Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
17 January 2012

Can Mbeki make a comeback?

If some journalists are to be believed, former President Thabo Mbeki is on the comeback trial. Yearning, perhaps, for a President who can do more than sing and dance and fire cabinet ministers (someone who can construct a coherent and seemingly plausible argument; who can engage in a provocative — if pseudo-intellectual and misguided — manner with the issue of the “democratisation of knowledge“; who can launch scathing attacks against those who have been a bit too uppity or have insisted on confronting him with unpleasant facts; who can produce memorable phrases like “the “fishers of corrupt men” to signal his disdain of the views of others) many South Africans suddenly seem to be missing our former President.

If I have time in the next few days, I will critique former President Mbeki’s latest attempt at justifying his flirtation with Aids denialism and his unique interpretation of Muammar Gadaffi’s “peaceful” nature.  Recall for the time being that Gadaffi had warned Libyans rising up against his rule (people he called “rats and cats”, who were “drugged cockroaches”),  to hand over  weapons or “we will announce the holy march, I will call on millions from one desert to another to cleanse Libya house by house…”

But today I wish to raise an interesting point of constitutional law. Although it is never going to happen, I have been asked what would the legal position be if Thabo Mbeki is re-elected as ANC President at the end of the year. Would he be able to return as President of the country, given the fact that he never served a full second term as President?

Section 88(2) of the Constitution states that no person may hold office as President for more than two terms. The section does not say that a President cannot serve more than two consecutive terms, which means the Putin option is not available to a South African President who has served two full terms. A President can therefore not serve two terms, then do something else for five years, only to return to serve as the President for another 10 years after that.

But here is where things get murky. The ban on serving more than two terms as President is qualified by a sub-clause contained in section 88(2), which states that when a person is elected to fill a vacancy in the office of President, the period between that election and the next election of a President is not regarded as a term. Where a President is therefore elected as President after a general election, but then resigns or is fired by the National Assembly and is replaced by another President, the new President will serve the rest of the five year term without that part of the term counting as one of his two terms in terms of section 88(2).

This means that although Kgalema Motlanthe served as President after the removal of Mbeki, he did so to fill a vacancy in the office of the President and he would thus still be able to serve two full terms as President — were he ever to be elected as President of the ANC.

Although Mbeki did not serve a full second term, the wording of section 88(2) seems to be rather specific and does not allow a President who was elected after a general election and was then removed as President during his second term or resigned as President during his second term, to serve another (in effect, third) term later on.

There is a good reason for this. A President is not directly elected, but is rather elected by the members of the National Assembly. In terms of section 102(2) of the Constitution, the majority of members of the National Assembly can also fire a President and his or her cabinet for any reason they wish. For example, they can fire an aloof President who had lost the election for the ANC leadership — as they would have done with Mbeki if he had not resigned after being “recalled” by the ANC.

The majority party in the National Assembly can therefore dictate who must serve as President and had section 88(2) been phrased differently, the leader of that party would have been able to manipulate the support of his party MP’s to hold on to the Presidency indefinitely by a bit of crookery. If section 88(2) had provided that a President who had resigned before the end of his or her term would be assumed not to have served a term as President for the purposes of section 88, it would have opened the door for a President to serve for as long as his party wished him to serve as President.

All that a serving President would have had to do to achieve this, would have been to resign one month before the end of his or her second term — only to be re-elected for another “second” term after the next election. This is why section 88(2) disregards the part of a Presidential term served by a President taking over from an elected President during the five year life of a Parliament, but does not allow a President elected right after an election to discount his or her term served if he or she resigned or was fired before the expiry of a second term. However, the system can still be tricked, as a President who wished to serve more than two terms and who planned ahead could have another person elected as Presdident after the general election, only to replace that President after a month or two. This would, however, require blind support from his or her party and some foresight.

All this means that Mbeki can never serve as President of the country again — unless the Constitution is amended. This seems very unlikely, not only because the ANC would probably not agree to it, but also because the party does not have a two-thirds majority in Parliament (unlike in the days of Mbeki) and would probably not be able to persuade smaller parties to support such an amendment.

This does not mean, of course, that theoretically speaking, Mbeki could not be re-elected as President of the ANC. The ANC Constitution does not prohibit this. Neither does the Constitution require the President of the country also to be the leader of the majority party in Parliament (a situation that seems to differ from that of the Leader of the Opposition).

Of course, where the President of the majority party does not serve as President of the country (even when he or she is entitled to do so), the authority of the President and his or her executive may well be fatally compromised and the constitutional system may well take severe strain. In such a situation, the danger is that very little real power will be exercised within the formal constitutional structures like the Presidency and the executive. As we all know after the firing of Mbeki, it is the President of the majority party and the other leaders of the majority party who decide who serves as President, then instructs the members of the National Assembly to elect or fire whomever is necessary to give effect to this decision.

This situation will aggravate a problem that is inherent in our constitutional design. Although the President is supposedly accountable to Parliament and is elected and can be fired by the Assembly, in reality the President is accountable only to his or her political party and it’s leadership, who can decide who serves in Parliament and can also fire the members of their party as members of Parliament if they refuse to follow instructions from the party leadership. Where a President is not the leader of his or her party, the party will almost certainly try to remote-control the President and this might well lead to a further conflation of the ruling party, constitutional institutions like the Presidency, and the state.

This is also why I am no great fan of the current DA arrangement where its leader serves as the Premier of a province and a member of the Assembly is elected by the party to serve as Leader of the Opposition. Section 57(2)(d) of the Constitution states that the rules of the National Assembly must provide for “the recognition of the leader of the largest opposition party in the Assembly as the Leader of the Opposition”.

Helen Zille is the “leader of the largest opposition party in the Assembly”, yet Lindiwe Mazibuko serves as Leader of the Opposition. There are two problems with this. First, it is unclear to what extent Zille controls the Leader of the Opposition (and to what extent she did so with the two previous DA “leaders” who had served as Leader of the Opposition in Parliament). Second, it is far from clear that somebody who is not the leader of the largest opposition party in parliament can serve as Leader of the Opposition at all.

Section 57(2)(d) of the Constitution can be read as prohibiting anyone other than the actual leader of the largest political party in the Assembly serving in the role Mazibuko is serving in. Mazibuko might therefore very well not officially and lawfully be Leader of the Opposition at all as that title and role might well be reserved by the Constitution for the actual leader of the DA – Helen Zille.

In any event, these issues once again remind us that our Constitution has failed to regulate the relationship between political parties and their elected representatives in the legislature and the executives (at both national and provincial levels). This means that the power of the President or of Premiers vis-a-vis that of the leadership of the political parties they lead, will differ widely, depending on how tight a grip the President or a Premier has on his party. Where the President has no grip whatsoever — as seems the case with Jacob Zuma – the party leadership (in the case of the ANC that would often be Gwede Mantashe) will often act as the power behind the throne, but without having to worry about any of the checks and balances built into the constitutional system.

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