Baleka Mbete, the speaker of parliament, is known for her spectacular headgear, to which she seems to pay much more attention than to being an impartial arbiter of parliamentary debate. But she now has a heavy burden to bear in juggling her figurative hats: speaker, presidential candidate and chair of the ANC.
On August 8, the landmark parliamentary vote on a motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma will take place. It threatens to break the logjam of SA politics by initiating a split in the ANC — or, alternatively, condemning SA to further destruction under a corrupt and rudderless party.
It is Mbete, as speaker of parliament, who must decide whether the vote should be secret, which would open the way for ANC MPs to vote against the president without fear of reprisals.
In a way, she almost doesn’t have a choice.
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng made it clear a month ago that the speaker’s power must not be exercised "arbitrarily or whimsically". He said parliament has a duty to ensure the voting process "is not a fear or money-inspired sham, but a genuine motion for the effective enforcement of accountability".
The word on the street is that the ANC’s top six (of which Mbete is part) has already instructed her that the vote must not take place in secret. Cunningly, Mbete has delayed announcing her decision to the other parties just yet — a clear gambit to avoid playing her hand too early.
But she’s between a rock and a hard place.
If she allows the secret ballot, she will be seen within the ANC as part of the plot to get rid of Zuma, potentially enhancing her own presidential ambitions. She would be vesting her political future with those who are already lined up against the president.
If she vetoes the secret ballot, she would be (rightly) accused of putting party before state — essentially breaking her oath to parliament.
It’s a tough call. In the centuries-old British parliamentary tradition (which SA inherited), the speaker is expected to leave all party offices when elected by fellow MPs and not later return to the political promotion ladder. There, the speaker can continue to hold office indefinitely, even if government changes hands — a safeguard to ensure he or she remains nonpartisan.
She’s between a rock and a hard place
Of course, it must be pointed out that a secret ballot isn’t sanctioned by the Westminster parliamentary system, precisely because political parties don’t like their MPs to take an independent view. Votes are not secret and seldom free.
But here in SA, the bad news for Mbete is that the fallout over the death threats to rebel ANC MP Makhosi Khoza couldn’t have come at a worse time. Khoza urged other MPs to vote with their conscience on August 8 — prompting the party to dub her as "ill-disciplined". Worse followed: a raft of threats to her life and to that of her daughter.
Into this cauldron stepped the clown-in-chief, Fikile Mbalula, currently serving as the police minister. SA’s top cop, who seems more at home posting pictures of himself on social media looking ghetto-fab than thinking deeply about law-enforcement, compared Khoza to a "suicide bomber".
It is this inflammatory talk that has led the ANC into a corner from which a secret ballot is now the only rational alternative. It shows that any insider who challenges the party can expect reprisals — and when that happens, he or she can rely on zero support from Mbalula’s circus.
If Mbete now rules against a secret vote, she will be handing a gift-wrapped case to opposition parties to approach Mogoeng again and argue that while fear stalks Zuma’s critics, any decision to hold an open ballot would be irrational and against the interests of democracy.