Secret ballot: Mbete has an opportunity to discard ANC hat in favour of SA

JOHANNESBURG — Speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete, has regularly come under fire for failing to be objective in her role. As Chairperson of the ANC, there is a conflict that some may argue has helped protect the likes of President Jacob Zuma. But after last week’s Constitutional Court ruling on the secret ballots in South Africa’s no-confidence motions, Mbete has a small window of opportunity to be a tremendously powerful kingmaker in South Africa’s daily political soap opera. Will she allow a secret vote or won’t she? We’ll soon find out, and she is sure to stoke more debate regardless of whichever option she takes, as illustrated by Chuck Stephens in this piece below. – Gareth van Zyl

By Chuck Stephens*

Baleka Mbete is known for her attractive headwear.  But she has reached a critical moment of decision namely which hat to wear:

  1.       Either her Chairperson of the ANC hat
  2.       Or her Speaker of Parliament hat

She cannot really wear both on this occasion. She tried to dodge this decision last month by claiming that the House Speaker did not have the power to decide on whether a No-confidence motion could be voted on with a secret ballot. But alas. The Constitutional Court has just set her straight on that.

Zapiro’s take on the Concourt’s decision to put the Secret Ballot call in Baleka Mbete’s hands. More of his magic available at www.zapiro.com

The CC (and the EFF too!) have already warned her that her position as Speaker requires impartiality and decisions that can be legally defensible.

However, she is also one of the Big Six. In fact, she is really at the top of that totem pole – as National Chairperson of the party. The Chairman of the Board is normally the senior position, although President Zuma did not waste any time in setting the record straight in Parliament on why he wants an open vote.

But Cyril Ramaphosa is only Deputy President. Then there is a Treasurer and a SG and a Deputy SG. So really she is at the apex of the Party as well as being the Speaker of Parliament.

In South Africa’s PR system (proportional representation), parties get to deploy Members of Parliament based on a prorated calculation of the voting. In other words, voters do not send up an MP to the National Assembly from a geographical riding or “constituency”.

Read also: Tipping point approaching: As Zuma’s pawns fall, the people shall govern

This is where it gets tricky – because parties use this to put their MPs on a leash. Parties try to tell them that they must toe the party line. That’s why a secret vote is such a big deal! MPs could bolt from their party line and vote either according to their own consciences – or according to what they hear their “constituents” saying.  That is the voters – the people they actually represent.

This is why the so-called “accumulation of powers” can be so problematic – with the top person in the ANC, the Board Chair so to speak, also now having to decide whether to hold a secret vote or not on the Loyal Opposition No-confidence motion.

When Baleta wears pink headwear, she can’t wear red lipstick.

Constitutional Court of South Africa

At this moment in history, she has to rise above partisan lines and make a decision for the whole country that parliament represents – not just for her own Party which only 53% of people voted for in the last elections.

But the Constitutional Court could have just handed her a poisoned chalice?

If she wears her Party hat and refuses a secret ballot, then she will be cut down to size in the eyes of the Electorate. Her own presidential ambitions will likely end there.

But if she wears her State hat and allows a secret ballot, then she may be ostracized by her party for having sold it down the river.

This points to the clash between the Constitution and the old socialist model of a Vanguard Party. Basically there have been two centres of power, and that is why Baleka is wearing two hats. Luthuli House has been undermining Parliament, let’s be frank. The Constitution never mentions Parties at all, not even generically. Certainly not any specific party like the ANC.  It never mentions the NEC, which has 105 members. Because the NEC is a party structure.

The Constitution rather empowers Caucus – that is the whole body of MPs from the ruling party. Each and every one – excluding the State President of course, because when elected president he must forfeit his position as MP, according to the Constitution. In other words, s/he is “ex officio” to Caucus. The Constitution also empowers a “Leader of Government Business in the House”. Shorter terminology like House Leader or Parliamentary Whip stem from that.

But if the No-confidence vote should pass, it means “bringing down the Zuma government”. Not the ANC, which remains in power until 2019. But then Caucus will have to replace the President with a new one.  

Read also: Richard Calland: Zuma running out of lives as time runs out, scandals mount

There will be a kind of “inter regnum” until 2019. President Zuma, Deputy President Ramaphosa, House Leader Mthembu, all Ministers and Vice Ministers will be forced to resign. The new President is elected by Parliament (not just Caucus) BY SECRET BALLOT. S/he then appoints a new team.

This is much more radical surgery than the NEC asking Mbeki to resign. That was relatively easy.

Baleka will have to sit in front of the mirror and try on both hats as she decides on the future of her party… or of her country?

  • Chuck Stephens is Executive Director of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership.