Baleka Mbete may have just killed the Teflon man

07 August 2017 - 17:14
National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete.
National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete.
Image: Masi Losi

The story of South Africa simply refuses to be predictable.

On Tuesday‚ members of the National Assembly will for the first time cast a vote by secret ballot on a motion of no confidence against a sitting president.

After years of being the ultimate Teflon man‚ President Jacob Zuma for the first time faces a real threat of being toppled.

The Speaker of the National Assembly‚ Baleka Mbete‚ did what was‚ up to now‚ unthinkable for a top six official in the ANC: she rolled the dice on Zuma’s fate. By allowing MPs to vote by secret ballot in the no-confidence debate against the president‚ the ANC does not have complete control on the outcome.

The ANC simply has to trust that the instructions it will no doubt hammer into its caucus ahead of the vote will be enough to prevent its MPs from breaking ranks. But once they walk into the National Assembly on Tuesday afternoon‚ it will be their decision and their conscience that will dictate how they vote – with no danger of penalty.

Mbete provided a detailed explanation for her decision at a media briefing on Monday afternoon‚ quoting at length from the June Constitutional Court judgment granting her the discretion to decide on the voting method.

By delaying the announcement until the eleventh hour‚ it was expected that she would opt for the open ballot and was trying to narrow the time available for an urgent court challenge by opposition parties.

But Mbete stunned the country when she said she had taken “due and impartial consideration of all the factors” and decided that voting on the motion would be by secret ballot.

It was significant also that she mentioned that a secret ballot became necessary when “circumstances are toxic” – in reference to the threats and bullying directed at ANC MPs who indicated they would vote according to conscience.

Mbete’s decision and her justification also show that she is concerned about her own political fate and remains in contention for a top position in the ANC’s national elective conference – without Zuma’s help.

Even with the secret ballot‚ the numbers still weigh in favour of Zuma remaining president‚ but the number of people who vote in support of the motion will reveal his support within the ANC.

The motion requires a simple majority of at least 201 members to vote in favour to succeed. Of the 400-member National Assembly opposition parties jointly hold 151 seats in the National Assembly. Presuming there is full attendance‚ 50 ANC members would need to vote to support the motion tabled by Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane.

While there is a three-line whip for the debate‚ there could however be absentees due to illness and overseas travel and there ARE two ANC MPs who have died‚ which could affect the outcome.

For those ANC MPs worried about supporting an opposition motion‚ they now have the option to abstain – meaning that the ruling party will not have the absolute majority in support of Zuma as in previous cases.

So far‚ four ANC MPs have made it absolutely clear that they would vote according to conscience‚ not the ANC line. They are Makhosi Khoza‚ Mondli Gungubele‚ Pravin Gordhan and Derek Hanekom.

Therefore‚ any number higher than 155 votes in support of the motion means that ANC MPs have defied the party instruction.

Zuma may or may not survive but based on Mbete’s decision and depending on the number of ANC MPs who vote according to conscience‚ it is clear that more and more people are no longer prepared to throw themselves under the bus to save him.