Way less likely than a Trump victory – but could the unthinkable happen in SA?

That sufficient ANC members could take an ethical stand in the face of a historical imperative and a tradition of standing strong together, regardless of the enemy (in the case corruption and patronage), is about as unlikely as Donald Trump withdrawing from the US presidential race. We are talking about the outside possibility of 47% of ANC MP’s voting with the opposition after South Africa’s parliamentary No Confidence debate on Thursday – and impeaching Jacob Zuma. Yet, is the fascinating open letter below merely the admirable conjecture of a pragmatic idealist, bent on trying to herd a flock of sheep out of what seem to be evergreen pastures into a potential desert, or are there enough good men and women among the ANC MP’s willing to brave the prospect of a cold and lonely desert night? You could even argue that, like in the popular TV reality series ‘’Survivor,” they fancy their chances of a blindside vote, given what could be a sea change in public sentiment. Then the desert wouldn’t be so dark, cold or lonely… – Chris Bateman

An open letter to all members of the House of Assembly ahead of the No Confidence motion due on 10 November 2016

By John GI Clarke*

Dear Honourable Members.

History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul. – Lord John Dalberg Acton

John Clarke at Mtentu Hutted Camp, Wild Coast October 2006
John GI Clarke

What will future generations make of the history of South Africa that unfolded between 9 December 2015 and 10 November 2016?

Eleven months ago, President Jacob Zuma replaced his respected Minister of Finance, Nhlanhla Nene. This week the House of Assembly will debate another motion of no confidence in the President because of the economic, political, social, legal and moral crisis that his conduct in office has precipitated.

Will 2016 go down as a burden on the memory or an illumination of the soul?

That all depends on how the 400 individual Members of Parliament (MPs) who represent the interests of all the citizens of South Africa cast their votes on Thursday.

I am directing this open letter mainly to the 249 MPs from the governing party, hoping that at least 116 of them will vote with the opposition to secure the necessary two-thirds majority to impeach the President. If they do so they will be heeding the profound truth of Lord Acton’s unforgettable other quotation about the corrupting tendency of power and the absolute risk of absolutising power in one person.

This famous oft-quoted assertion was included in a letter to clergyman Mandell Creighton, author of History of the Papacy during the Period of the Reformation, penned on April 5, 1887. Oddly, Acton (a Roman Catholic) was faulting Crichton (an Anglican) for not condemning the medieval Papacy—promoter of the Inquisition. Crichton had written that the holder of high office should only be judged on his public conduct. His private acts should not be allowed to influence judgements about his fitness for office.

SA cabinet
National Assembly of South Africa

Acton disagreed:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

“Absolutely” is an all-inclusive term. Inclusive of the person exercising power. That means Jacob Zuma’s own wellbeing is now at risk if he remains in power. So even those who love and care for him and do not want to see him and his family suffer further moral and physical degeneration should now recognise that it is in his own best interests to be removed from office.

I think it is fair to say that were Acton alive today he would have heartily applauded the South African Constitution for its entrenchment of the right to freedom of religion and conscience and the separation of powers of the Judiciary, the Executive and the Legislature.

Acton’s argument continues:

Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

Good leaders who become intoxicated by power have an ever-increasing risk of turning bad as they become ever more powerful. The critical factor is how long an incumbent remains in office.

In my book The Promise of Justice I argue that both Prime Minister Cecil Rhodes and President Paul Kruger were both over-intoxicated by power. For want of effective constitutional checks and balances they got so high on their own juice that their hubris led to an outbreak of a war that heralded a century of warfare that still today casts a long shadow on our history.

ANC_LogoAfter President Zuma’s disastrous firing of Minister Nene and his embarrassing speech a few hours later I published an article entitled “The Zuma Projection: Mad, Bad or Sad?”. I revised it in March this year, re-directing it specifically to ANC MPs in the hope that they would vote with the Opposition to impeach President Zuma. They did not. ANC caucus discipline held. But that was before Minister Pravin Gordhan was targeted by the National “Persecuting” Authority and before the release of “State of Capture”, Sipho Pityana’s bold challenge, and the formation of Save South Africa.

What would Lord Acton have done were he an elected ANC MP today? What would he say in the ANC parliamentary caucus? How would he cast his vote when the motion of No Confidence in President Zuma was tabled in parliament?

Would he be willing to go against the ANC caucus decision and vote with the combined opposition vote to impeach the President?

Lord Acton summed up his own life with great humility, self-awareness and recognition of the difficulty in his ethical position in a letter in which he confided to a friend:

I am absolutely alone in my essential ethical position. Let me try as briefly as possible and without argument to tell you what is in fact a very simple, obvious, and not interesting story. It is the story of a man who started in life believing himself a sincere Catholic and a sincere Liberal; who therefore renounced everything in Catholicism which was not compatible with liberty, and everything in Politics which was not compatible with Catholicity…Therefore I was among those who think less of what is than what ought to be, who sacrifice the real to the ideal, interest to duty, authority to morality.

Holding the moral high ground is a chilly and often lonely position. Are there enough MPs in the House of Assembly to put duty above interest, morality above authority, the ideal before the real and decide to vote as they ought, obedient to their conscience?

Honourable Members: how will you vote on Thursday?

  • John GI Clarke is a social worker and author of “The Promise of Justice: King Justice Mpondombini Sigcau’s struggle to save the Kingdom of AmaMpondo against unjust developments”