In a few days National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete could be the most powerful person in South Africa. Without ever making a run for the presidency, she could be the one who determines the future of our country.
Next week the Constitutional Court will rule on the question of a secret ballot brought before it by the UDM and other opposition parties. Essentially the court has to rule whether the motion of no confidence in President Zuma should be decided by a secret ballot or whether a secret ballot is permitted by the Constitution, i.e. that there is nothing implicit in the Constitution that prevents the motion from being decided by secret ballot.
The arguments for and against a secret ballot are well known by now. What interests me more is what happens after the ruling by the Constitutional Court in either of these scenarios.
Legal experts seem to largely agree that there is a very small likelihood that the court will dictate to Parliament that the motion must be decided by secret ballot. In such an event it will have to overturn the judgement of the Cape High Court in the case brought by Agang in 2015. Although the applicants in this case (Tlouamma and Others v Mbete) asked for the Speaker of the National Assembly to be declared incompetent. They also asked the court to declare that a motion of no confidence in the president must be decided by secret ballot.
The court however ruled that it “is not mandated to prescribe to the National Assembly on how to conduct its voting procedures…. the effect of granting the relief sought in respect of voting by secret ballot would offend against the provisions of s 57 of the Constitution as well as the doctrine of separation of powers in that it would in effect amount to the court formulating rules for the National Assembly.”
Of course, as the highest court of the land, the Constitutional Court is totally within its rights to overturn the ruling of the Cape High Court should it be of the opinion that the wider Constitutional obligations require members to be allowed to vote in secret on a motion of no confidence.
If this were to happen, it will leave President Zuma and the ANC in a very difficult position. It is generally accepted that the majority of ANC MPs in Parliament want President Zuma to be replaced. Numerous very senior ANC members have assured me that the motion to remove President Zuma will definitely pass with a huge majority if it is voted on by a secret ballot. Which of course explains President Zuma’s vociferous objections in his opposing affidavit to the Constitutional Court.
The president and the leadership in the ANC will know that to lose such a motion would be hugely damaging to the ANC and they would certainly like to avoid this at all costs. But if the court were to make a ruling requiring a secret ballot (and if it is indeed correct that the at least 60 ANC MPs are likely to vote for the motion) the only way to sidestep such a humiliation is for the president to resign.
Recent events have shown that the majority of NWC members are still firmly in the Zuma camp and that he has no intention of resigning voluntarily. However, it is possible that the office bearers or top five officials can apply the necessary pressure on the president.
And this is where Mbete will become the king maker. Such a move will only work if the five officials are either united or have a convincing majority. Presumably Ramaphosa, Mantashe (if he doesn’t “mantashe” again) and Mkhize will be clear on the need for the president to step down. Duarte will most probably remain steadfast in her support for the president, which leaves Mbete.
If she sides with Duarte it means two against three and I doubt that would be a strong enough show of force to convince Zuma to step down. But if Mbete sides with Ramaphosa, Mantashe and Mkhize, the president will have to know that it is game over.
The second scenario is that the Constitutional Court rules that a secret ballot is not in conflict with any constitutional provision, but that it can not impose a secret ballot on the National Assembly. It will therefor be up to the speaker and/or the National Assembly to decide if it will allow a secret ballot.
And so the decision on how to proceed will be back with Baleka Mbete. She will undoubtedly face pressure from the president, NWC and most probably also the NEC to not allow a secret ballot. On the other hand, she will also be pressurised by a large group of ANC and opposition MPs who would want a secret vote, thus putting her in a very difficult position.
If she rules on the matter, the vote of no confidence will proceed quite speedily. However, her affidavit to the Constitutional Court seems to suggest that unless compelled to do so by the court, she will not make the decision, but instead refer it back to a committee – most probably the Rules Committee. In that case the vote would be delayed significantly.
The wheels of Parliament turn slowly and since we are only about two months away from the ANC policy conference it is possible that the ANC majority on the committee will delay any decision on the matter until later in the year. A delay would benefit Zuma, since the closer it gets to the December electoral conference the less likely the ANC MPs would be to vote for such a motion which would cause huge divisions in the ANC.
And so, whether we will still have Jacob Zuma as president in a month from now will most probably not only depend on the wisdom of our esteemed justices, but also on Speaker Baleka Mbete.
Mbete’s shocking comments at the recent memorial service for the 18 children killed in a taxi accident, was insensitive to the family of the children and to victims of incest and abuse. But it also seems to show a blind spot when it comes to criticism of the president. So, I wouldn’t advise anyone to bet their hard earned savings on having a new president soon.
– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.
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