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.

Heywood is convinced Motsoaledi did this out of frustration. “He’s a good, visionary health minister, but he hasn’t been able to bring about transformation in health or make sufficient progress with the National Health Insurance scheme. In fact, many indicators, such as hospital infrastructure, the human resource crisis and the state of non-communicable diseases, got worse,” Heywood says. “That’s because you can’t be an effective health minister in a corrupt government, because effective health ministers depend upon good governance in many other areas, whether it’s education, public works or public service.”

The ANC has a press conference this afternoon at its head offices to announce the outcome of the NEC meeting. But Friedman says he doubts whether the no confidence motion would even have been voted on. “The default position of the ANC has always been to try to reach consensus rather than to vote about such issues.

“I’m pretty sure Zuma won’t be gone at the end of it, but who knows what wrinkles there will be. 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.”  

Jacob ZumaAaron Motsoaledimotion of no confidence