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Secret Ballots and No-confidence votes – what’s going on in Parliament?


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Secret Ballots and No-confidence votes – what’s going on in Parliament?

Secret Ballots and No-confidence votes – what’s going on in Parliament?

8th August 2017


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In this article, Mike Roussos offers insight into how today's No-Confidence Vote arose, how it could shape up and what the scenarios are depending on whether the motion succeeds or fails.

The members of Parliament make up the Legislature. It is made up of members from all the political parties that won enough votes in the last general election to qualify for one or more of their members to represent the voters in parliament (Around 0.25% of the votes gives you one member of Parliament – as there are 400 seats/members in total).


The President is elected by the members of parliament, the Legislative arm of government. The Chief Justice, who is the head of the Judicial arm of government, is responsible for getting the elected president to take his ‘oath of office’ – before he can officially take over as the head of the Executive arm of government. This oath binds the President to ‘be faithful to and advance the Republic of South Africa’ - ‘to protect and promote the rights of all South Africans’ - to ‘obey, observe, uphold and maintain the Constitution and all other laws of the Republic’ – to ‘do justice to all’ – to ‘devote himself to the well-being of the Republic and all of its people’ - amongst other things.

The President must then appoint his Cabinet – who, together with the President, make up the Executive arm of government.


Once the president has been legally installed, he can only be removed in one of two ways:

He can be removed (in terms of section 89 of the constitution) on the grounds of a serious violation of the constitution or the law – for serious misconduct – or due to his inability to perform the functions of his office. This can be done by a resolution that gains the support of at least two-thirds of the members of the national assembly – or 267 out of the 400 members.

He can also be removed by a simple majority of the members of Parliament, voting for a motion of no-confidence in the President (in terms of section 102 (2) of the Constitution). If that passes, then the president and the entire cabinet (including all deputy ministers) must resign. This does not have to be for the kinds of reasons stipulated in section 89 above – it can be for any reason that is found to be acceptable by a simple majority of the members of the legislature.

A no-confidence resolution that is proposed in terms of section 102 (2) of the Constitution, is one way to force Parliament to debate whether they really have confidence in the current President – and by implication - in the entire Executive (the President and the Cabinet he appointed).

Balance of forces in Parliament
The ANC won 62.15% of the vote in the last general election – thereby getting 249 of the 400 available seats in parliament. The DA won 22.23% of the votes and got 89 seats – and the EFF won 6.35% of the votes and got 25 seats. The remaining 10 opposition parties hold a total of 37 seats between them.

To win a vote of no confidence, the motion would have to be supported by all of the members of the parties outside of the ANC (all 151 of them) and get the support of at least 50 ANC members of Parliament, to give a total of 201 votes for the motion.

We need to bear in mind that some of the small opposition parties have supported the ANC in the past, so it may be ambitious to count all the non-ANC MPs amongst the possible supporters of the motion. If we discount the 3 AIC MPs and one other – then at worst, the motion would need the support of 54 ANC MPs for it to pass.

The debate about a secret ballot – who wants it and who doesn’t?
The constitution dictates that the election of the President shall be by way of a secret ballot – but it is silent on what happens in the case of a motion to remove the president.

This is why the Speaker of the house was able to claim that she did not have the discretion to decide on a secret ballot – but the Constitutional court disagreed, and told her she was the only one who could make that decision - and that she needed to take certain factors into account in doing so. The court did not tell her what to do, but the judgement left the opposition parties feeling that if the speaker decided against a secret ballot, they might win a court challenge against that decision.

The ANC has come out strongly against a secret ballot and has gone so far as to threaten repercussions against any MP who goes against the party position to oppose the no-confidence motion. If the vote was held in secret, then ANC MPs who are against Zuma might feel emboldened to vote for the motion – in the hope that this would not be discovered by the party.

Although the opposition parties have promoted the secret ballot, ostensibly to ‘allow all MPs to vote according to their consciences and not in line with the instructions of the party leadership’, their past behaviour makes it clear that most of them would also take action against any of their MPs who went against a party decision on how to vote, on key motions.

The Speaker announced yesterday that she will conduct the voting on the motion by a secret ballot. This is a big surprise as the ANC is clearly opposed to this – but will it have an impact on the result of the vote? Because the DA is the official opposition, President Zuma’s conduct and the outrage that this has sparked amongst ordinary voters, has increased their support amongst traditionally ANC voters. All things being equal, they would prefer to keep him in his job until 2019 and thereby continue to benefit from the increasing disaffection amongst ordinary voters.

