South Africa’s ‘Teflon president’ survives another day, but scandal will stick eventually

As South African satirist Tom Eaton put it on Twitter, asking parliament to impeach the president was like asking hyenas if they wanted to stay huddled round the carcass. There was only ever one possible answer, and the National Assembly duly delivered it on Tuesday, comprehensively rejecting the opposition’s motion to remove Jacob Zuma.

South African president Jacob Zuma survives impeachment vote

Just 143 of the total 400 MPs voted in favour of the motion to impeach, with the African National Congress (ANC) closing ranks to protect its embattled leader. Even the newly-reappointed finance minister Pravin Gordhan, thought to be a key figure in the ruling party’s anti-Zuma camp, cast his vote in support of the president.The impeachment motion was tabled following last week’s groundbreaking constitutional court ruling which found that Zuma had failed to uphold the constitution over expensive upgrades made using public money to his private home in Nkandla.

While Zuma apologised for acting unconstitutionally, he maintained that he had done so “in good faith” and promised to pay back the cash. He also ignored calls for his resignation. That the ANC accepted this line, and defended Zuma so vociferously in parliament, should come as no surprise given that the president has hand-picked many of the ruling party MPs. But it is also a reflection of the party’s longstanding emphasis on displays of public unity, even when there are serious divisions behind the scenes.

“There are members of the ANC who no doubt hate Zuma, but they hate the opposition more. They cannot be seen to be collaborating with the opposition, irrespective of the principle at stake,” said political analyst Ralph Mathekga. Mathekga argued the vote in parliament should be interpreted as the ANC uniting against the opposition rather than behind their leader, and that it doesn’t mean Zuma is now guaranteed to see out his term, which expires in 2019.

“I think for the short term, it means that this is not the type of exit that the ANC would like to see him undergo. It does not necessarily mean he is safe altogether,” Mathekga added.

Stephen Grootes, a journalist who has interviewed many of the key players in the Nkandla scandal, agrees that Zuma has been strengthened by the defeat of the impeachment motion – but only for now. “It looks like Zuma is safe for the short to the medium term, for the next six months or so, but at the same time the ANC is going to come under more pressure than ever before, particularly at local government elections,” he said.

United opposition

At the conclusion of parliament on Tuesday, the major opposition leaders – including the Democratic Alliance’s Mmusi Maimane, the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Julius Malema and the United Democratic Movement’s Bantu Holomisa – gave an unprecedented joint press conference in which they promised to work together to remove Zuma from power.

It’s clear that as the ANC puts on a united front the opposition has responded in kind, collaborating to become a formidable force ahead of upcoming local elections, scheduled for between May and August this year.

Jacob Zuma breached constitution over home upgrades, South African court rules

A successful opposition campaign could also strengthen the hand of the anti-Zuma faction within ANC. “At this point Zuma’s camp is still in charge. He has appropriated the internal processes of the party to the point where there is little recourse against him. His detractors must do sufficient political work on the ground and stage a mutiny within the branches at the lower levels of the party.

“If the ANC performs very badly at local elections they have a strong case to make at the lower levels,” said Mathekga. Zuma has been nicknamed “the Teflon president” in recognition of his ability to withstand scandal after scandal. While last week’s constitutional court ruling has provided him his greatest hurdle to date, so far his reputation as a political survivor remains intact, and even enhanced by the ANC’s latest show of parliamentary support. But he’s not out of the woods yet. Facing a united, invigorated opposition, and heading towards crucial local elections, he’s still got plenty of work to do if he is going to remain in power.

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