A day after narrowly surviving his eigth no-confidence vote — to the stupefaction of critics — Jacob Zuma on Wednesday was savouring the bitter taste of a pyrrhic victory.
“This is actually a defeat for the ANC [African National Congress] party,” Phumzile Van Damme, spokesperson of the Democratic Alliance (DA) opposition party told RFI.
“They had eight opportunities to remove a widely unpopular president, and they did not.”
Jacob Zuma secured 198 votes against 177 for the no-confidence motion filed by the Democratic Alliance.
The mere fact that probably more than 30 ANC MPs voted with the opposition, against their own party’s wishes, is enough to make Zuma quake in his boots.
Now the opposition wants to bring him down altogether.
“We are going to continue doing what we do,” says Van Damme, because “voters, I think, will really punish the ANC at the ballot box.”
Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane told reporters on Wednesday that voters cannot wait until December – when the ANC’s elective conference will take place – for President Jacob Zuma to be removed. An early general election, he said, is the “responsible thing” to do.
Tackling the root of the problem
After initially going after Zuma, the focus of the opposition has now shifted to the ruling ANC party, seen as being at the core of corruption blighting the country.
“People will say, oh it’s you who are protecting Zuma, which means you are also corrupt,” Bantu Holomisa, head of the United Democratic Front, told RFI.
Public anger has boiled after allegations that the president has allowed a powerful Indian family — the Guptas — to capture and loot state resources.
For Holomisa, Jacob Zuma has become their greatest electoral asset.
“This fits with us when we are campaigning. Because Zuma alone has destroyed the ANC’s image and the country. So the longer they retain Zuma and protect him, the more they are going to be harmed in the next election.”
The opposition has a right to feel confident about the 2019 election. Several polls show that across race and class, trust in Zuma has fallen since he was re-elected in 2014.
“He and the ANC are deeply wounded, they are losing legitimacy at a rate that many observers didn’t foresee,” political analyst Achille Mbembe at Wits University in Johannesburg told RFI.
And the rifts within the ANC are growing.
“The surprise is that so many ANC MPs did vote against him,” adds Mbembe.
“In view of the large majority the ANC enjoys in parliament, it was hardly ever predicted that the motion would pass.”
So the fact that they went beyond party lines “is extremely encouraging,” he says.
It’s encouraging also because ANC MPs who have spoken out against Zuma like Makhosi Khoza, have received death threats.
This is partly why the vote was done through a secret ballot in the first place.
A few years ago, this would have been unthinkable.
Long way from Mandela
Those hardliners who supported President Zuma may now want to know who betrayed them.
And this witch hunt is likely to play out until the party’s elective conference in December when Zuma is expected to step down.
Most critics are expecting to see a fierce power struggle for control of the party once led by anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.
And the world will be watching, says Mbembe, in light of the moral ideals Mandela promoted.
“South Africa offered a deep hope after its transition from apartheid to democracy.”
That hope was that it would go beyond the post-colonial story in which decolonization is followed by decline and corruption, he adds.
The mountain of evidence of corrupt conduct against Zuma may not exactly correspond to what Mandela had hoped for, but “things are not entirely lost,” says Mbembe.
The outcome of Tuesday’s no-confidence vote “has shown that civil society organisations are capable of resisting the tide of kleptocracy that Zuma and his factions are pushing forward.” And in that respect, of upholding democracy.