President Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS
President Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS

The story of SA simply refuses to be predictable.

On Tuesday‚ members of the National Assembly will, for the first time, cast a vote by secret ballot on a motion of no confidence against a sitting president. After years of being the ultimate Teflon man‚ President Jacob Zuma faces a real threat of being toppled.

The speaker of the National Assembly‚ Baleka Mbete‚ did what was‚ up to now‚ unthinkable for a top-six official in the ANC: she rolled the dice on Zuma’s fate. By allowing MPs to vote by secret ballot in the no-confidence motion against the president‚ the ANC does not have complete control on the outcome.

The ANC simply has to trust that the instructions it will no doubt hammer into its caucus ahead of the vote will be enough to prevent its MPs from breaking ranks. But once they walk into the National Assembly on Tuesday afternoon‚ it will be their decision and their conscience that will dictate how they vote — with no danger of penalty.

Mbete provided a detailed explanation for her decision at a media briefing on Monday afternoon‚ quoting at length from the June Constitutional Court judgment granting her the discretion to decide on the voting method. By delaying the announcement until the 11th hour‚ it was expected that she would opt for the open ballot and was trying to narrow the time available for an urgent court challenge by opposition parties.

However, Mbete stunned the country when she said she had taken “due and impartial consideration of all the factors” and decided that voting on the motion would be by secret ballot.

It was also significant that she noted a secret ballot becomes necessary when “circumstances are toxic” — this in reference to the threats and bullying directed at ANC MPs who indicated they would vote according to their conscience.

Mbete’s decision and her justification also show that she is concerned about her own political fate and remains in contention for a top position in the ANC’s national elective conference, without Zuma’s help.

Even with the secret ballot‚ the numbers still weigh in favour of Zuma remaining president‚ but the number of people who vote in support of the motion will reveal his support within the ANC.

The motion requires a simple majority of at least 201 members to vote in favour to succeed.

Of the of the 400-member National Assembly, opposition parties jointly hold 151 seats. Presuming there is full attendance‚ 50 ANC members would need to vote to support the motion tabled by DA leader Mmusi Maimane.

While there is a three-line whip for the debate‚ there could, however, be absentees due to illness and overseas travel — and two ANC MPs who have died‚ which could affect the outcome.

For those ANC MPs worried about supporting an opposition motion‚ they now have the option to abstain, meaning the ruling party will not have the absolute majority in support of Zuma as in previous cases. So far‚ four ANC MPs have made it absolutely clear they would vote according to conscience‚ not the ANC line. They are Makhosi Khoza‚ Mondli Gungubele‚ Pravin Gordhan and Derek Hanekom.

Therefore‚ any number higher than 155 votes in support of the motion means ANC MPs have defied the party’s instruction.

Zuma may or may not survive, but based on Mbete’s decision, and depending on the number of ANC MPs who vote according to their conscience‚ it is clear that more and more people are no longer prepared to throw themselves under the bus to save him.

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