On Tuesday, August 8, embattled South African President Jacob Zuma survived his 8th vote of no-confidence in the country’s parliament. The motion was brought before parliament by the country’s opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA).  

The DA claims that Zuma is not fit to govern. He stands accused, amongst other things, of being “captured” – selling the country out – by a rich Indian family with extensive business interests in South Africa, the Gupta’s.

A mass of emails, now coined the “Gupta leaks,” hit the news a few months ago. A team of investigative journalists have been plowing through the emails and, as they piece it together, revealed how government business and cabinet appointments have been made under the undue influence of the Gupta’s.

In one or two cases, it’s even been alleged that members of the Gupta family offered Cabinet posts to parliamentarians in Zuma’s presence.

Before the Gupta leak saga, Zuma had been found guilty of violating his oath of office and the country’s constitution when he used public funds to upgrade his own personal residence. The country’s highest court, the Constitutional Court (the equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court), ordered that he pay the money back.

Under the Zuma presidency, the country’s bonds have been downgraded to junk status by international ratings agencies, the gap between the rich and poor has grown, youth unemployment is predicted to be over 30 percent (at the most conservative estimate) and, recently, the country has entered a technical recession.

Jacob Zuma belongs to the African National Congress (ANC) – the party of former South African president Nelson Mandela. In 2014, the ANC won a 62 percent majority in the national election. This means that the party has a majority in parliament, some 249 seats.

The opposition DA has 89 seats. For a vote of no-confidence to succeed, a 51 percent majority must vote in favor of the motion. Members of the ANC have, in the past, voted as a block, which means that Mr. Zuma has always easily survived.

In April 2017, the president fired the country’s finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas. Zuma replaced the finance minister with Malusi Gigaba – who has been accused of having Gupta links.

The former minister believes that more than $700 million has been stolen from South Africa’s accounts. This led to an intensified effort by opposition parties and civil society groups to get rid of Zuma. His powerful faction in the ANC has, however, continued to protect him, and claim that “white monopoly capital” is trying to discredit Zuma as he attempts to ensure that the country’s economy is reformed.

After the leaks broke, the opposition party tabled another motion of no-confidence. In the past, such motions were voted on by a simple show of hands in parliament.

The opposition went to the Constitutional Court demanding that the motion of no-confidence be conducted by secret ballot. They claimed that several ANC members would vote for the motion if it was done by secret ballot. The ANC said party members must vote according to the party line.

South Africa has a party list-based proportional representation electoral system, which gives ultimate say over who gets into Parliament to party leadership – including the right of the leadership to recall (euphemistically called by the ANC ‘redeployment’) MPs who either do not deliver – or, in the ANC’s case, do not follow the party line.

Some ANC members of parliament claimed that, if they voted for the motion, they would be at the very least victimized, and in the worst case, lose their jobs.

As the vote got closer a few ANC members, like the former finance minister, publicly stated that they would vote their conscience. The party secretary-general insisted members of parliament for the ANC had no choice but to vote party line. This gave rise to a new dimension to the no-confidence vote, one that had indeed not been debated publicly in the last seven motions against Zuma: The primacy of conscience.

A number of public pronouncements were made by the South African Council of Churches (SACC), the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, civil society organisations, and the Jesuit Institute South Africa on the importance and primacy of conscience.

A few months ago, when asked to offer guidelines on a nationwide anti-Zuma march, the Catholic bishops said in a statement that people should use conscience to discern their actions.

ANC members of parliament were urged to vote with their conscience for the common good. In the run-up to the vote, conscience and common good became not only a rallying point but the narrative around the vote.

The SACC, in a strongly worded press release days before the vote, said: “The religious leaders are of the view that the current government has lost all moral legitimacy to lead South Africa: A country that finds itself in a political and socio-economic quagmire.”

The statement went on to say that “the fear members of the majority party would be sanctioned for voting with their consciences, suggests that the members’ duty to the nation must be subordinated to the ill-considered interests of a party.”

The SACC went on to say that “basic ethics should not be a matter of political maneuvering and horse trading” and that “we are all morally accountable for our deeds and that there comes a time for each of us to decide whether we shall live within the lie or break out and live within the truth! That is indeed a matter of a healthy conscience.” 

On the day before the vote the Jesuit Institute, in a press statement, appealed to members of parliament to vote with their conscience.

The Institute said that “in the light of voices to the contrary, (it) reminds all Members of Parliament (MPs) that they have the obligation to uphold the primacy of conscience. Nobody has the right to violate or override individual conscience; we condemn any such violation in the strongest terms. Any violation should not be tolerated. MPs have the obligation to vote according to their individual conscience for the sake of the common good.”

The Institute went on to urge members of parliament “not to be puppets in a political establishment that seeks to suppress your basic moral obligation.” 

Although Zuma survived the vote, it was by a narrow margin. A significant number of ANC members of parliament, perhaps 30, voted for him to go. It is also interesting to note that in the debate before the vote. no ANC members gave any reasons as to why Zuma should stay, and nobody (unusually) defended him.

Despite the predictable outcome, it is significant that the appeal to conscience was part of the discourse. South Africa’s politics is often polarized by one major issue: Race.

Despite Mandela’s attempts in his presidency (1994-1999) to downplay race – to encourage a sense of common South Africanness, and encourage citizens to move beyond racially fixed identities – white prejudices and black resentment (particularly of historical economic disadvantage) have remained significant.

Race still plays a major role in South African society, and most certainly in the political arena, where the ANC often uses it as a fall-back position to justify itself. Yet the wide and varied appeals to conscience seemed to usher another, previously absent, dimension to the country’s collective consciousness.

The conscience argument, it seems, gave some ANC members the courage to rebel.

The other dimension to this is that if one upholds the primacy of conscience, suggesting people should vote using the dictates of conscience, then you must accept the decisions people make.

Of course, it may be countered that for those ANC members of parliament , whose jobs are literally subject to the decisions of the party’s leadership (all Zuma supporters) the cost of conscience is too high. As in many other institutions subject to highly centralized control, following one’s conscience is a risky business.

In the short term, this may mean that, despite his poor track record, South Africa will have Zuma as its president until the national election in 2019 – unless a ninth attempt to oust him between now and then achieves what the August 8 no-confidence vote narrowly failed to do.

Jesuit Father Russell Pollitt is Director of the Jesuit Institute South Africa.