It is still unclear whether Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete will allow a secret ballot in Parliament’s upcoming vote of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma. If Mbete does allow for secrecy while voting, though, does that have the potential to set a dangerous precedent for South Africa’s democracy? This was one of the questions under discussion on Tuesday night in Cape Town, where an occasionally heated event organised by a coalition of civil society groups saw UDM leader Bantu Holomisa, rogue ANC MP Makhosi Khoza and political analyst Steven Friedman thrash out the issues. By REBECCA DAVIS.
At a packed community hall in Salt River on Tuesday, both the audience and the panelists appeared to be of one mind on one issue: President Jacob Zuma must go. Whether this presidential unseating can be accomplished via a parliamentary vote of no confidence, however, was a different story.
Political analyst Steven Friedman said that he would be “prepared to take a large bet” that the vote, whether held in secrecy or not, would not produce the required outcome. Some members of the audience seemed similarly sceptical, pointing out that Zuma had survived seven such attempts in the past.
But United Democratic Front leader Bantu Holomisa, who spearheaded the approach to the Constitutional Court over a secret ballot, urged greater faith.
“Leave this to the Members of Parliament to be given a chance to vote,” he said. Asked if he had any actual expectations that ANC MPs would vote to dethrone Zuma, Holomisa replied: “If the ANC members were to vote with the opposition that would be a bonus, but it is a matter of principle.”
The request to the Speaker for a secret ballot, he said, was not to ensure any particular outcome but “merely to accommodate free movement for MPs to follow their conscience”. Holomisa added: “Especially when there is evidence that this country is being controlled by two families: the Guptas and the Zumas. That is not what we supported the Struggle for.”
ANC MP Makhosi Khoza, who has been outspoken in her criticism of Zuma, told the audience how she intended to cast her vote.
“I won’t be voting for Holomisa’s party,” she said. “But I’ll be voting for this country. I’ll be voting for the Constitution.”
Both Khoza and Holomisa argued strenuously for the need for a secret ballot in order to protect dissident ANC MPs. Khoza has first-hand experience of the treatment meted out to ANC MPs who decline to tow the party line, having received death threats directed at both her and her daughter. Based on this, Khoza has personally appealed to Speaker Mbete to ensure a secret vote.
Holomisa agreed: “Protect people like Makhosi and others if they want to follow their conscience,” he urged.
But Friedman took a different view. “If we discovered a judge was being intimidated, would we say that the judge must deliver judgments in secrecy?” he asked. No, Friedman argued: we would say that the judge must be protected by police and security forces. The same should apply to MPs, he contended.
A Khayelitsha resident in the audience pointed out that those who live in such townships know exactly how inadequate police resources can be. “Police are not going to protect them,” he said.
Friedman argued that it was naïve to think that a secret ballot would protect MPs from intimidation either, however. “We are probably in a more dangerous situation [with a secret ballot] because then we don’t know who to protect,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to me that you’re going to save MPs from harassment or violence by holding a secret ballot.”
At points Holomisa became visibly frustrated with Friedman’s argument against a secret ballot, accusing him of “representing some of the ruling party’s views”. Friedman stuck to his guns, however, maintaining that the representatives elected into power by the South African people have a duty to demonstrate their commitment to South African interests by voting transparently in Parliament.
“We’ve heard endlessly about conscience,” Friedman said. “What kind of conscience is it that can only be expressed in secret?”
Beyond this, Friedman contends that a secret ballot in this instance might represent a short-term gain but could see longer-term damage to democracy as a precedent. When it comes to contentious votes in future, he suggested, those wanting to see a certain outcome could threaten MPs until a secret ballot is considered the only safe option – and then “buy” MPs to secure the vote.
Holomisa scoffed at the idea that a secret vote could threaten democracy. “The so-called democracy has been hijacked by the people who are in charge of the country today,” he said.
Khoza took a more measured view of Friedman’s contribution, however, conceding that she saw merit in his argument. A secret ballot now should be viewed as an “exceptional circumstance”, she argued.
“In the long run, as our democracy deepens, I think it’s important for citizens to know how we are voting on different matters,” Khoza said. “But we have to be realistic about where we are and the kind of environment we are living in.”
Khoza said that beyond threats to physical safety, she doubted that an open ballot would produce a fair reflection of the views of the members of her own party, the ANC.
“I still feel that there are quite a number of members that, if they were to vote openly, I don’t think they would be doing so with conviction; with their own conscience. They would be doing so because there is a directive.” That directive, which Khoza says comes straight from the top of the ANC, stipulates to MPs that they must reject the motion of no confidence in President Zuma or be fired.
Tough, said Friedman. He said the idea that a secret ballot should be allowed in order to protect MPs scared of losing their salaries is risible, given that “there are people in this room living in far worse circumstances”.
Khoza acknowledged that the vote would be a revealing test of convictions. “Whether we are going to be voting secretly or openly, unfortunately for my own party it’s really going to be a telling time about whether we are prepared to listen to the public sentiment or only listen to ourselves,” she said.
If the vote fails to remove President Zuma, an audience member asked, what then?
“President Zuma will continue up until 2019, I guess,” Holomisa said. “But it will be a good omen for the opposition parties, if not for the country. [Zuma] is a good organiser for the opposition.” Holomisa added that he “felt pity” for whoever would replace Zuma as ANC president after the December electoral conference, particularly if they had served under Zuma in the current administration.
“How are they going to be trusted?” he asked.
But on one point at least, Khoza expressed optimism. “I don’t think South Africans will have a president like this again,” she said. DM
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma at the Presidential home in Pretoria, South Africa a week after the ruling ANC won 62% of the local election vote. May 26, 2011. Photo Greg Marinovich / Storytaxi.com