South African Court Says Zuma No-Confidence Vote Can Be Secret

  • Constitutional Court says speaker can determine type of vote
  • Previous opposition attempts to topple Zuma have failed

Jacob Zuma, South Africa's president, speaks at the launch of a new trans-Africa locomotive in Pretoria on April 4, 2017.

Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

South Africa’s top court ruled that the speaker of parliament can decide to allow a secret vote on a no-confidence motion in President Jacob Zuma, but isn’t required to do so.

The judgment leaves the issue in the hands of parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete, who’s a leading member of Zuma’s ruling African National Congress. The court said Mbete was wrong when she argued that she had no power to order a secret ballot. The ANC has told its lawmakers, who have a 62 percent majority in the 400-seat National Assembly, to oppose the motion brought by opposition parties. If it passed, the entire government would have to resign.

Baleka Mbete

Photographer: John Wessels/AFP via Getty Images

The constitution “neither prohibits, nor prescribes an open ballot,” Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said in a unanimous ruling handed down by the Constitutional Court Thursday in Johannesburg. The speaker “can prescribe what she considers to be the appropriate voting procedure in the circumstances. There must always be a proper and rational basis for whatever choice the speaker makes.”

An open vote would enhance Zuma’s chances of surviving the no-confidence motion, which requires a simple majority to pass, because ANC members who publicly back his ouster risk losing their jobs. Zuma, 75, who’s been implicated in a series of scandals since taking office in 2009, is due to step down as ANC leader in December and as national president in 2019. While there’s mounting anger over his leadership within the party, he’s defeated several previous attempts to oust him.

Lawmakers’ Conscience

Mogoeng said lawmakers swore allegiance to the constitution and not their parties, and should exercise their powers accordingly. While legislators risk being censured by their parties if they follow their conscience, the electorate is entitled to know how they vote, he said.

“The anti-Zuma people are the ones that are benefiting more out of this judgment,” Ralph Mathekga, an analyst at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, a Johannesburg-based research group, said by phone. “Even the MPs who were fearful of voting against Zuma now have a good justification because of the judgment in following their conscience and voting in the interest of the people instead of voting in the interest of the ANC.”

The opposition filed the no-confidence motion in April after Zuma’s decision to fire Pravin Gordhan as finance minister prompted S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings Ltd. to cut the nation’s sovereign credit rating to junk. The United Democratic Movement, a small party, petitioned the Constitutional Court after Mbete rejected its argument that since parliament chooses the president by secret ballot, it should be able to use it to remove him.

Difficult Situation

“The decision places Mbete in a very difficult political situation as it places the moral obligation squarely on her shoulders, irrespective of party loyalty,” said Melanie Verwoerd, an independent political analyst and former ANC lawmaker.

The rand pared gains of as much as 1.1 percent against the dollar as the court delivered the judgment and was 0.6 percent stronger at 13.0805 at 1:43 p.m. in Johannesburg.

Parliament hasn’t yet set a date to debate the latest no-confidence motion or decide whether it the vote will kept secret. The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, said it has written to Mbete to request that the debate be held as soon as possible.

“The DA calls on all political parties, particularly the ANC, to allow their members to do what they know is right, and to vote Jacob Zuma out,” the party said in an emailed statement.

ANC’s Orders

The ANC’s secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, and chief whip in parliament, Jackson Mthembu, have said that legislators must vote according to the wishes of the party that elected them rather than the constituents they represent, irrespective of whether there is a secret ballot. Under South Africa’s electoral system, lawmakers are chosen by their party rather than directly by voters.

“We have unqualified and unequivocal confidence in the ANC caucus not to vote in support of a motion to remove the president,” the party’s parliamentary caucus said in a statement after the ruling.

Voters should punish the ANC in 2019 elections if its lawmakers fail to oust Zuma, UDM leader Bantu Holomisa said.

The speaker and president must pay the costs of the case, Mogoeng said.

Parliament welcomes the direction given by the Constitutional Court on the application for a secret ballot, the National Assembly said in a statement. Zuma’s spokesman, Bongani Ngqulunga, didn’t answer calls to his mobile phone.

“I think it is an appropriate judgment given that our democracy is based on a separation of powers,” said Bonita Meyersfeld, a law professor who heads the University of the Witwatersrand’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies. “What the court has said is that the speaker has the choice and must make it.”

— With assistance by Paul Vecchiatto, Ana Monteiro, and Sam Mkokeli

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