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[OPINION] Zuma's no confidence win a Pyrrhic victory

It was a Pyrrhic victory for President Zuma. He survived the motion of no confidence on Tuesday, as one may have predicted but the damage has been done.

According to Speaker Baleta Mbete, of the 384 votes cast, 198 had voted against the motion, 177 in favour and 9 abstained. This meant that about 26 ANC MPs voted in favour of the motion. That represented a
higher number than might have been expected.

Zuma had arrived early to address the ANC caucus, presumably to persuade them to vote against the motion. As the motion was introduced, one sensed it was going to be a long afternoon. Successive ANC speakers tried to speak in defense of Zuma but did so in a manner which left them wanting. How could they defend the indefensible, one wondered? What was curious too was that those like Nathi Mthethwa of the ANC persistently spoke about the vote as a means to achieve "regime change". This was patently false and disingenuous, to say the least.

Section 102 (2) of the Constitution is clear when it 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 Cabinet and any Deputy Ministers must resign."

WATCH: President Zuma survives no confidence motion

The ANC would, therefore, remain in power even if the motion of no confidence prevailed. Nothing is able to change the 2014 electoral outcome. But if the ANC speakers were trying to be deliberately misleading, it was probably because the only real argument they could profer was one that was emotive. The facts show that Zuma has been a disastrous president of both the ANC and the country. It would, therefore, be hard to argue otherwise.

So Zuma has survived but he and the ANC are in a weaker position than ever before. Speaker Baleka Mbete surprised us all when she declared a secret ballot. It would have been surprising if she had not consulted Zuma himself and others within the ANC. For a moment then, the opposition had the wind taken out of its sails and Mbete herself staved off a possible legal challenge to her decision. All in all, it was a pretty wily strategy. Yet, this vote was closer than the ANC and Zuma would have preferred. It was a secret ballot and so Zuma will never know whose loyalty he truly has. His position is precarious until the ANC elective conference in December. The problem with being a second term president is that one’s "lame duck" status sets in pretty quickly. Added to that, how many more ANC MPs, emboldened by the vote, will think afresh and start looking beyond December 2017 and towards the 2019 election?

It was always going to be a stretch for Zuma to be unseated on Tuesday but our constitutional democracy was the winner. The Speaker applied her mind in accordance with the prescripts of the Constitutional Court and the secret ballot happened in accordance with proper procedure. Despite the fact that the debate introducing the motion was poor, to say the least, in the end, a sense of fairness prevailed. Those speaking for the ANC could not seem to come up with even a vague argument as to why Zuma should stay in office. What they offered was paranoia and empty words. Zuma and his ANC are exposed for what they are - an empty shell, a party bereft of ideas and struggling to retain its legitimacy.

All of politics is about the "long game" and the opposition no doubt is looking ahead to 2019 as the ANC tries to maintain a semblance of unity leading up to December 2017. The latter will be a tall order but we can expect Zuma to act as if he is still unassailable even though the political winds are changing direction, slowly but surely. Tuesday was simply another nail in his proverbial coffin.

WATCH: EFF encouraged by Zuma no confidence vote

Until December, of course, things will be opaque and contradictory as we muddle along with Zuma at the helm. As this muddling continues, it will be up to other sectors of society, business, civil society and the media to persist in trying to steer the national conversation into a more constructive and honest direction and to expose corruption in all its forms. This will take time, energy and a commitment to building cross-sectoral coalitions. It will also mean challenging the ANC at the ballot box in 2019 if it is unable to clean up its act. Recently, Pravin Gordhan said that he was still hopeful about the future and our collective ability to self-correct. He is right when he said that we must not become cynical but develop an understanding of our challenges and push in all corners for proper policy conversations that will bring meaningful transformation.

In recent days, something has stirred in our society that cannot be discounted. Ordinary citizens are starting to join the dots between corruption and poor services in their communities. Last year’s local government election showed that South Africa’s electorate can indeed envisage being governed by a party other than the ANC. Marches across the country have enlivened citizen debate once more as society contemplates a post-Zuma future. The #Guptaleaks emails have also provided a steady stream of proof of the depth of state capture and the way in which this so-called "shadow state" operates. It has also illustrated the power of a free and fearless media. Zuma has captured the prosecuting authority and so, for now, he and his cronies have managed to evade prosecution. But in a democracy where information about corrupt activity is peddled so openly, justice will eventually prevail. The renewed activism we are seeing will take time to bear fruit, simply because it is work and not a once-off activity. The "green shoots" are there and society collectively has to build on them. We simply cannot abdicate responsibility and rely on the ANC to do the right thing and so all of society needs to keep pressure mounting on the corrupt.

What Tuesday showed is that there is life in this democracy yet and that we need to start thinking about a post-Zuma future and how to avoid making the same mistakes again.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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