No confidence motions are en vogue at all three tiers of government this week – in the National Assembly against President Jacob Zuma, in the Western Cape legislature against Premier Helen Zille and in the Tlokwe municipality in the North West.
Zuma’s did not happen, the ANC has yet to table the motion against Zille, and the ANC mayor of Potchefstroom was replaced by a Democratic Alliance councillor after ANC councillors helped pass a vote of no-confidence.
Had Judge Dennis Davis ruled in the Western Cape High Court that the motion of no confidence in the president be debated, it would have been curious to see which MPs would have participated as dozens of seats, particularly on the ANC side of the House, were already vacant ahead of the recess period. Most members of the Cabinet were also not present in the House, though Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe was.
While all eyes were on Davis’s courtroom, it was clear the ANC never intended that the debate on the motion would take place or it would have ensured that its heavy hitters were in Parliament to defend Zuma.
But Davis dismissed the urgent application lodged by eight opposition parties, saying it was not for the court to dictate to Parliament. He said that although the opposition parties had the right to table the motion of no confidence and that it should be treated as a matter of urgency, the rules of Parliament rather than the courts should prescribe what should happen in the event of a deadlock.
DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko, who made the court application on behalf of the opposition parties, says the decision will now be urgently appealed at the Constitutional Court.
“We have taken this decision on the basis that Judge Davis upheld the constitutional right that a motion of no-confidence be debate in reasonable time frame and that the National Assembly’s failure to do so has frustrated this right. Our legal team will file this urgent appeal as soon as possible. We will also request that the court rule that the debate be held as a matter of urgency,” Mazibuko said in a statement on Thursday night.
This means the opposition parties are now seeking that a special sitting of the National Assembly be convened to debate the motion. They are also rejecting an ANC proposal that the motion be debated in the last week of February next year, the same week in which the national Budget will be presented.
ANC chief whip Mathole Motshekga said the party feels “vindicated” by the judgement.
“Judge Davies concurred with our view that, in the spirit of the principle of separation of powers, the judiciary cannot be expected to adjudicate on matters falling under the authority of Parliament. We are concerned with the growing tendency by some parties to abuse the judiciary, in which courts are called upon to resolve the inter-party disagreements which should be resolved within Parliament.
“It is irrational to expect Courts to micromanage Parliament. The role of the courts is to ensure that institutions function within the boundaries of the constitution – a fact that these parties are clearly ignorant of,” Motshekga said.
The saga left a bad taste in MPs mouths, which was evident in the farewell speeches they gave before the National Assembly adjourned for the year last night.
DA chief whip Watty Watson said the farewell debate was a “meaningless convention” which he did not want to participate while the ANC was “making a mockery of the entire parliamentary system”.
“I cannot stand here and pretend that I feel a sense of pride in the institution. I am not proud of this Parliament, and I am not proud of what we have done this annual session, I am embarrassed and I am ashamed. In its performance as a Parliament of the people, this institution is an absolute disgrace,” Watson said.
He said Parliament spent less than 1% of its time debating the issues of the day. Requests to debate on the textbook crisis, the Marikana massacre, the developments at Nkandla, and the Richard Mdluli affair were all rejected.
Congress of the People whip Julie Killian said though political parties often “crossed swords”, the year had seen opposition parties co-operate on critical matters. This included the improvements to the draft Protection of State Information Bill, the withdrawal at the last minute of the controversial Transport Laws and Related Matters Amendment Bill on e-tolling and the motion of no confidence against Zuma.
The ANC’s Nkhensani Khubayi said opposition parties should stop using the courts “as a tool to rule by the back door”. She said South Africa did not have a government of national unity and the ANC had its own agenda to implement.
Before closing the session, Speaker Max Sisulu said 2012 had been “an eventful year, a long year and an exhausting year”, with “moments of drama and excitement”. But he said the numerous objections and points of order which are hallmarks of parliamentary debates were indicators of a “vibrant and growing democracy”.
Earlier on Thursday, he ruled his sister, Public Service and Administration Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, out of order for her recent comment that DA MP David Maynier had a “flea-infested body”. The Speaker said the remark was “inappropriate” and ordered that the minister withdraw it. However she did not attend Thursday’s session and will be asked to do so when Parliament reconvenes.
All round, it was not a happy group of people that left the House for the summer holidays. It has been a bruising year of many divisive and tense debates in the National Assembly and portfolio committee meetings.
But 2013 is bound to be even worse as all the parties will be out to prove their mettle ahead of the national elections the following year. Individual MPs will also be desperate to prove their worth to their parties to get high up on election lists in order to return to their jobs in Parliament.
Nobody knows yet what the ANC’s Mangaung conference will bring and whether Zuma will emerge strengthened or battered. The motion of no confidence remains hanging over him – like so much else – and the opposition will be baying for his political demise from his State of the Nation speech onwards.
But South Africa also needs a confidence boost from its leaders after a tough year in politics. Both the ANC and the opposition need new game plans to reach out to their supporters and also appeal to the disillusioned and disappointed.
Parliament might not be the place to win this battle as the real test lies in the streets, among the jobless, on the farms and in the classrooms, hospitals and mines. Speeches in Parliament and carping across the House will not placate the growing anger and discontent in South Africa.
The sooner the elected representatives realise this, the less chance they have of losing the confidence of the people on whose votes they depend. What happened to the former mayor of the Tlokwe municipality should be a lesson to them all.
Jacob Zuma is not the only South African politician facing a crisis of confidence and the next 18 months leading to the 2014 elections will almost certainly prove it.
This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.