Monday’s announcement by Baleka Mbete that the motion of no confidence would be decided by secret ballot took many, if not most, people by surprise.
Why did she decide on a secret ballot, when it clearly posed significant political risk to her if the ballot passed?
This question became even more intriguing when it emerged that she did not consult with the ANC NEC and that even they were caught by surprise.
Some analysts argued that the legal advice and opinions presented to her were so convincing that she did not have a choice. That might well be true, although it should be said that her political future would still have been more important to her than the possibility of losing in court again.
Some journalists went further and questioned whether she had gone “rogue” and whether this decision was not only her way of redeeming herself as a politician and thus securing her legacy, but also that the possibility of being interim president (should the motion have passed) might have been her way off kicking off her own presidential campaign.
I don’t think that this was convincing. First of all it posed an enormous risk for her in terms of her standing in the ANC should the vote have gone against President Zuma. We have to remember that a majority of NWC, NEC and arguably even branch members still support the Zuma faction. More importantly if Mbete was seen to have strengthened the hand of the opposition and so caused a victory to them, her standing in the ANC and in the Presidential race would have been fatally damaged. As much as there might be a growing discontent in the ANC about President Zuma, that does not translate into ANC members being comfortable with an opposition victory of any sort.
So what was going on?
I believe that President Zuma not only agreed to a secret ballot, but wanted it.
I find it implausible that Mbete (who is also Chairperson of the ANC) did not consult with Zuma before making her decision. Failure to do so would be strange in any political party, but given its culture of collective decision-making, much more so for the ANC. I also do not believe that Mbete would have gone directly against the president’s wishes unless it was agreed to by the NEC (which we know was not the case).
This leaves only one alternative and that is that President Zuma decided to take a calculated risk, i.e. that he argued “Bring it on”. This would be typical of him. He would have known that if he were to survive the motion through a secret ballot, it would be the ultimate victory for him, thus effectively silencing any opposition voices inside the ANC and also making any further votes of no-confidence highly unlikely in the next few months.
It would also explain why Mbete waited until the day before the debate to make the announcement. If indeed the president was in favour of a secret ballot, he would have requested or more likely instructed Baleka to only make it known the night before the vote in order to a) give the anti-Zuma faction as little time as possible to mobilise and b) to give the ANC the maximum time to “intimidate” or put pressure on their own members – as we have indeed seen happening in the last few weeks.
And of course the gamble paid off from Zuma’s perspective. Only 177 members voted against the motion. This does mean that 28 or 29 ANC members most likely voted with the opposition and 9 abstained. Although significantly more than most people anticipated, it is a long way from the 201 votes that would have been required to pass the motion.
I have always maintained that if Mbete ruled for a secret ballot it would signal that she and the ANC were sure that the motion would not pass. I was right. I also warned that as a country we could be worse off after a vote of no confidence and I think we are.
President Zuma got what he wanted, courtesy of the opposition parties. After this vote he is stronger than ever before, no matter how hard the opposition will try and spin the fact that many ANC MPs voted for the motion. The outcome of the vote has effectively silenced any opposition to Zuma in the ANC at least until December. And it might even have for now strengthened his hand in terms of the outcome of the Electoral Conference.
The motion of no confidence was without doubt spectacular political theatre. Sadly, however, now that the curtain has fallen, South Africa is probably worse off than before.
– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.