A cough interrupted National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete as she was about to announce her decision on whether voting on the motion of no confidence in the President will be conducted by secret ballot or not.
“That cough comes at a strategic moment,” she quipped.
Her announcement was indeed a key moment, not just in the life of Parliament but an important test for this country’s democratic institutions. When the ANC recalled Thabo Mbeki as President in 2008, he opted to resign rather than let Parliament remove him from office through a vote. All other motions of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma have been voted on by open ballot. This will be the first time that a motion of no confidence is decided via secret ballot.
In an interview with the Sunday Times which preceded her announcement, Mbete shared with us how agonising this decision has been for her.
“You don’t wish to be me. It’s a difficult place to be. It’s what the Sotho call Kgomo ya moshate (damned if you do, damned if you don’t).”
Mbete is correct, she was sitting with one major dilemma and how she dealt with it, by granting the secret ballot, has taken everyone by surprise. Had she refused to grant the secret ballot she would have been in court first thing in the morning. The Constitutional Court had given clarity on the matter. Mbete does have the discretion to grant a secret ballot, but the court could not make that decision for her.
But, let’s cut the BS
Are ANC members, no matter how angry, going to vote to remove their own President and collapse their own Cabinet?
Granted, there are those mavericks that have declared openly that they will be voting for Zuma’s removal. Dr Makhosi Khoza has steadfastly refused to budge; she is voting Zuma out. Had this been an open ballot, it would have been the end of her career as an MP and possibly as a member of the ANC. Former Ekurhuleni Mayor Mondli Gungubele seems to have toned down his public outbursts after the ANC in Gauteng politely asked him to. Now that a secret ballot has been granted, he can safely be included on the list of those who will vote Zuma out.
There are the others who have been vocal in their anti-Zuma posture, such as former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and former Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom. But they are more cautious in their rhetoric when it comes to the vote and are yet to declare publicly whether they will also vote for Zuma to go. But given that they can now hide behind a secret ballot and vote with the opposition without suffering the consequences, chances are they will also put the President to the sword.
But what are the implications for both the ANC and its government should Zuma find himself ousted on Tuesday? What we know is that the entire Cabinet has to resign if the President goes. The Speaker then becomes President for 30 days, until MPs reconvene to elect a new President. ANC Chief Whip Jackson Mthembu has warned that the ANC risks removing itself from power if it votes to remove the President, comparing it to detonating a nuclear bomb.
That is not necessarily correct. The ANC still retains a huge majority in Parliament, and even after the prescribed 30 days, it will go back to Parliament to vote in its own President again. That President can then choose a new Cabinet. How the ANC decides on this candidate is their own headache. Political analyst Angelo Fick told eNCA immediately after Mbete’s announcement that nothing stops the pro-Zuma faction from re-nominating Zuma again as President. If that happens, it will plunge the ANC and the country into another political crisis. The opposition would go back to the Constitutional Court to block this move. It would not be in the ANC’s interests to pull such a stunt.
If Zuma does get removed on Tuesday, the two factions will have to sit down and decide on a candidate that is palatable to both of them. That candidate doesn’t have to be Cyril Ramaphosa. That person will be in charge only until December. After the elective conference, the victorious faction will install its own President until 2019.
But the removal of Zuma is not a fait accompli. The ANC has been known to close rank when it is faced with a crisis that could threaten its hold on power. It would not be surprising if some of those that have voiced out their displeasure at Zuma’s management of the country turn around and vote for him to stay in power. The opposition needs more than 50 votes to get their way. That is a tall order, no matter how divided the ANC may be at the moment. EFF leader Julius Malema is convinced that at least 60 ANC MPs will vote with the opposition.
The country waits in anticipation.