South African President Jacob Zuma has again survived a no-confidence vote in parliament, in the most serious attempt yet to unseat him after months of growing anger over alleged corruption and a sinking economy.
Mr Zuma had survived six previous attempts to dislodge him in parliament, but this was the first to be held by secret ballot after parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete made the surprise decision to allow it. Opposition parties hoped it would encourage disgruntled legislators, with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party to vote against Zuma, who has faced numerous allegations of graft while the economy has fallen into recession.
Instead, ANC members in the chamber began singing shortly before the results were announced and soon broke out in cheers, while party supporters outside started dancing.
“We reiterate that we will never endorse or vote in favour of any motion that seeks to cripple our country,” the ANC said immediately after the results were announced, calling the vote an attempt to remove the entire party from power.
Of the 384 votes cast, 177 were in favour of the no-confidence motion and 198 were against, with nine abstentions. The no-confidence motion needed 201 votes to succeed.
Dozens of ANC members ended up supporting the no-confidence motion, as the ruling party holds 249 of the seats in parliament, five of which are currently vacant. Some party members quickly denounced those who voted against Zuma as sellouts, and chief whip Jackson Mthembu said the party would consider disciplining them.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance party said after the vote that “the majority of the ANC have chosen corruption” over the country’s interests. Its no-confidence motion said Zuma had “lost all sense of rationality and sound judgment”, harming the country’s economy and its poorest citizens.
As for Mr Zuma himself, he appeared at a rally in Cape Town shorting after the vote in an exultant mood.
“They are pumping propaganda through the media that the ANC is no longer supported by the people. It is their own imagination,” Mr Zuma told a cheering crowd.
“The ANC is supported by the overwhelming majority,” he said, before breaking into song and cracking jokes with the crowd. He said that his party would win elections in 2019 by “a big majority”.
However, widespread frustration over Mr Zuma has hurt the ANC, the former liberation movement that has led South Africa since the end of white minority rule and the first all-race elections in 1994. Some longtime party members and anti-apartheid activists have openly called on Mr Zuma to go.
Before the vote on Tuesday, former President Thabo Mbeki said ANC MPs must “recall that they are the representatives of the people”. Many predicted that the vote would fail, saying most members of the decades-old liberation party would hesitate to make any major leadership changes that were initiated by the opposition.
“For me, it’s among the biggest reasons for the failure of African liberation movements is this misplaced loyalty to the end for the sake of holding it together,” said William Gumede, executive chairman of the Johannesburg-based Democracy Works Foundation. “It’s a tragedy in a sense.”
Demonstrations both for and against Mr Zuma, who has led South Africa since 2009, took place in front of the parliament building in Cape Town before the much-anticipated vote.
“As you can see, thousands of people have reached the end of their tether in terms of what is happening in our beautiful country, our beautiful, diverse country that we should enjoy but we can’t enjoy because millions of our people are without jobs,” said one protester, Johnnie Jacobs.
“We have got to get rid of this man before he destroys everything that we have all worked so hard for,” said another protester, Anne Shirley.
While Mr Zuma’s term continues until the elections in 2019, there have been calls from within the ANC for him to quit earlier and allow the party to shore up support before the vote. The ruling party is expected to replace Mr Zuma as ANC president at a meeting in December.
The reputation of Mr Zuma, who spent a decade in prison for his anti-apartheid activities and has been popular among some South Africans for his personal warmth and populist policies, has been tarnished by allegations of impropriety. Mr Zuma denies any allegations of corruption.
Last year, the Constitutional Court ruled unanimously that Mr Zuma “failed to uphold” the constitution by not paying back some of the $20 million-plus in state money used to upgrade his rural home. Zuma’s ties to the Gupta family, businessmen accused of trying to manipulate government leaders, also have stirred public anger. The Gupta family denies all such allegations.
The president’s firing of widely respected finance minister Pravin Gordhan in a Cabinet reshuffle in March led two agencies, Fitch and Standard & Poor’s, to lower South Africa’s credit rating to below investment grade, or junk status.
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