JOHANNESBURG - South Africa’s embattled president, Jacob Zuma, has narrowly survived an eighth attempt by parliament to unseat him in a vote of no confidence.
After nearly five hours of debate, voting and counting, 198 of the 384 members present voted against the opposition’s motion to oust the president, while 177 voted for him to step down. The motion needed 201 votes to pass. Nine members abstained from voting during the secret ballot.
Although this means Zuma will not have to step down, this sizeable opposition portends a difficult few months for him as his ruling African National Congress prepares to choose a new party leader in December. The ANC lost three major metropolitan areas in the last round of local elections in 2016, largely because of Zuma’s growing unpopularity amid long-simmering corruption scandals.
ANC members celebrated the victory by dancing in parliament, and by celebrating outside. But even they seemed aware that the ANC’s travails may not be over.
“This is not the first test -- or the last,” proclaimed Police Minister Fikile Mbalula to a jubilant crowd outside of parliament in Cape Town.
That test may come from within the party, too -- the opposition holds only 151 seats in parliament. For the vote to reach 177, that means that at least two dozen ANC members voted against their leader.
As it has seven times before, South Africa’s ruling party largely came out fiercely against the opposition’s motion to remove Zuma, who has become increasingly unpopular because of corruption scandals.
The way the ANC tells it, the vote was a direct threat to the party that swept to power in the nation’s first democratic government in 1994.
“As you yourselves in the opposition benches have said, the ANC is the target,” Defense Minister and party stalwart Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told the assembly. “Removing the ANC from power is the main aim. You’ve said it. Let’s go to a general election. Let’s go to a general election. We should not use other tactics to get rid of a governing party. That would be akin to a coup.”
The opposition Democratic Alliance, which brought the motion to parliament, says Zuma’s corruption allegations make him unfit to hold the highest office in South Africa. Most recently, a leaked trove of emails and documents alleged that Zuma had improper business and political dealings with a wealthy Indian family, the Guptas.
“I never imagined that one day I would be here, in this parliament, fighting a new form of oppression – a corrupt system that keeps our people imprisoned in poverty,” said Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane. “If you had told me that one day our democratically elected president would end up corrupted and captured by a criminal syndicate, I would’ve never believed you. But here we are. We may have travelled along different roads, but we have arrived at the same destination. We all have a chance today to do what is right, what is just and what is honorable.”
The leader of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, also appealed to the chamber to oppose Zuma. His party has repeatedly been kicked out of parliamentary sessions for their rowdy antics and for their unconventional red jumpsuits -- a nod to the uniforms worn by domestic workers and manual laborers.
On Tuesday, Malema, who is known for his fiery invective, appeared to temper his words -- even apologizing for insulting another parliamentarian.
“I withdraw,” he said of the comment, “because I don’t want you to chase me out -- I want to vote a criminal out.”
Opposition parties had asked for the ballot to be held in secret in a bid to embolden critics within the famously disciplined ANC to turn on their leader.
But the economy
The triumphant Zuma lives another day to run a nation in deep recession and with high unemployment. Its credit ratings have been downgraded since Zuma fired Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in March.
Nearly 28 percent of South Africans are unemployed, the highest figure in more than a decade. Zuma’s opposition says the economic situation is so dire that it can be compared to the dark days of apartheid.
“President Zuma is a weapon of our economic destruction,” said Andries Molapi Tlouamma of the opposition Agang party. “Those who will vote for Zuma are worse than those who killed [apartheid-era icons] Ruth First and Chris Hani.”