After years of being a thorn in the opposition’s side, Speaker Baleka Mbete became an unlikely hero this week after ruling that the Motion of No Confidence in President Jacob Zuma should be decided via secret ballot. There are suggestions that this decision was made in defiance of the wishes of ANC officials. If so, what could this mean for the future of Mbete within the ruling party? By REBECCA DAVIS.
“She must go with the ANC unless she’s telling us that we must remove her,” an ANC MP told the Sunday Times a few days before Speaker Baleka Mbete announced her decision on whether to allow MPs in Parliament to vote by secret ballot. She must follow the party’s wishes, said the MP. “How do you dislocate yourself from the ANC?”
This is the question that many will be pondering in the wake of Mbete’s decision – which brought the ANC closer than ever before to a forced removal of President Jacob Zuma, and, by extension, the resignation of the entire Cabinet.
Mbete had previously said that she was agonising over a decision she framed as “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. Among opposition party politicians, there was little hope that the Speaker would allow for anonymity when voting. DA leader Mmusi Maimane was quoted as saying: “I’ve always known that Baleka’s primary interest lies in the ANC.”
It would have been relatively easy for Mbete to decide against a secret vote. The matter was far from clear-cut. Even independent political analysts, such as Steven Friedman and Ebrahim Fakir, suggested that there were good, rational reasons not to allow secrecy. Primary among them was the point that such secrecy should be anathema to an open democracy, and had the potential to set a dangerous precedent for contentious parliamentary proceedings in future.
So why go out on a limb?
Some speculation has it that Mbete may have been motivated by the opportunity to advance her own leadership ambitions, which have hit a ceiling under Zuma. As acting president in the event of Zuma’s removal, Mbete would have been better able to move pieces around in order to ensure her own political longevity.
In the wake of the vote, rumours have been flying as to the circumstances that surrounded Mbete’s decision. One report has it that her ruling was made in direct defiance of the wishes of ANC officials, who were as stunned as everyone else by her choice. Another rumour has it that Zuma himself urged Mbete to opt for secrecy, as a way of quashing the matter for once and for all.
All that Mbete would let on about the factors influencing her decision in advance was that she was consulting closely with her legal counsel, the highly respected advocate Marumo Moerane.
“It’s too much of a gamble,” Fakir told Daily Maverick.
In his view, the most likely scenario is one that saw Mbete “sitting with her lawyer, looking at the technical merits – and then being seduced” by the prospect of the power and influence that could come her way in the event of the motion succeeding. After all, the possibility of being South Africa’s first female president in history was closer than ever before.
But Zuma is still in his seat – and with the vote’s results emerging closer than expected, Mbete may now face backlash from within the ANC.
“People are not happy,” an ANC insider told Daily Maverick on condition of anonymity. “I cannot say what will happen, but there are those who feel that [Mbete] brought the ANC into danger when there was no need.”
Fakir predicts that Mbete is in for a rocky ride within certain elements of the ruling party.
“A portion of the ANC caucus is going to give her a hard time, and I think they’ve got sufficient numbers to make her life difficult.”
Mbete is currently one of the ANC figures who have thrown their hat into the ring to replace Zuma at the ANC’s electoral congress in December. But the events of this week may well have put paid to those hopes, believes Fakir.
“This dispenses with her ambitions for the end of the year,” he says. “She might as well forget about the [presidential] campaign now.”
Though Mbete’s standing within the ANC leadership might have taken a hit, her position within Parliament looks safer. Section 52 of the Constitution prescribes that the Speaker can only be removed from her position by a resolution of the House. The ANC could not undertake such a process without further reinforcing perceptions of the party’s internal disunity. In the past, opposition parties would have been all too happy to see Mbete ejected: the DA and EFF have repeatedly complained about her bias. Now, however, Mbete is suddenly enjoying a moment in the favour of the opposition as a result of her ruling; opposition party leaders took it in turns to praise her courage and wisdom on Tuesday.
But that sudden popularity is unlikely to endure. Mbete has to continue to play her normal role in Parliament as Speaker for the time being, in the course of which she will undoubtedly come into conflict with the opposition once more. She will shortly have to decide, for instance, how to deal with the motion being brought by the DA on Thursday to dissolve Parliament and hold an early general election.
“This valorisation [by the opposition] is not going to last,” Fakir predicts. “And she has now made a new enemy of a portion of the caucus of the ANC.”
There’s only one arena where Mbete might have done herself lasting favours: the court of public opinion.
“In the public mind, she might now be construed as the person who restored a small semblance of credibility to our politics,” Fakir suggests. “That’s a small, but important, thing.”
A profile of Baleka Mbete a few years ago reported how she once outran a knife-wielding attacker on the streets of KwaMashu. Mbete may need to draw on those survival skills again, metaphorically speaking, in the not-too-distant future. DM
Photo: Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete reads out the results of the voting process during a motion of no confidence vote against South African President Jacob Zuma in the Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa 08 August 2017. Photo: MARK WESSELS / POOL (EPA)