Health minister Aaron Motsoaledi is said to have weighed up the risks and reportedly supported a second motion of no confidence against Jacob Zuma at the ANC's recent NEC . (Getty)

How to defy Zuma - and survive to tell the tale

Mia Malan
Analysts say this minister's strong SACP connections and ANC support ensure he’s ‘too powerful politically’ for the president to fire.

Health minister Aaron Motsoaledi knows the political consequences of firing him weigh heavier than the repercussions of keeping him on in his position; that’s why he reportedly seconded a vote of no confidence against President Jacob Zuma this weekend, says political analyst Steven Friedman.

On Saturday a vote of no confidence is said to have been tabled by ANC NEC member Joel Netshitenzhe at the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) meeting in Irene near Tshwane. Motsoaledi and his deputy Joe Phaahla apparently backed Netshitenzhe.

This would be the second time that Motsoaledi has supported such a motion. Zuma also faced a motion of no confidence in November, tabled by then tourism minister Derek Hanekom. Zuma dismissed Hanekom in a cabinet reshuffle in April , also removing Pravin Gordhan as finance minister.

“Everything in the ANC at the moment has to be understood in terms of the balance of power between the two rival factions – those who support Zuma and those who don’t,” says Friedman. “Clearly Motsoaledi’s reading, and that of his faction, is that there’s not going to be a second cabinet reshuffle anytime soon, and therefore if he wasn’t removed from the cabinet for taking this position the first time, there is no reason why he shouldn’t support such a motion a second time.”

Friedman says Motsoaledi’s strong SACP connections, as well as his “institutional base” in the ANC, makes it difficult for Zuma to act against him. Motsoaledi’s uncle Elias Motsoaledi was one of the eight men, including former President Nelson Mandela, sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial in 1964.

Friedman explains: “If you fire Motsoaledi you’re actually declaring war on a faction, or an affiliate of the ANC, whereas Hanekom doesn’t have that kind of institutional base.

“So clearly Zuma took a decision that it was not in his interest to fire an SACP minister who quite clearly had substantial support. His reading of ANC politics was that he would be taking on too much, he would be inviting too much resistance; if he was getting rid of people like Motsoaledi as well.”

Health activists have been expressing “enormous respect” for Motsoaledi’s “bravery and courage” in his ongoing opposition to Zuma. Executive director of the social justice group  SECTION27 Mark Heywood says his organisation, as well as the HIV advocacy movement, the Treatment Action Campaign, believes the health minister acted “honourably” by seconding the motion.

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The ANC had a press conference on Monday afternoon at its head offices to announce the outcome of the NEC meeting. Zuma survived with 18 NEC members supporting the motion and 54 being against it.

But Friedman says he's not surprised: “The only time the ANC has asked a president to step down, which was [former president Thabo] Mbeki [in 2008], there was a huge majority [in the NEC] supporting it. We’re not there yet.

“All the motion may do, if it has any effect at all, is to give both sides a greater sense of who is on their side and who is on the other side. This they will use to continue to do the main thing they’re doing at the moment, which is to contest who will be running the ANC next year.”  

This article was updated on June 3 to include the outcome of the ANC's NEC meeting. The article was originally published before the meeting happened.

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Jacob ZumaAaron Motsoaledimotion of no confidence