On Monday afternoon National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete did something that almost no one expected her to do. She gave in to a demand from opposition parties and announced that Members of Parliament would be allowed to vote by secret ballot in Tuesday’s confidence motion in President Jacob Zuma. This was a shock which, by its very nature, makes it difficult to analyse. There could be several different explanations for her decision, running from a suggestion that it’ll help her into the President’s chair to a claim that this is all a much more important plan to strengthen Zuma in the longer run. But her decision still does not seem to change the fact that ANC MPs would be risking an early election if they voted Zuma out of power today. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
Mbete is one of those ANC people who doesn’t back down for anybody. She has always appeared less than neutral in her chairing of the National Assembly. She has always refused to accept criticism of her decision to be both chair of the ANC and Speaker – something that led to the legendary enmity between her and EFF leader Julius Malema (who she once described as a “cockroach”). It would also be difficult to describe her as a true democrat: she once told this reporter that in fact Parliament needed more security, not less, and that it had been “too open” during the Frene Ginwala era.
Her track record in this regard probably means that we can throw out altruistic motives as the reason she has decided to grant this vote by secret ballot. She has not done this for the good of the country. So has she done it for her own narrow interests, her broader interests in terms of the ANC, or something more complicated to do with the interests of Zuma himself?
It is well known by now that Mbete wants to be President. This may strike you as insane idea, but it’s true. She has a terrible media profile, is the butt of endless memes (“I don’t recognise you!”), and is seen as one of the key people who have propped up Zuma in power. It is hard to see the ANC winning elections with her as the face on the poster for all these scandal-fuelled years. So she may believe then that Zuma has outlived his usefulness for her. That there was some deal where she believed he was going to push for her to take over from him as ANC leader and instead he went with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. As she is now in a seat of power, would go the theory, she has exercised it by creating a situation in which he could lose badly.
It is of course true that she becomes acting president should Zuma be voted out. But that is gigantically unlikely to lead to her gaining real political power through the ANC in December; what’s more, it is more likely to create a huge backlash against her. In the end, she would find herself hated by a large faction of her movement in return for 30 days’ worth of power. Which is surely a less than rational decision.
But there must be a really important political calculation behind her decision. Because it is in effect a huge concession, a bigger concession of the problems in the ANC than we have yet seen. Mbete says in her statement:
“The Constitutional Court has indicated that a secret ballot becomes necessary when the prevailing atmosphere becomes toxified or highly charged.”
It is clear that she is not talking about an environment in which different political parties are fighting with each other. She can only be referring to the situation within the ANC.
How is this not a concession, by the Chair of the ANC no less, that the situation is so bad in the party that the only way to hold this vote safely is through secret ballot?
Consider what she is saying. That if people knew which way MPs voted there would be violence or discord that would be so serious she is willing to break with precedent and do it differently. A person who hates giving in to opposition parties. So it must be seriously bad.
Like, worse-than-we-thought bad.
That said, there are important reasons why this could work out to be to Zuma’s benefit. The best possible signal of his strength right now would be for him to win this vote even through a secret ballot. The mechanics of it, the maths of how it was done, almost wouldn’t matter. He would be able to say to Mmusi Maimane and Malema that he is still very much in charge. For a man in search of ways to display the power he has left, this could be a very important opportunity.
Then we must also consider how ugly things could have been, for Zuma in a way, if this was not through a secret ballot. Former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, his former deputy Mcebisi Jonas, the chair of the ANC’s National Disciplinary Committee Derek Hanekom, former Ekurhuleni mayor Mondli Gungubele and KZN MP Makhosi Khoza have all indicated that they will vote against Zuma even if it was an open ballot. Several others could have done the same. Imagine, for a moment, if a couple of ministers had followed their example, or, and this would be political fantasy, if Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa did it. What would Zuma do then? Would he be able to really act against them? And if he couldn’t, would that not reveal huge weakness on his part? In a way, so finely balanced is everything right now, a small number of people would have had the power to plunge the ANC into chaos. At the very least there would have to be five disciplinary hearings for those who had publicly stated their intention to “vote their conscience”.
This would have provided a very difficult narrative ahead of the December conference. These people would have been able to make it a huge political issue for the next four months. And the burning question would be, who do we believe is more moral, Gordhan or Zuma?
There is another advantage for Zuma in doing things this way. If you accept that there is a large group of people within the ANC who want him gone, but also don’t want to divide the party completely in the process, then it could be that this vote was a useful weapon for them. The threat of the vote, that they could plunge the party into chaos and remove him from office, even temporarily, would be a major threat. If Mbete had gone the open ballot route, opposition parties would almost certainly have gone to court. The entire issue would have dragged on for months, probably up until December itself. Now, there is a chance that by Tuesday evening this entire issue will have gone away. And with it, the threat of more chaos and of a big weapon in the hands of Zuma’s opponents in the ANC.
And while there is still no clear winner ahead of December yet, Zuma can probably be guaranteed that people won’t vote against him, simply because they know they could provoke an early election.
But this is still a risky option. No matter how well Zuma knows all of the ANC MPs, there must still be a few he has question marks over. If there is no prospect of punishment for voting against Zuma, and if he has slighted you in any way (every single person removed from the Cabinet during a reshuffle… for example), then this is your chance for revenge. If he helped your enemy, or did you down, or treated you badly, looked strangely at your spouse, or just smokes a different pipe tobacco to Mbeki, this is the moment. It must surely lead to a little bit of uncertainty as to the outcome, although not that much.
There will be some people in our urban middle-class bubble who will wake up on Tuesday believing that Zuma is really about to leave office. They will believe, as someone always does, that Malema is telling the truth when he says Mbete is “the incoming acting President”. It is absolutely true that we are in new, turbulent and troubled water. What will happen on Tuesday, in terms of a confidence vote through secret ballot, is something we have not seen before. That doesn’t mean we are also about to see something else we have never seen before, in Zuma losing a key vote. But it is an indication of how troubled and unpredictable things could be over the next few months. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma gestures during his question and answer session in Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, September 13, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings