It is a peaceful 200-yard walk from the Cape Town city streets to the gates of Parliament, but inside it was loaded like a gun; anger blazed in the eyes of many for Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa for nearly seven years and head of the African National Congress (ANC).
A small group outside Parliament held up placards reading ‘ANC Betraying South Africa’. The leader, in a navy suit, who wishes to be known only as Michael, said they had taken their lunchbreak to voice their disgust.
“The ANC members here today must do the honorable thing and fire this president who flaunts our wealth.”
A man dressed in the darkness of death contrasted against Parliament’s bright white walls. He held a cardboard match to a cardboard Constitution as MPs floated past in their luxury vehicles.
Curious students across the way ran to see what the fuss is all about. One claimed Zuma is running the economy into the ground, another countered that he is too powerful to be ousted.
The street vendor, a few blocks down, didn’t care. He sold sweets and cigarettes to anyone who had money, be it Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) red or ANC green and gold, as they shuffled toward Parliament. No one wanted to miss this one.
Inside, the debate raged like a fire on Table Mountain. The gallery was packed as leaders of the opposition parties tore into the ruling ANC. Mmusi Maimane, the first black leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), likened the ills of his opponents to a disease.
“Corruption has infected the entire party like a cancer. While our attention today focuses on a large and malignant tumour, we know that under the surface, the disease has replicated itself in every cell,” said Maimane.
“Today, it will be recorded that ANC members of Parliament chose to defend a crooked, broken president instead of the constitution and the rule of law. Today will signal once and for all that the ANC has lost its way and there’s absolutely no way back.”
Nhlanhla Khubisa, National Freedom Party secretary-general, called for the president to be elected by the citizens, and not by the party.
Pieter Mulder, Freedom Front Plus leader, reminded the ANC of the fate of their predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, who was recalled in 2008.
“His mistakes were 10 times less serious than Zuma… Sir, if ANC members once again ignore the facts of the last week… take my word for it, history will in a couple of years from now judge them very harshly and negatively,” said Mulder.
ANC MP and Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, John Jeffery, bit back.
“The DA claims the president seriously violated the Constitution, but here is the issue: the court did not find a serious violation of the Constitution as Section 89 (1) requires… The court did not declare Zuma violated his oath of office as the EFF had wanted.”
A statement was read out:
The Presidency wishes to correct media reports wrongly stating that the judgement by the Constitutional Court found that President Jacob Zuma had broken his oath of office. The Constitutional Court did not make such a declaratory order.
The Constitutional Court instead ruled that “The failure by the President to comply with the remedial action taken against him, by the Public Protector in her report of 19 March 2014, is inconsistent with section 83(b) of the Constitution read with sections 181(3) and 182(1)(c) of the Constitution and is invalid.
Votes were cast, results read, the dust settled and the opposition walked out – oh, by the way, Zuma won: 233 votes to 143.
How Did We Get Here?
Even if President Jacob Zuma does survive, this fragile democracy will face an acid test on August 3. Millions of South Africans will go to the polls for municipal elections in which the ruling ANC is expected to lose ground.
How did we get here? Well, the tension has built since 2009, when the story of Nkandla broke. Seven years later, South Africa’s Constitutional Court – the highest in the land – found Zuma to have unduly benefited from $15 million worth of upgrades to his personal home in KwaZulu-Natal. The court stated Zuma failed to uphold, defend and respect the constitution as the supreme law of the land.
A humbled Zuma apologized publicly to the country on television. The ANC backed him.
“I wish to reiterate that any action that has been found not to be in keeping with the constitution happened because of a different approach and different legal advice… I never knowingly or deliberately set out to violate the constitution… It was never my intention not to comply with the remedial action taken against me by the Public Protector [Thuli Madonzela] or to disregard her office.”
Other loyalists called for more than an apology. Trevor Manuel, South Africa’s former finance minister, wanted resignation. Even Ahmed Kathrada, who faced death with Nelson Mandela in the 1960s, wrote a letter calling for Zuma to go.
“I know that if I were in the President’s shoes‚ I would step down with immediate effect,” wrote Kathrada.