Reflection on ‘vote of no confidence’


Wesley Seale,  argues that the vote of no confidence done in secret did our democracy no good. The reflection on this mishap must continue and the ANC, while it is not able to identify those members who voted with the opposition, must hold the Speaker, a deployee of the ANC, accountable and question its Treasurer-General on his views on democracy and ANC unity.

The eighth vote of no confidence in President Zuma was significant for our democracy. We must not let this one go by without doing the necessary, anti-populist task of interrogating whether the vote and how it was done leaves South African democracy in a stronger or weaker position. Steven Friedman and Ebrahim Fakir have already made their voices known, even before the vote was done.
To both these highly respected scholars, a vote in secret, probably the first extra-ordinary one in our democracy post 1994, was a blight to constitutional democracy. As these scholars have pointed out, we have no idea as citizens, never mind as political parties, what our representatives voted for. In this instance, we can clearly say that the people did not govern, instead their representatives did.

Like the recall of Thabo Mbeki, the vote of no confidence by secret ballot, set a bad precedent. Friedman makes this point in his article when he suggests that ‘democracies are shaped by precedent – once off exceptions usually become part of the political future’.

We are not sure whether the next vote, either a vote of no confidence or any other vote for that matter, will be done by secret ballot. Yet even more devastatingly is the possibility of bribery a vote of no confidence introduces and even more so what it does to the party parliamentary system that we chose in this country.

There was a specific reason why the Constitution writers chose a proportional system, where party trumps individual candidate, and not a constituency based system. In neither of these two systems, as Friedman and Fakir would have argued, is a secret ballot good for democracy. Yet even more so, in a proportional system where one is elected to parliament from a party list, it is your party, rather than say the voters in your constituency, than ensures you a seat in the house.

Unlike in a constituency based system where you could argue that you are representing the vote of your constituency, in South Africa, we delegate our power to govern in the hands of parties rather than individuals.

The Jesuit Institute of South Africa put out a statement calling on the supremacy of the conscience and that members of the National Assembly should be guided by their consciences. Yet this argument works much better for voters rather than for public representatives. For as Friedman put it, democracy, at least the type we practice and the one practiced the world over except for countries such as Austria where citizens have to vote on laws, allows for the voter, based on their conscience, to vote in secret because they represent only themselves. Public representatives are just that, representatives of the public, and their consciences should be guided by those who voted them into office. Why stand for office then if your conscience does not permit you to represent the views of voters?

However, despite the effect that this vote of no confidence done in secret will have on our democracy, the ANC seems to have more than just a few ‘free agents’, in the words of its Secretary-General. Offering comment before the vote, Gwede Mantashe assured ANC voters, all eleven million of them, that the ANC did not have ‘free agents’. People were going to tow the party line. As we have seen, the ANC has at least forty-six members of its caucus who voted with the opposition against their party president in the vote.

The eleven million ANC voters will never know who to thank or dismiss for those who went against the party line. There is no way that the ANC itself will ever know who these rogue members of parliament are. Though it was warned about a secret vote.

Yet we do know of two free agents that the ANC must demand an explanation from. The first is an ANC deployee to the National Assembly in the form of the Speaker. Baleka Mbete has some explaining to do to her party as to why she opted to put democracy in harm’s way but, if anything, for the sake of accountability and transparency she must explain why she chose the secret ballot route.

In her media statement announcing the secret ballot, Mbete suggested that she was doing the media conference, an “extraordinary approach” she termed it, “in the interests of transparency and also having taken into account the huge interest in this matter”. If anything, the decision to hold the ballot in secret directly contradicts these sentiments and this statement.

Mbete’s statement further contradicts that of Mantashe’s as she affirms the ‘dictates of personal conscience’, the Jesuit argument, and thus endows to members of parliament the ability to be free agents precisely because they swear allegiance to the Constitution and not their parties. Needles to mention that it is because of their parties in the first place, not even voters, that members of parliament even get to swear allegiance to the Constitution.

Another reason the Speaker cited for the secret vote was intimidation. Surely if the Speaker gives as part of her rationale for her important constitutional decision intimidation, which could border on being criminal, she must bring this to the attention of her party bosses. If as Chairperson of the ANC, a position she is comfortable enjoying while being Speaker at the same time, she is aware that outside or inside forces in the ANC are intimidating members of parliament for this or any other vote for that matter these intimidation allegations must be investigated. The point is that Mbete must account for her decision and it should be tested, as the ConCourt suggested, not based on popularity but in a ‘balanced and rational manner’.

The other free agent that the ANC Secretary-General might want to call in for a chat on democracy is the Treasurer-General, Zweli Mkhize. Writing in a column for the Daily Maverick, Mkhize asks, as his title, ‘where to now for our beloved ANC’. The division within the ANC and the breaking of ranks with the party’s line is hailed by Mkhize as democracy and accountability inside of the ANC. Going against what the leading political scientists, such as Fakir and Friedman said, Mkhize declares rather that the vote in secret is “a clear message to the people of South Africa that the ANC remains committed to the democratic principles of this country”. What Dr Mkhize fails to mention is that it would seem commitment to these principles can only happen in secret.

Firmly in Mbete’s corner, as he sings her praises, the Treasurer-General goes on to suggest that ANC leaders should “go back to the drawing board and reassess [their] current situation and what it is that [they] are doing to unite, rebuild [and] reposition [the ANC].” Why a member of the ANC’s Top 6 should find the need to enunciate this on a news blog instead of within ANC structures, escapes the mind.

The vote of no confidence by secret ballot did our democracy no good. Voters ultimately were the loses because come 2019 they will not be able to trust the ANC or any other party for that matter to carry their mandate in a transparent manner. Even more so, parties will deploy to their benches members who do not tow the party line instead put personal conscience and interest above that of the wishes of the voters and therefore the common good. For if these members were really guided by their consciences, they would have resigned immediately after the results were made known. More importantly, secrecy, it is said, does not strengthen a democracy. We would have thought that our media would have at least championed this principle.

Wesley Seale Teachers Politics at Rhodes University