Why Zuma must be the last recalled president

Former president Thabo Mbeki's recall came as a shock to many South Africans.
Former president Thabo Mbeki's recall came as a shock to many South Africans.
Image: Esa Alexander

In September 2008, Thabo Mbeki was removed from office as president, through a recall. It was a fairly smooth process, facilitated in great measure by the discipline of Mbeki.

Once his organisation instructed him to resign, he obeyed without any resistance. He did not want to endanger the order and stability of the country.

The constitution stipulates how a president is elected by parliament and how he could be removed by the same parliament, namely through a motion of no confidence or impeachment.

The former is easier in the sense that parliamentarians simply have to lose confidence in the president, while in the latter case, parliament votes to remove the president if he or she violates the constitution of the land or laws, is guilty of misconduct or is unable to perform the duties of a president.

Mbeki was not guilty of any of these defects or infractions and the reasons for his removal were dodgy, to say the least. Nevertheless, he gracefully stepped aside.

He could have refused to resign, citing the illegality of the demand and asking the courts to adjudicate. His political party would not have been assured of a majority of members of parliament voting him out. That could have resulted in a serious crisis.

Recall is a well-understood concept in the lexicon of many progressive political parties, so much so that some enshrine it in their constitutions. While this might be so, the concept is unknown to the constitution.

So, although removing a sitting president through recall might be politically in order, it is, at worst, constitutionally illegal and, at best, awkward. It is not the best way to remove a sitting president from office.

Some of us had thought that once the dust had settled after the recall of Mbeki 10 years ago, we would find a way of doing it in a more appropriate fashion. That was not done.

The issue reared its ugly head again earlier this month when the governing party used the recall principle to remove Jacob Zuma from the presidency. It was as inelegant as it was embarrassing. It caused a political tremor that could have been avoided.

Unlike Mbeki, Zuma tried his best to resist the recall. If he was not asking for an extension of his stay for a few months, he was asking for reasons for his recall.

He wanted to know what it is that he had done that required his political party to take such a drastic and humiliating step against him.

He went on national television and rambled on about the unfairness of the actions. His long monologue was probably also geared at mobilising his supporters into action.

Although most of us would provide moral and ethical reasons as long as an arm why it was no longer appropriate for him to remain in office, constitutionally and legally, he did have a leg to stand on.

It was particularly so because his political party, which was recalling him, had supported and protected him for years of his misrule.

It was only when his party abandoned negotiations with him and initiated a process to remove him through a motion of no confidence in parliament that he relented, even then at the eleventh hour.

In the process, he and the governing party turned an internal party political process into a national mini-crisis that saw the State of the Nation Address postponed for the first time.

There are many of us who believe we should not go on like this. We might have to appoint a committee of parliamentarians to look at ways of harmonising a recall with the constitution, or request the Constitutional Court to guide us in this matter.

Let Zuma be the last head of state in our country to be removed from office in this rather inelegant, clumsy and awkward manner.

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