So, what's Mbete's big secret?

Politics: Legal ramifications probably behind secret ballot announcement delay

02 August 2017 - 07:11
National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete. File photo.
National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete. File photo.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER

The speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete, is certainly biding her time before announcing whether she will allow a secret ballot during next week's motion of no confidence against President Jacob Zuma.

This is probably the last time Mbete will hold so much power in her hands - unless, of course, she does grant the secret ballot, the motion succeeds, Zuma is toppled and she becomes stand-in president until a new leader is elected.

With a week to go before the seventh motion of no confidence against Zuma and the ANC battling to suppress MPs from rebelling against its voting directives, there is no indication whether Mbete will grant the secret ballot.

But what is Madam Speaker's game and why is it taking so long for her to announce her decision?

The weekend's ANC national executive committee lekgotla gave her the opportunity to consult her party and the decision must be made by now. Yet she is still dragging it out.

Ironically, it is the DA, whose leader Mmusi Maimane sponsored the motion, that could decide how it plays out.

After the Constitutional Court ruled on June 22 that she had discretion to grant a secret ballot, Mbete invited "interested parties to submit their views regarding their preferred means of voting on this particular motion".

Soon after parliament said she would make a decision before tomorrow.

On July 16 parliament said Mbete had received submissions from nine of the 13 parties in the National Assembly.

The ANC and DA indicated they would abide by Mbete's decision, while the other seven parties opted for the secret ballot.

It is because of this dynamic that Mbete could be delaying.

EFF leader Julius Malema indicated he would challenge her decision in court if it did not go his way. Some of the other opposition parties are likely to join the application.

But the DA, which was not party to the UDM's application to the Constitutional Court on the secret ballot, appears not to favour it.

 If voting is in secret, there is a possibility that the motion of no confidence against Zuma would succeed as there are enough disgruntled ANC MPs to support it.

Zuma is the DA's biggest campaign asset in turning voters against the ANC. For as long as Zuma remains president the DA can continue to dance around the grave the ANC is digging.

If voting were done in the open, many of the ANC MPs opposed to Zuma would be wary about defying the party line. This allows the DA to again "name and shame" ANC MPs who continue to support Zuma.

At a media briefing on Monday ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said MPs who did not agree with the party's directive were "free to take a walk".

He said ANC MPs were not "free agents" who could vote according to conscience.

"If they had a conscience, they should have discovered it before they agreed to be in parliament," Mantashe said, quite astonishingly.

The threats of disciplinary action against ANC MPs would strengthen the court arguments the opposition parties could make about why the secret ballot was necessary. But will they have the opportunity to go back to court if Mbete declines the secret ballot?

The ANC wants the motion to be over and done with so it can continue on its path with Zuma steadfastly at the helm.

But because the ANC and DA indicated to Mbete that they would "abide" by her decision, an open vote could proceed next week if both parties agree to push ahead. The smaller parties might demand that the vote be put on hold pending their court challenge.

But the motion is Maimane's to keep on the table or withdraw.

The closer Mbete pushes towards D-Day, the less likely it will be for opposition parties to succeed in postponing the vote.

The EFF, UDM and COPE had better get some assurances from Maimane that if Mbete blocks the secret ballot, he will withdraw the motion.

Of course, Mbete could surprise the country and grant the secret ballot. She did tell the Constitutional Court that she was not averse to the idea.

If she does, August 8 could become a defining moment in South Africa's history.

But let's not forget Zuma's Stalingrad survival strategy and the fight might land in court with the president as the applicant and the speaker as the respondent.

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