Zuma's Presidency at Risk From Secret No-Confidence Ballot

Updated on
  • South African democracy faces ‘big moment,’ analyst says
  • Top court ruled parliamentary speaker could decide vote format

Zuma Presidency Hangs on Secret Ballot No-Confidence Vote

South Africa’s parliament will vote by secret ballot Tuesday on a motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma, National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete said, in a surprise decision that may increase the chances of his ouster.

“I have considered the environment and heard voices expressing doubt in the integrity and values of our 20-year-old constitution,” she told reporters Monday in Cape Town. “We therefore have to use this opportunity to show responsiveness to our people.”

The no-confidence motion requires the backing of a majority of the 400 lawmakers to pass. A secret vote increases the odds of Zuma’s ouster because members of the ruling party can vote him out without risking losing their jobs. Zuma, 75, who’s due to step down as leader of the African National Congress in December and as president in 2019, has defeated previous attempts to oust him.

The rand gained the most against the dollar since mid-July, jumping as much as 2 percent. It traded 0.1 percent stronger at 13.2169 per dollar by 7:27 a.m. Tuesday in Johannesburg. The yield on benchmark government bonds due December 2026 was little changed at 8.57 percent after dropping eight basis points on Monday.

“This is game on -- a big moment for South Africa’s democracy,” said Richard Calland, a political analyst and associate law professor at the University of Cape Town. “Mbete realized that to make a legally rational decision and to follow the guidance being provided with such clarity by the constitutional court, she really had no alternative.”

QuickTake explainer on why people are losing faith in Zuma

About 4,000 people joined a march to parliament in Cape Town on Monday to call for Zuma’s removal. Roads across Gauteng province, which includes the capital, Pretoria, and the commercial center, Johannesburg, were barricaded on Tuesday morning, Wayne Minnaar, spokesman for the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department, said by phone.

Zuma’s Chances

Ben Turok, a former ANC legislator and outspoken Zuma critic, expects the president to survive the ouster bid.

“Few ANC lawmakers will support it,” he said by phone. “Some may abstain but it won’t be enough to carry the motion. The announcement of a secret ballot was a surprise to me and it is a victory for democracy.”

The main opposition Democratic Alliance filed the no-confidence motion in April after Zuma’s decision to fire Pravin Gordhan as finance minister prompted two ratings companies to downgrade the nation’s debt to junk. The opposition argued that since parliament elects the president by secret ballot, it should be able to use the same process to remove him. The nation’s top court ruled that the speaker should determine the voting procedure. 

ANC Lawmakers

“Today’s decision gives us the best opportunity to set South Africa right,” DA leader Mmusi Maimane told reporters in Cape Town. “Zuma must be removed on behalf of millions of South Africans. The secret ballot gives the opportunity to ANC lawmakers to freely and fairly exercise their consciences.”

While there is mounting disgruntlement with the ANC over Zuma’s leadership and his immersion in a succession of scandals, the party says it will resolve its leadership issues internally and won’t allow its lawmakers to side with the opposition to bring down Zuma’s administration.

The ANC said it accepted Mbete’s decision.

“We have no doubt that this frivolous motion, which has been hyped up by opposition parties as some sort of Damascus moment, will fail like many before it,” the party said in a statement. “Where there are concerns with the leadership of the ANC, the ANC will continue to engage and work with our people to resolve these challenges in the interest of the country as a whole.”

While the South African Communist Party, an ally of the ANC, is yet to decide if its members will support the motion on Tuesday, removing Zuma would be the “best thing” for the country, the party’s first deputy-general, Solly Mapaila, said on 702 radio.

The ANC has ruled Africa’s most-industrialized economy since apartheid ended in 1994 and has a 62 percent majority in the National Assembly. Fifty ANC lawmakers and all opposition legislators would have to back the no-confidence motion for it to pass -- a move that would force Zuma and his entire cabinet to resign.

The chances of Zuma being ousted are slim, said Robert Schrire, a political science professor at the University of Cape Town.

“My feeling is that most anti-Zuma members of the ANC think it is better to keep Zuma in place until the end of the year than to tear the party apart,” he said. “He is already on the way out. He is a lame duck.”

— With assistance by Amogelang Mbatha, Robert Brand, and Arabile Gumede

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