The celebration was short-lived. The "no vote" numbered 198, Mbete quickly announced. A total of 384 votes were cast on the motion, of which the opposition got less than half and nine members abstained. Their expectation of victory obviously clouded their judgment.
The opposition can be forgiven, however, for getting their maths wrong. Outside of Parliament and watching from their homes, scores of South Africans had similar expectations as opposition MPs.
They couldn’t imagine that MPs of the ANC would vote to retain a president that had singularly cost them 15% in electoral support, is morally inept and harms the country’s economic health. And, so one must ask: how did this happen, and what is the likely consequence for the governing party and opposition.
For starters, however, it’s worth recognising the significance of the day: it was historic.
The vote of no confidence was not only the eighth since Zuma took over office, but was also, for the first time ever, conducted secretly. A new record of television viewership was probably set on August 8.
Enabling that defining moment was an unusually admirable conduct. Mbete prioritised the rule of law, over her president. While an open ballot decision would have been overturned by the courts, it would have curried her favour with Zuma, whose support she needs to realise her presidential ambition. But, Mbete didn’t care to please Zuma, who was against a secret ballot.
Mbete’s defiance of Zuma’s wish was occasioned either by failure to secure any assurance of support for her campaign, or she was simply more concerned about her own place in history.
She didn’t want to risk further stain on her reputation for a man who had not reciprocated her goodwill towards him.
Whatever her reasons, Mbete will always receive a pleasant mention whenever we recall that momentous occasion on Tuesday.
A change of president rattles the patronage-faction and Zuma-loyalists. It raised the possibility of cleaning-house and a permanent loss of jobs. Ministers closely associated with Zuma and are incompetent were unlikely to be re-appointed into cabinet. That’s why one did not expect a great number of them to vote for the dissolution of cabinet, which is what would have happened had the motion of no confidence in the president passed.
A surprise, however, was the majority that Zuma still enjoys in the ANC caucus. Unlike their ministerial colleagues, they were unlikely to lose their jobs in the instance of the cabinet dissolving.
Some are sycophantic and would have voted for Zuma regardless of the issues in question. Let’s assume others were persuaded by the two-pronged argument presented by the leadership of the party and caucus.
That argument likened Zuma’s exit to regime change, whose destabilising impact would be fatal to the organisation. They did not defend Zuma, but condended their stance was in defence of the organisation against an imperialist inspired agenda. That’s not unexpected in light of our anti-apartheid history and international stance since 1994.
Support from the Communist Soviet Union didn’t entirely endear the ANC to the capitals of West European countries and the US.
Insisting on Africa’s equal participation in international forums after 1994, when the norm had hitherto been talking down to continental leaders, didn’t improve our ratings either in the eyes of Africa’s colonial masters. None of this was remotely connected to what had occasioned the motion of no confidence in Zuma.
So why did most ANC MPs believe the bogey was real, if at all?
The answer is that they’re either pathetically gullible, or party apparatchiks who cannot imagine the world outside the ANC.
To them the ANC constitutes the entirety of the universe. The party comes first, above anything else. So the bogeyman - i.e. regime change - is real within the ranks. To the outside world, however, talk of regime-change when Zuma is the obvious problem, makes Jackson Mthembu sound crazy. Really, he’s not making any sense at all.
What of the argument that voting Zuma out would have been akin to detonating a "nuclear bomb" onto the party?
The move would have certainly shaken the organisation. But, the party must, in any case, undergo dramatic change in order to improve its prospects of stemming electoral decline. A shock per se, therefore, is not a problem, especially if it has a catalytic effect for the better. That’s what Zuma’s ousting would have had.
There would have certainly been disagreement over the choice of the new president. Zuma’s faction would have preferred a person who did not present immediate danger to them. That danger would have been firing all ministers implicated in state capture and setting up a commission of enquiry immediately.
Only a serious disruption can change the ANC. Zuma won’t bow out easily and is determined to have his ex-wife succeed him, by hook or crook.
His detractors must be as prepared as him, if not more, to unsettle the ANC in order to reform it. Removing Zuma would not only have been disruptive, but would have also initiated a change in public sentiment towards the party.
Although the opposition initiated the motion of no confidence, everyone would know that it took the ANC to make it work. Already the dominant call toward the vote was that the "ANC must save the country".
That call alone prepared the ground for Zizi Kodwa, the party’s spokesperson, to claim credit that “the ANC put the country first, worked with fellow patriots for the benefit of all”.
At some level, perhaps, what happened on Tuesday reaffirms what some have already been saying: that the ANC is a party of the past. That the party could not fathom initiating a disruptive change within the ranks shows it cannot re-imagine itself differently.
Renewal is unsettling.
All that awaits the party now is the wrath of the voters. They’re no longer just complicit in Zuma’s catastrophe, but are also protecting him.
Collective punishment shall and must definitely come.
* Ndletyana is an associate professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
The Sunday Independent