South Africa’s parliament was voting Tuesday on a motion of no confidence in embattled President Jacob Zuma that could force him to resign after months of growing anger over alleged corruption.
Zuma has survived six previous attempts to unseat him in parliament, but this is the first to be held by secret ballot after parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete on Monday made the surprise decision to allow it. Opposition parties hope it will encourage disgruntled legislators with the ruling African National Congress party to vote against Zuma, who has faced numerous allegations of graft while South Africa’s economy has fallen into recession.
“Take our country back,” the head of the main opposition Democratic Alliance party, Mmusi Maimane, urged lawmakers. “This is a historic day. Indeed, since the dawn of our democracy the stakes have never been higher.”
Widespread frustration over Zuma has hurt the ANC, the former liberation movement that has led South Africa since the end of white minority rule and the first all-race elections in 1994. On Tuesday, former President Thabo Mbeki said ANC lawmakers must ask themselves if they have confidence in Zuma when they go to vote, according to a video posted by a Nairobi-based journalist on Twitter.
“Those MPs must recall that they are the representatives of the people, and must therefore represent the people in terms of what they do this afternoon,” Mbeki told reporters.
The ANC holds a majority of the 400 parliament seats, and the party has repeatedly said its members will not support the opposition-led attempt to unseat the president. The party has 249 parliamentary seats, five of which are currently vacant, said a party spokeswoman, Nonceba Mhlauli.
The no-confidence motion needs 201 votes to succeed.
The draft of the motion submitted by the Democratic Alliance accuses Zuma of “derelict leadership” and says the president has “lost all sense of rationality and sound judgment,” harming the country’s economy and its poorest citizens.
Demonstrations both for and against Zuma, who has led South Africa since 2009, were taking place in front of the parliament building in Cape Town before the much-anticipated vote.
“As you can see, thousands of people have reached the end of their tether in terms of what is happening in our beautiful country, our beautiful, diverse country that we should enjoy but we can’t enjoy because millions of our people are without jobs,” said one protester, Johnnie Jacobs.
“We have got to get rid of this man before he destroys everything that we have all worked so hard for,” said another protester, Anne Shirley.
If the motion succeeds, Zuma and his Cabinet must resign immediately and Mbete will take over as acting president, according to Pierre de Vos, a constitutional expert and law professor at the University of Cape Town. The rest of the administration would continue its work for an interim period of up to 30 days until the country’s chief justice convenes a special parliament session to elect a new president.
If the ANC cannot agree on a candidate in that time, new national elections would be held. A similar replacement process kicked into gear after the ANC recalled Mbeki in 2008.
The reputation of Zuma, who spent a decade in prison for his anti-apartheid activities and has been popular among some South Africans for his personal warmth and populist policies, has been tarnished by allegations of impropriety.
Last year, the Constitutional Court ruled unanimously that Zuma “failed to uphold” the constitution by not paying back some of the $20 million-plus in state money used to upgrade his rural home. Zuma’s ties to the Gupta family, immigrant businessmen accused of trying to manipulate government leaders and state companies for financial gain, also have stirred public anger.
The president’s firing of widely respected finance minister Pravin Gordhan in a Cabinet reshuffle in March led two agencies, Fitch and Standard & Poor’s, to lower South Africa’s credit rating to below investment grade, or junk status.
While Zuma’s term continues until elections in 2019, there have been calls from within the ANC for him to quit earlier and allow the party to shore up support before the vote. The ruling party is expected to replace Zuma as ANC president at a meeting in December.