Ball back in Mbete’s court: Mogoeng rules that secret ballot an option

JOHANNESBURG — It’s somewhat of a pyrrhic victory but at least South Africans have more clarity on the role of the implementation of the secret vote in our politics. Previously, Parliament’s Speaker Baleka Mbete said she didn’t have the power to authorise a secret ballot when it comes to no confidence votes in President Jacob Zuma (and subsequently his Cabinet). But Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng kept her in check on Thursday by ruling that no confidence motions can occur via secret ballot but that the speaker has do decide whether to do so or not. Mbete, no doubt, will still not allow a secret vote. But what will be interesting to watch is whether she will be grilled on her reasons for not allowing the vote to happen in secret. Mogoeng, though, handled the judgment well as he avoided over-reaching into politics. In the meantime, expect Zuma to hang on a little longer. – Gareth van Zyl

By Amogelang Mbatha and Mike Cohen

(Bloomberg) — South Africa’s top court ruled that the speaker of parliament can decide to allow a secret vote on a no-confidence motion in President Jacob Zuma but isn’t required to do so.

File photo: Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng arrives at the State of the Nation address.

The judgment leaves the issue in the hands of parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete, who’s a top member of Zuma’s ruling African National Congress. Mbete previously said she didn’t have the power to order a secret ballot. The ANC has told its lawmakers, who have a 62 percent majority in the National Assembly, to vote against the motion brought by opposition parties.

“The speaker of the National Assembly has the power to prescribe that the voting of a motion of confidence in president of the Republic of South Africa be conducted by a secret ballot,” Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said in a unanimous ruling handed down Thursday in Johannesburg. The constitution “neither prohibits, nor prescribes an open ballot.”

The opposition filed the no-confidence motion in Zuma, 75, in April after his decision to fire Pravin Gordhan as finance minister prompted S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings Ltd. to cut the nation’s credit rating to junk. The United Democratic Movement petitioned the Constitutional Court after Mbete rejected its argument that since parliament chooses the president by secret ballot, it should be able to use it to remove him.

Zuma, who’s been implicated in a series of scandals since taking office in 2009, is due to step down as African National Congress leader in December and as president in 2019. While there’s mounting disgruntlement over his leadership within the party, he’s defeated several previous attempts to oust him.

Parliament hasn’t yet set a date to debate the latest no-confidence motion or decide whether it the vote will kept secret.

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma arrives with Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete to give his State of the Nation address at the opening session of Parliament in Cape Town, February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Rodger Bosch

Party Orders

The ANC’s secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, and chief whip in parliament, Jackson Mthembu, have said that legislators must vote according to the wishes of the party that elected them rather than the constituents they represent, irrespective of whether there is a secret ballot. Under South Africa’s electoral system, lawmakers are chosen by their party rather than directly by voters.

“I think it is an appropriate judgment given that our democracy is based on a separation of powers,” said Bonita Meyersfeld, a law professor who heads the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies. “What the court has said is that the speaker has the choice and must make it.”

Lawmakers swore allegiance to the constitution and not their parties, and should exercise their powers accordingly, Mogoeng said. While lawmakers did risk being censured by their parties if they followed conscience, the electorate were entitled to know how lawmakers vote, he said.

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