The secret ballot will increase the likelihood of Zuma losing the vote – thereby removing one of the DA’s greatest (albeit inadvertent) vote-winners.

What is the likelihood of ANC MPs voting for the motion of no-confidence?
The ANC is gearing up for the election of an ANC president to replace Zuma when his term of office comes to an end - at the end of this year. This does not mean that he will step down as President of the country, as he remains the elected president of the country until the next general election in 2019.

Zuma’s supporters are campaigning hard to get a successor who will ensure that their access to power and position (and tenders) will remain as beneficial as it has been under Zuma. Zuma himself is clearly concerned about the criminal charges that he currently faces – and other charges that may be brought against him and his inner circle. This makes the battle for succession a tense and potentially life-threatening process.

The faction supporting an alternative(/s) to the Zuma camp, was keen to use this opportunity to encourage MPs to ‘vote with their conscience’ – or in plain English ‘let’s use this opportunity to kick the bugger out’.
Their rationale seems to range from ‘outrage at the way in which the ANC has been degraded and a desire to rejuvenate it’ – to a more ‘self-interested concern that with Zuma remaining in charge, the ANC is rapidly losing support and could lose a general election soon!’

Internal ANC debates seem to have concluded that removing Zuma may lead to an impasse - with the ANC National Executive Committee (the NEC) being unable to agree on an alternative. The Zuma camp will refuse to allow the Deputy President of the ANC to take over - as he belongs to the other (anti-Zuma) camp. They seem to be concerned that this may force an early election and that this will have devastating consequences for our economy and political stability.

Many in the anti-Zuma group within the ANC seem to agree that it may be unwise to remove Zuma at this stage. They appear to be confident that they can win the succession battle in December. They will then be able to pressure Zuma into stepping down as the President of the country.

Secret ballot or not – who wants what?
If there was no secret ballot – it would be very unlikely that many (if any) ANC MPs would openly vote to remove Zuma. They would face party sanctions that may well remove them from the game entirely – thus removing their ability to continue to fight for change within the ANC.

Even though it has now been decided to conduct a secret ballot, it appears unlikely that enough support will emerge to allow for his removal. As a result of the internal ANC debates, many seem to have decided that it may be better to put up with him for a few more months.

As the house now faces a secret ballot, the DA may find themselves tempted to secretly canvass their trusted MPs to vote against their motion - to make sure that Zuma is not removed – thus increasing their chances of benefiting from the fall-out as he blunders on. Although this is a risky strategy that could certainly backfire on them if it ever becomes public, they may well be tempted to ‘play politics’ in the hope of continuing to win disaffected ANC voters.

What if the vote of no-confidence succeeds?
If the vote succeeds and Zuma and his entire coterie of Ministers and Deputy Ministers is forced to resign, we will undeniably face some upheavals for a period. Those who lost within the ANC will do whatever they can to limit the damage to their power base – and will probably cause a lot of damage to the country in the process.

The current balance of forces within the ANC NEC will make it very difficult to come to a decision regarding a way forward that limits the damage and incorporates compromises. Compromises are required in order to build confidence both locally and internationally – to try and limit the economic consequences of political instability.

Ideally the solution will include the opposition parties – but this will probably be portrayed as ‘capitulation to the enemy’ and there are currently no leaders with the stature to pull all the players together and make the difficult decisions that will be needed to find a way forward.

What if the vote of no-confidence does not succeed?
If the vote of no-confidence does not succeed, the disaffection of many ANC voters is likely to increase and the anti-Zuma faction will be under pressure to demonstrate why voters should not abandon the ANC entirely.

They will put all their efforts into winning the succession battle – to try and get their person elected into the position of ANC president at the ANC conference in December. That person will then have to demonstrate how he/she will fix the rot within the ANC and the government structures – if they want to have any chance of persuading a large portion of traditionally ANC voters, to stick with the ANC.

If the anti-Zuma group fails to get their candidate elected as ANC president, then the ANC will probably split. This opens up the possibility of setting up an alternative political party, to try and represent the values and policies that the ANC originally promoted.

Roussos was a Trade Unionist with various unions during the anti-apartheid struggle. He then worked for various corporates, ending his time with them at an executive level. Roussos has also worked for government as a consultant and as a Head of Department. He has been an activist in a range of areas, from his time as a student within the Catholic student movement, his involvement with the unions and the UDF during the struggle against apartheid, to the Catholic Church Justice and Peace structures, and the struggle against climate change and for a variety of alternative energy initiatives. He has never been a politician and hopes to maintain this unblemished record, to the end of his days.


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