to Parliament.

It seems that the more things change the more they remain the same. But then, Jacob Zuma and those who support him are all honourable, because that is how they must be addressed in Parliament.

And how would the ANC react should it be the Opposition, and be faced with a State President against whom accusations of misconduct are made on anything like the scale as those against Jacob Zuma? Would the ANC simply shrug its political shoulders, muttering ‘c’est la vie! – that’s just the way life is!’?

When they took their seats in the National Assembly, MPs of all parties swore or solemnly affirmed that they would ‘be faithful to the Republic of South Africa and will obey, respect and uphold the Constitution and all other law of the Republic’ They solemnly promised to perform their functions as members of the National Assembly to the best of their ability.

The Constitutional Court has stated what the Constitution and the law prescribe. Does the warning of the Constitutional Court mean nothing – that MPs have the duty to use their consciences and to decide what is best for South Africa, rather than their party, when voting in Parliament? Is it now the demand of the ANC’s leadership that the ANC MPs must break the law?

I am an undistinguished rank and file ANC member and a veteran, and I speak only for myself. Everything that has been said by Jackson Mthembu amounts to a repudiation of all I learned and still believe that the ANC stands for. What he has said amounts to an irrefutable reason why one should not vote for the ANC.

By contrast, on Sunday 6 August the ANC Stalwarts and Veterans made an appeal to the ANC MPs that they should appreciate that the personal decision that they make in the vote of no confidence –

‘......will not simply be judged in the weeks to come, but will be written into the history, not only of the country but that of the ANC as an act that struck a blow for the rescuing of the ANC. Self-correction has to go beyond mere statements; it is about making the tough decisions which history from time to time places on the shoulders of true patriots. In this instance, saving the ANC would not be antithetical to voting in support of the motion’.

This makes more sense and has a more profound understanding of history than the nonsense of comparing the use of sec. 102 of the Constitution to a nuclear bomb and a coup d’etat.