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Zuma’s toxic presidency is even infecting the views of civil society in South Africa

There have been many calls for a secret ballot in the impending vote of no confidence in South Africa’s president. However, is secrecy really what the country wants at this time, and would it not be setting a lasting, damaging precedent? asks Brent Meersman.



On 8 August 2017, South Africa’s National Assembly will vote on a motion of no confidence originally tabled in April by Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.

In May, anti-Zuma sentiment reached fever pitch, following an ever-increasing list of revelations concerning the president’s shady dealings. People took to the streets, demanding that the votes cast in the no-confidence debate should be secret. Since June, dozens of civil society organisations have been calling for a secret ballot. These organisations have also been putting their weight  behind an informal ‘people’s vote’ on Zuma.

The motion of no confidence was delayed when the United Democratic Movement, a political party under the leadership of Bantu Holomisa, took the matter to the Constitutional Court. President Zuma and the Speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete, filed papers opposing a secret ballot. The court has since ruled that Mbete can decide. She has said that she will make her decision before 8 August 2017 and asked that she not be rushed.

File picture: New mayor of Tshwani, Solly Msimanga (C) of the DA (Democratic Alliance) together with national leader, Mmusi Maimane (R) arrive at a victory rally held at Freedom Park, Pretoria, South Africa, 09 August 2016 Photo: ANP,EPA/Kim Ludbrook

For the vote to be successful, all the MPs from all the opposition parties need to vote against Zuma – there can be no abstentions – and 60 ANC MPs need to jump ship by voting against their leader. It is highly unlikely to succeed. There have been about eight previous attempts and they have all failed. In addition, allowing a secret ballot would be setting a precedent that is not desirable.

How South Africa’s parliament operates


The South African parliament operates on the Whip system and MPs are expected to toe the party line. MPs are not directly elected by their constituencies. Instead, they are beholden to the party through a list system, which is proportional to the number of votes the party received in the general election. However, the Whip system is not all bad. Without it, it would be difficult to pass unpopular but necessary or morally correct policies, such as the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Read: Will Zuma end South African exceptionalism?

The idea behind the secret ballot on Zuma is to encourage MPs to vote according to their conscience, without the potential repercussion of being ousted from their seats. This is not an unfounded fear – voting against the ANC gets nasty. MPs who have voted according to their conscience in the past have suffered the consequences. Even an ANC stalwart such as Ben Turok came under extraordinary pressure for abstaining from voting on the South African Protection of State Information Bill, formerly named the Protection of Information Bill and commonly referred to as the Secrecy Bill, in 2010. He buckled when the vote was taken again in 2013.

File picture. R2K campaigners opposing the Secrecy Bill outside Luthuli House in Johannesburg)

At least one ANC MP has been transparent and outspoken about her opposition to Zuma. Makhosi Khoza has made her positon well known and grabbed headlines for her brave and principled stance. The result is that she and her daughter have been receiving death threats. In addition, the ANC is taking disciplinary action against her – the party has made it clear that it will do so against any of its MPs who voted against Zuma.

What does civil society say?

Of course, civil society wants a secret ballot and has been pushing for it. So have opposition political parties. They see a secret ballot as a pragmatic move that would give the vote the best chance of success.


In a heated panel discussion and debate in July 2017 on the topic of the secret ballot, hosted by #Unite Behind, a coalition of civil society organisations, Khoza said something extraordinary: “I don’t think we will have a true reflection of what some [ANC] MPs truly stand for if you tell them that tomorrow they will not get an income if they don’t vote along party lines.”

African National Congress members take the oath of office during the swearing-in ceremony of Members of Parliament. (Photo: GCIS)/Flickr

She was trying to say that there are “good people” among the ANC MPs, who know right from wrong and who know that Zuma is a toxic president. But they risk losing their jobs and also getting death threats – or worse. Political assassinations are on the rise again in South Africa, especially in the Zuma stronghold of KwaZulu-Natal.

But what Khoza seems to lose sight of when she talks about what an MP “truly stands for” is surely that that should be synonymous with how they vote. Surely “what they stand for” is not just what they whisper in private while they sell their country down the river once they get to parliament? So, if we take Khoza at her word, what these members of parliament really stand for is their salaries and positions.

Read:What is to be done about the Zuptas?

To be more sympathetic in my interpretation of her words, what Khoza was saying is that the reality on the ground was rough and not all MPs had her courage. But then, surely, they should resign? To quote Khoza again: “How do you divorce yourself from your moral compass in the decisions you make in Parliament?” The answer is simple: You should not be thinking of yourself when you are causing untold damage to millions of your fellow citizens just so that you can hang on to a grossly inflated salary cheque that puts you in the upper salary-earning echelons of society.

What if a secret ballot does long-term damage?


Sadly, and interestingly, it is civil society that has come out in favour of giving those rotten MPs the cover they want in the form of a secret ballot.

I, for one, stand with the minority on this – with people like the political analyst Steven Friedman and a few others. Democracy should be transparent. You get the government you vote for. If you don’t like it, change it, but not in secrecy. MPs should be accountable, even in a Whip system. This school of thought believes that a secret ballot will set a damaging precedent and open the door to corruption. It is a remedy that could cause long-term damage to democracy in the vain hope of a short-term cure.

President Jacob Zuma with Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng during Freedom Day Celebrations. Photo: GovernmentZA/Flickr

Rather, what needs to happen is that MPs who vote against the party line should be given better protection. Perhaps they already have such protection, but they do not use it. A vote to impeach the president or to remove a corrupt leader is the constitutional duty of an MP. It is an obligation that MPs assume when they are elected; an obligation that goes beyond blind party loyalty. Surely there would be a case to be heard in South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, if an MP is disciplined for exercising his or her constitutional duty in good conscience when this conflicts with the demands of narrow, party-political self-interest?

After all, the Constitutional Court has already ruled that President Zuma has violated his oath and the country’s constitution. I would expect that the Constitutional Court would then have to rule that an MP who voted Zuma was voting in line with their constitutional obligations and therefore could not be fired by the party. That is the protection I am referring to.

In conclusion, and in my opinion, what is needed is not a secret vote, but a watershed moment in which ANC MPs finally and openly act with their conscience, in full view of the public they supposedly serve. The debate on the secret ballot that is currently raging in South Africa is a good illustration of how a putrefying president can infect everything, even subverting and tripping up the best of people – those who oppose him – by tempting them to use incorrect methods to right gross wrongs.