What matters inside the African National Congress, the party that governs South Africa, is not necessarily what matters outside it. This obvious point is missed by much of the commentary on the latest unsuccessful motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma – and in much discussion of South African politics.
One result of ignoring this reality is the claim that the vote seriously weakened Zuma because several dozen ANC members of parliament supported the motion or abstained.
This was the first time some ANC MPs supported a motion of no confidence in an ANC president. But while Zuma came within 21 votes of losing in parliament, he was probably backed by 80% or more of the ANC caucus. Most of the votes against him were cast by opposition MPs, who do not have a say in who is ANC president, not ANC members, who do.
Unless parliament passes a motion of no confidence in him, which is not on the cards anytime soon, his future depends on whether he was weakened in the ANC, not parliament.
Within the ANC, Zuma’s future is not the absorbing fixation it is outside it.
Loyalty amid factionalism
For many outside the ANC, politicians are defined by whether they want Zuma to go. Inside it, the key reality is a battle between two factions: Zuma’s is accused by its opponents, whose likeliest presidential candidate is deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, of using public office to advance private interests. While Zuma is supported by one and opposed by the other, both know he does not shape what the ANC and government do on his own – he acts as part of a faction. If he goes and the faction wins, nothing changes, and so for both sides, winning the factional battle is far more important than Zuma’s fate.
The contest is centred on winning the leadership elections at the ANC’s December national elective conference. What both sides do, they do with that in mind – Zuma’s fate is a product of this battle.
Key figures in the factions also want to run an ANC in good shape to win the next election and so they worry about splitting or damaging the organisation. If doing what matters to people outside the ANC risks harming it, they will not do it.
There is no evidence yet that the vote weakened Zuma’s faction. Because the vote was secret, we don’t know which MPs voted for him to go. But common sense suggests that they are not pro-Zuma faction members who changed sides but staunch members of the group that wants him gone. So the anti-Zuma group has not grown because some of its members expressed themselves more forcefully.
Nor does it show that the tide within the ANC is moving against Zuma. What matters inside the ANC, but not outside it, is loyalty to the organisation. For many years it was banned and under constant attack – this produced a culture in which the default position is to close ranks in the face of what it sees as outside attack. This made the dissent by ANC MPs a huge step for them. But there is no reason why their view should be shared by others – given the premium on loyalty, their decision could help the pro-Zuma faction by discrediting its opposition.
This misfit between the logic of ANC politics and that outside it explains other aspects of the no-confidence vote that have caused confusion. One is that figures such as secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and chief whip Jackson Mthembu worked to get ANC MPs to defeat the motion although they oppose Zuma’s faction; the SA Communist Party, which has called on Zuma to go, did not ask its members to support the motion.
They did this not because they have switched sides but because they believed Zuma’s defeat in a no-confidence vote was unlikely – and would not help them if it happened. The opposing faction would still be there, as strong as before. They might be strong enough to replace Zuma with another member of the faction, changing nothing. Or, more likely, the deadlock between the factions would tear the ANC apart and might allow the opposition to elect a president by default. So they preferred to feign loyalty and to work to take over the ANC in December.
Balance of power
This means that the overwhelming ANC caucus vote against the motion does not tell us that the faction to which Zuma belongs is winning and will control the ANC after December. Many MPs who voted against the anti-Zuma motion may be part of the faction which wants him gone: they may have voted as they did because the leaders of their faction told them that strategy made this necessary. So the balance of power in the ANC that will decide who will lead it next year may not have been affected either way by the no-confidence vote.
What is happening inside the ANC may not be morally uplifting. But nor is it about foolishness or hypocrisy. It stems from decisions that are entirely logical if what matters inside the ANC matters to you. If everyone outside the ANC wants to grasp what is happening and where it might lead, they need to understand what matters inside the ANC.