Zuma & no confidence - how would you vote?

In theory, if the motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma were to succeed, it would circumvent the entire Mangaung showdown. If the eight opposition parties manage to get the debate before the house this year, convince the Speaker to allow a vote by secret ballot, and then get 68 ANC MPs to vote along with them, Zuma and the Cabinet would have to resign. It would make no sense for the ANC to then re-elect Zuma as the party president in December.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe would in all likelihood be elected unopposed as ANC president and serve the term out as state president. He would also then top the ANC's ticket for the national elections in 2014. Zuma would be put to pasture at his Nkandla residence (we're assuming this is a politically correct term) for the rest of his days.

Well, it's never going to play out that way.

There are hundreds of motions proposed by MPs waiting to be debated in Parliament, and most never come before the house because of the packed schedule or because their relevance expires with time. Because this issue is so politically charged, the ANC will fight tooth and nail to make sure it is kept off the order paper in the first place.

In fact, shortly after Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko tabled the motion on Thursday on behalf of her party, the Congress of the People, the Inkatha Freedom Party, the United Democratic Movement, the African Christian Democratic Party, the Azanian People's Organisation, the Freedom Front Plus and the United Christian Democratic Party, the ANC tabled a counter motion proposing that Parliament reaffirm its full confidence in Zuma's leadership.

The coalition of opposition parties (all in Parliament except the African People's Convention, the Pan Africanist Congress and the Minority Front) certainly presents a sound basis for the motion. According to the joint statement released by the parties' leaders, they thought it "appropriate that the future of the president be discussed and debated in Parliament in an open and transparent manner by the MPs who elected him".

"The Marikana tragedy; the appalling 'Nkandlagate' scandal; the failure by the government to deliver textbooks and workbooks to school children in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape; the downgrading of South Africa's credit rating by two major ratings agencies; the mounting disrespect for our Constitution and judiciary; the growing number of our citizens who must face the indignity of unemployment; and the uncontrollable and rising tide of corruption in the public service - all of these collectively point to the reality that ours is a country which lacks decisive leadership and vision," the parties said.

Reading the motion in the house, Mazibuko said Zuma no longer had the confidence of our political parties to serve as president on the grounds that under his leadership:

the justice system has been weakened and politicised;

corruption in the public service has spiralled out of control;

unemployment levels continue to increase;

the economy is weakening; and

the right of access to quality education has been violated.

The motion is backed up by a damning report of the Public Service Commission released this week, which reveals that the cost of financial mismanagement and corruption in the public service has soared from R130 million in 2006/07 to almost R932.3 million in 2010/11.

The opposition parties are angling for the no confidence motion to be voted on through a secret ballot, so that ANC MPs who are secretly critical and disappointed by Zuma's leadership, as well as those in the "forces of change" faction opposed to his second term, might vote with them. Assuming that all MPs from the eight parties support the motion, they would require 68 ANC MPs to vote against Zuma.

But Parliament is the wrong place to test this.

Even if the Anything But Zuma campaign went into overdrive to lobby ANC MPs, they would battle to get more than a handful of people supporting them. As was evident with the controversial vote on the Protection of State Information Bill, ANC MPs behave like pre-programmed androids and follow the party line to the hilt. The two MPs who obeyed their consciences and refused to follow the party line on the secrecy bill were threatened with disciplinary action.

On a high-stakes vote such as the future of the sitting president, the ANC would take no chances and would lean heavily on its MPs not to stray from the party line. And there are very few people brave enough in the ANC caucus to defy the line.

It is also highly unlikely that ANC members of Parliament, even those opposed to Zuma's leadership, would want to side with the opposition to effect the fall of their government. For the party to recall a sitting president was dramatic enough, but to collude with opposition parties to cause the entire Cabinet to resign would have unintended consequences and set a dangerous precedent.

Even if Tokyo Sexwale, Fikile Mbalula and Paul Mashatile were desperate to get rid of Zuma, the motion would cause them to lose their jobs too, and they would face the wrath of the ANC membership for betraying the party.

Even under a new president, it would be difficult for the ANC to recover from such an eventuality, and no member would want to see their organisation on its knees before the opposition.

The office of the ANC chief whip, Mathole Motshekga, said it would "quash any frivolous and narrow publicity-seeking gimmicks masquerading as motions in the National Assembly by some opposition parties".

Motshekga's office said the motion was "a desperate, if not silly, publicity stunt by a group of attention-seeking opposition leaders. Such a stunt would be laughable or dismissed with silent contempt if it did not make a mockery of this august Parliament. It is unacceptable that this institution's time should be wasted on such mischievous antics of opposition leaders who clearly do not take this institution seriously."

"The attempt to usurp people's power through silly motions is bound to fail epically, just like it did before," the statement said, referring to a similar motion of no confidence in Zuma in 2010 tabled by former Cope leader Mvume Dandala. That motion failed after the ANC amended it to instead express Parliament's full confidence in the president. The ANC intends to deal with the current motion in much the same way.

Political analyst Ebrahim Fakir says even though the motion is destined to fail, it had serious implications for the political culture of the country. He said the motion by the overwhelming majority of opposition parties meant they clearly had no trust and confidence in the Zuma administration and would result in increased polarisation between the ANC and the opposition. Fakir said co-operation would be minimised and consensus would be difficult to bridge with hardened attitudes on all sides.

Though his party is certain to defend him and will block the motion from succeeding, Zuma seems to be feeling the pressure. Addressing a special sitting of the National Council of Provinces in De Aar in Northern Cape on Thursday, Zuma strayed from his prepared speech to respond to criticism that his beliefs were in contrast to the Constitution. He claimed his comments when addressing the House of Traditional Leaders last week, when he argued for a return to an African way of resolving disputes, was taken out of context. He said his comments were aimed at securing greater co-operation from traditional leaders.

Zuma also hit out at detractors, presumably in the ANC and in the opposition: "I know what I am saying. I've been around, and I'm still going to be around for a while."

The opposition parties probably took the gamble to table the motion of no confidence in Zuma now because of the whirlwind of negativity around him at present. They are also possibly trying to exploit into the Mangaung dynamics, in the hope that the anti-Zuma faction would side with them. But in truth, only the ANC itself has the ability to remove Zuma. However, considering the dramatic evidence being led at the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the Marikana massacre, the final report could hold the state accountable for the murder of the mineworkers, and this could be a basis for the fall of the government.

The opposition parties may have been better advised to hedge their bets at that point. But the motion is now before Parliament and up for public engagement. Considering the negative image the Zuma administration has in the country and abroad, it would be an interesting test if all South Africans, instead of just 400 MPs, could vote on his leadership right now.

The electoral system in South Africa does not allow the electorate to vote for individuals, only parties. But Zuma's leadership is so often the subject of public discourse that few people are dispassionate about the issue. People either love him or loathe him.

With the multiple controversies around him and his poor leadership record, does Zuma still enjoy the full confidence of the people of South Africa? The reality is that we, the people of this country, may never get a chance to express it at the ballot. Even if the ANC re-elects him in Mangaung and his face headlines the ballot paper in 2014, and ANC bags the expected victory, it will not necessarily mean that Zuma himself has regained people's respect. It will simply not matter. Such is the political reality of South Africa.

This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.