Secret-ballot decision a chance for Speaker Baleka Mbete to redeem herself
It is ironic that the country should be waiting on — almost begging — National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete to allow a secret ballot in next week's no-confidence vote on President Jacob Zuma, when she's in fact primarily responsible for the mess in parliament itself.
Mbete is the fox that was sent to guard the henhouse. She is the main source of the problem. She is conflicted. Parliament is working — if that's the right word — exactly the way the ANC wants it to. It is no longer the crucible or arena where national issues are debated and solutions sought, but yet another instrument to advance the ruling party's hegemony.
Our system is modelled on the British parliamentary system. The speaker of the House of Commons, for instance, is politically impartial, and goes the extra length to be seen to be so. Once elected, the speaker is expected to resign from his political party and cease to engage in any party-political issues. During elections, speakers are often elected unopposed by candidates of other parties.
They don't have to be a member of the governing party, either. They are able to command the respect of the house by virtue of their absolute integrity and independence.
Not so Mbete. She is a dyed-in-the-wool party hack. As ANC chairwoman, she was sent to parliament to dispense with any notion of impartiality and to rally the troops behind Zuma.When former public protector Thuli Madonsela's report on Nkandla landed in parliament, Max Sisulu, Mbete's predecessor, did what any speaker confronted by such a report would have done. He put together an all-party committee to look into this alleged thieving by the leader of his party and president of the country. That was his undoing.
Sisulu, a decent man who has served the party with honesty and dedication all his life, was summarily thrown out like a naughty schoolboy. Essentially he was fired for doing the right thing.
He had committed a cardinal sin. He put the country ahead of the party. The party is sacrosanct in ANC mythology, and as leader, Zuma personifies the party. There was a hue and cry two years ago when Zuma said: "My organisation, the ANC, comes first."
But the reason the ANC won't remove Zuma from office despite the carnage he's caused is because it's feared the decision could divide, even destroy, the party. Even Lindiwe Sisulu, now running for president as representative of the party's more reasonable wing, said this only last week.
Mbete came in as speaker, and so began one of the most shameful and traumatic periods in our new democracy. Her job was simply to prevent parliament from carrying out its mandate, that is, to hold the executive accountable.
Debates were stifled and the government and state institutions had a field day.
And so we came to have a parliament founded on the blood of so many, and which initially held so much promise, being used to defend and legitimise the wholesale corruption and thieving from the people that Nkandla represents.
It was left to the Constitutional Court in the Nkandla judgment to remind parliament of its responsibility, as if it didn't know it already.
However, in a show of arrogance, Mbete has yet to carry out the remedial measure the court suggested.
In refusing to allow a secret ballot in the no-confidence debate, Mbete again feigned ignorance of the law. But she knew what she was doing.She wanted to protect Zuma, but she had run out of excuses. The court has now put her right.
In its compelling judgment, the court put Mbete in a straitjacket. It may not have instructed her to conduct a secret ballot — it's not for the court to tell parliament how to do its job — but the argument leaves no doubt which course is preferable.
"As in the case with general elections, where a secret ballot is deemed necessary to enhance the freeness and fairness of the elections," Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said in his judgment, "so it is with the election of the president by the National Assembly. This allows members to exercise their vote freely and effectively, in accordance with the conscience of each without undue influence, intimidation or fear of the disapproval of others."
The court could not have been clearer. Hopefully Mbete got the message. But the ANC's instruction to its MPs to vote against the motion not only goes against the spirit of the judgment, it could also be deemed to be in contempt of it. MPs are being coerced and therefore their vote cannot be exercised "freely and effectively, and in accordance with their conscience".
The ANC's instruction and especially its persecution of Makhosi Khoza is ready-made ammunition for the opposition, which may want to go back to court should Mbete decide against a secret ballot.
Mbete now wants to be president. She wouldn't want to be accused in the hustings of being Zuma's last line of defence.
She has a historic opportunity to redeem herself. A secret ballot is the only route to take.