A resignation in South Africa

South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy is one of the great political success stories of the last 30 years. But it remains in some ways an imperfect transition. Only one party, the African National Congress, has ever held government, and political processes tend to look more like the behavior of a one-party state.

So Jacob Zuma, who resigned the presidency last night (this morning in Australia), did so not as the result of an adverse vote by either the electorate or parliament, but because of a direction issued by the national executive of the ANC.

This was the same process by which Thabo Mbeki left the job in 2008, which, after a short tenure by an interim replacement, led to Zuma’s election as president in May 2009.

Zuma was in any case prevented by term limits from remaining in office beyond next year’s general election. But his controversial record – including a major corruption scandal involving taxpayer-funded improvements to his home – evidently convinced the ANC that it needed a new standard-bearer sooner rather than later. Two months ago, its national conference chose Cyril Ramaphosa to succeed Zuma as party leader.

Ramaphosa, who was previously deputy president, has now taken over as acting president, but it’s expected that parliament will again choose a president to serve on an interim basis, as it did in 2008. That will leave Ramaphosa free to seek a mandate in his own right at the election, which seems a foregone conclusion: the ANC has never won less than 62% of the vote, and no-one really expects it can be beaten this time.

This would probably not sound quite so undemocratic were it not for the unfamiliar nature of South Africa’s constitutional structure. There is nothing else quite like it.

The best way to understand it is to think of an ordinary Westminster system with no head of state. Instead of having a constitutional monarch or a ceremonial president, the prime minister just takes on those duties as well. To reflect the added status, the super-prime-minister is called “president”, but remains in substance the head of a parliamentary executive: chosen by parliament, not the voters, and able to be removed by a simple vote of no confidence.

Once chosen, the president no longer sits in parliament, but their ministers do. There is also an impeachment procedure, requiring a two-thirds majority, but it’s unclear why anyone would bother to use it since a no-confidence vote is enough. (You can check out the relevant constitutional provisions here.)

No other country has adopted this system, but in a sense it represents a logical development: Westminster heads of state have seen their powers constantly diminish over time, so perhaps it is natural that the process should end by them disappearing entirely. Some of their “umpire” function is given to the chief justice, who, for example, chairs the session of parliament that elects the president.

The test for the system, and for South African democracy more broadly, will come when it is called upon to transfer power from one party to another. But that still seems some way off, and by disposing of the troublesome Zuma, the ANC has probably postponed the day of reckoning further.

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