Secret Ballot: Vote of No Confidence in South African President Narrowly Defeated
Jason Brickhill 9th August 2017

In an earlier blog post, I discussed the decision of the Constitutional Court regarding the process to be followed by the South African Parliament in the vote of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma. The Speaker of the National Assembly had declined a request by opposition parties that the vote be by secret ballot on the basis that she lacked the power to call a secret ballot. The Constitutional Court held, on the contrary, that the Speaker does indeed have the power to direct a secret ballot on such a vote, and must act rationally and take into account all relevant considerations when making the decision. In my previous post, while noting that the outcome of the case was in itself unsurprising, I expressed concern at the shift away from openness and towards secrecy.

On 7 August 2017, the eve of the scheduled vote of no confidence, the Speaker directed that the vote of no confidence would proceed by secret ballot, surprising many commentators.

The vote of no confidence subsequently took place on 8 August 2017. Section 102 of the Constitution of South Africa provides that “[i]f the National Assembly, by a vote supported by a majority of its members, passes a motion of no confidence in the President, the President and the other members of the Cabinet and any Deputy Ministers must resign.” Accordingly, in order for the motion to pass, it required that a majority of the members of the National Assembly vote in favour of it. When fully constituted, the National Assembly consists of 400 members. However, as a result of the death, incapacity or absence of some members, only 384 were present to cast their vote. As it currently stands, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has a comfortable majority in the assembly with 249 seats. For the motion to have any prospect of success therefore required that members of the ANC vote with the opposition.

The motion was tabled by the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, in a rare joint action that was supported by the other major opposition parties. They focused on the allegations of corruption against President Zuma, particularly the claims of ‘state capture’ by the Gupta family brought to light by the ‘State of Capture’ report of the former Public Protector and more recently information drawn from the ‘Guptaleaks’, leaked email correspondence containing evidence to support corruption allegations. In the debate, speakers opposing the motion on behalf of the ANC sought to shift the focus of the debate away from President Zuma, and instead focus on the second consequence of a s102 motion – that the Cabinet would also be forced to resign. Should such a motion succeed, the Speaker must assume office as Acting President for a period of 30 days until Parliament elects a new President. Those arguing on behalf of the ANC described the motion as an illegitimate attempt at ‘regime change’.

In the final result the motion was defeated – by a narrow margin of 21 votes – 177 voting ‘yes’, 198 ‘no’ and 9 abstaining. This result implies that approximately 30 ANC MPs supported the motion of no confidence, and voted on conscience despite the party whip’s directions. However, since the vote was conducted by secret ballot, it is impossible to confirm how individual members voted.

Author profile

DPhil Candidate, Faculty of Law, University of Oxford; Honorary Research Associate, University of Cape Town; member of the Johannesburg Bar.

Citations

Jason Brickhill, “Secret Ballot: Vote of No Confidence in South African President Narrowly Defeated” (OxHRH Blog, 9 August 2017) <http://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/secret-ballot-vote-of-no-confidence-in-south-african-president-narrowly-defeated/> [Date of Access]

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