South Africa

Secret Ballot? Eyes turn to early May and a new date for Zuma No Confidence motion

By Marianne Merten 13 April 2017

The motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma is off, and will only be considered when MPs return to Parliament after the recess in early May. National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete, who is also ANC national chairperson, on Wednesday informed opposition parties of this decision following their request for a postponement. This came as the Constitutional Court indicated on Tuesday that it would hear arguments on the United Democratic Movement (UDM) application for a secret ballot in that no confidence debate brought under Section 102 of the Constitution. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

It was a curious about-face. On Wednesday morning the message clearly was that the DA and EFF, which brought the request for the motion of no confidence, would have to withdraw it. “Rule 128 of the National Assembly rules stipulates that withdrawals of motions may only be made by the Member of Parliament in whose name they were tabled,” according to a statement by Parliament. By the end of the day, after a letter from DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen, that had changed – and the motion of no confidence scheduled for Tuesday was postponed. “The postponement of the motion will be referred to the National Assembly programme committee for its consideration after the constituency period,” Parliament said.

As the UDM indicated it would go to court to interdict it from going ahead, Steenhuisen argued Rule 129(5) actually gave her the discretion of postponement. “This rule clearly gives the Speaker the power to schedule the motion and, therefore, also the implied power to postpone and reschedule such a motion… Business that has been scheduled, such as Bills and reports, have been re-scheduled in the past,” he said.

Mbete’s decision to postpone the motion effectively amounts to a backdown in the manoeuvring around the no confidence debate – the third in 13 months, with the ANC using its majority in the House to defeat them in March and November 2016. It would have been in the ANC’s political interest, having closed ranks around Zuma and his controversial reshuffle at last week’s national working committee (NWC), to go to the no confidence motion with a three-line whip, which compels all ANC MPs to be present unless ill or on government business, and toe the party line – to vote against the motion in a publicly recorded process.

But the UDM took the issue of a secret ballot to the Constitutional Court after Mbete said she had no powers to agree to this. A secret ballot would allow those ANC MPs unhappy with the current state of affairs to be shielded against disciplinary action if they voted for the no confidence motion. Opposition parties, united as they have around this issue, require support from the ANC’s 249 seats in the 400-strong National Assembly.

For a motion of no confidence to succeed, leading to the removal of the president and the resignation of the Cabinet and deputy ministers, at least 201 MPs must vote yes, according to Section 102(2) of the Constitution.

In the Constitutional Court papers, UDM leader Bantu Holomisa argued that without a secret ballot, the objectives of the motion of no confidence would be “fatally undermined”. As the president was elected by secret ballot, “it follows by implication that when those members are to express a lack of confidence in the president and remove him from that office, a secret ballot must similarly be used”. Alternatively, the UDM argued that the National Assembly Speaker had the discretion to determine the process, including the use of a secret ballot. If that was not possible, then the rules were unconstitutional.

On Tuesday the Constitutional Court indicated its willingness to hear legal arguments on this matter, giving directives on the filing of court documents by other parties. However, the timelines meant this process would only be complete on April 21, or three days after the initially scheduled motion debate.

The UDM, EFF and DA on Tuesday called for a postponement of the no confidence debate, but Mbete on Tuesday indicated the Constitutional Court had issued “no injunction” against next week’s sitting.

This changed on Wednesday while tens of thousands of opposition party supporters marched to the Union Buildings calling for Zuma’s resignation as the ANC hosted a 75th birthday bash for Zuma at Kliptown, Soweto, where the Freedom Charter was adopted. Five days ago public protests hit the streets, on Friday, also calling for Zuma’s resignation amid the downgrading to junk status and a weakening rand.

With the motion now postponed, and a new date to be set by the programme committee, the political fight may well now unfold there. The official parliamentary statement on Wednesday indicated that given the rule on anticipation, Rule 90, no other MP may bring another no confidence motion until the current one is dealt with.

This is important because courts move at their own pace, and consistently have stopped short of telling Parliament how to determine its own internal arrangements such as rules even if these are declared unconstitutional. Previously, the courts have given Parliament time to fix the defaults. And the national legislature, where the ANC holds the majority in the House and committees, may just take its time to do so. DM

Photo: Speaker of the National Assembly Baleka Mbete (R) and and National Assembly Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli field questions from journalists at a news conference at Parliament on Friday, 14 November 2014 following raucous behaviour in the House culminated in fisticuffs and scuffles. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA


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