South Africa: No confidence vote looming?

The National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa is attempting to get President Jacob Zuma to resign. Media coverage of this (such as a BBC story from 5 Feb.) too often implies that this is a “normal” presidency with a fixed term. However, despite the title, as far as executive survival in office is concerned, South Africa’s head of government is a prime minister. He can be removed by a vote of no confidence.

See the Constitution of South Africa, Article 102(2):

If the National Assembly, by a vote supported by a majority of its members, passes a motion of no confidence in the President, the President and the other members of the Cabinet and any Deputy Ministers must resign.

It could hardly be more clear than that. So if the ANC (which has far more than a majority of assembly seas) wants Zuma out, there’s no question how this will end. Zuma may have his own reasons to want to make the party go through the spectacle of a no-confidence vote, rather than step down “voluntarily”, but he does indeed serve at their pleasure.

It is also not as if is unusual in parliamentary systems for parties to replace their leader and the prime minister before an election. In Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers, David Samuels and I show that roughly a third of PMs in parliamentary democracies lose office by an intra-party procedure (rather than by losing a general election or leading a coalition that collapses). We did not note the timing of such removals relative to elections, but there is little doubt that many of the party-initiated removals take place closer to the next election than the preceding one. (In most such systems, the election can be called early on initiative of the new PM. The South African constitution also has a provision for early election, at the initiative of the assembly majority itself–Art. 50.)

Already this past December the ANC’s convention narrowly voted to elect Cyril Ramaphosa as head of the party (over Zuma’s ex-wife). He will lead the party in the campaign for the general election of 2019, whether or not Zuma is still president at the time.

A key difference in South Africa, compared to most other parliamentary systems, is that the prime minister is also the head of state–hence the title, President. In fact, other constitutional provisions in South Africa seem lifted from an actual presidential system (i.e., one in which the head of government is popularly elected for a fixed term). For instance, Article 89 has a provision for impeachment:

  1. The National Assembly, by a resolution adopted with a supporting vote of at least two thirds of its members, may remove the President from office only on the grounds of ­

a. a serious violation of the Constitution or the law;

b. serious misconduct; or

c. inability to perform the functions of office.

It is hard to imagine what this is doing in a parliamentary constitution! If, like most parliamentary republics, the head of state (“President”) and the head of government (“Prime Minister”) were separate persons, the presence of both provisions quoted here would make sense. But what purpose does an impeachment clause, requiring a super majority, have in a constitution that lets the assembly remove the combined president/PM by a much simpler procedure?

The pressure is ramping up, the State of the Nation speech has been postponed, and the rumors are running rampant ahead of a special meeting of the NEC. The party leadership body could “recall” him in a manner similar to how Thabo Mbeki’s term ended early in 2008. However, that is a party procedure with no legal standing and thus would not be binding on the President.

Will he resign, or will the ANC need to invoke Art. 102?