December 12, 2012
by Christi van der Westhuizen
South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, last week agreed to hear an application about a motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma. A High Court judge’s findings suggested that “the public are entitled to hear the debate” as the Constitution enjoins South Africans to prevent the suppression of “the dignity of even a single voice expressing a different perspective”.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) in November used its parliamentary majority to shut down a no confidence debate assessing ANC leader Jacob Zuma’s continued suitability for the job of president of South Africa. Section 102 of South Africa’s Constitution allows for a vote on a motion of no confidence in parliament’s National Assembly. If, after debate, the motion is passed, the president, cabinet and deputy ministers have to resign.
In its rejection of opposition parties’ proposal, the ANC argued that the motion would be “frivolous” as its aim was “to try the President in a court of public opinion and tarnish his image and that of the ANC in the media”.
Eight of the eleven opposition parties in parliament, led by the official opposition Democratic Alliance, brought an urgent application in the Western Cape High Court to instruct the speaker of parliament to allow the motion. Judge Dennis Davis could not find in the applicants’ favour, as the rules of parliament do not make provision for no confidence motions.
However, he added that “when political parties, who represent approximately a third of the electorate, decide to initiate a motion, and to seek wider support for the motion on matters of such importance, that too is their right.
“The […] people are entitled, as citizens of South Africa, to hear what our national representatives have to say about a matter of such pressing importance. Of course, once the debate takes place and reasoned voices across the floor are heard, the majority may well vote the matter down and that would be the end of it. But what cannot be justified is that the debate should not be allowed to take place.”
Meanwhile, the ANC changed its position and “welcomed” the debate, but proposed that it only takes place during the next parliamentary session in February 2013.
The party is currently engaged in a bruising jockeying for positions in the run-up to its elective conference in December, where Zuma’s deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, may challenge him. The opposition to the debate suggested that Zuma’s hold on the party may be more tenuous than his allies want others to believe. His parliamentary lieutenants seem to have realised this, prompting their volte-face on the debate. Their insistence on scheduling the debate next year nevertheless still suggests fear that it may worsen intra-party divisions.
Opposition parties’ application to the Constitutional Court will be heard in March next year.