Editorial: Beware secret ballot coming back to bite us

This past week, as another large protest against corruption and the rule of President Jacob Zuma took place at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, it was hard not to compare it with the gathering at Kliptown in Soweto that Zuma himself presided over on the same day. It was the president’s 75th birthday, among other occasions, and he at least got an audience of a few thousand to set against the those at the Union Buildings and the tens of thousands (a total of 100 000 people nationwide, said some reports) who marched and protested last Friday — not forgetting the dozens of activists who camped out in Pretoria, in Occupy style, braving the threats and ­violence of some ANC supporters.

The marches and protests that sprang up all over the country on April 7, a week after Zuma fired the finance minister and deputy finance minister amid a Cabinet reshuffle, showed an array of South Africans united in their desire to see an end to corrupt government, particularly Zuma’s.

At that point, the Democratic Alliance was propelling at least some of the protest, giving it a sort of party branding that will have made it easier for the ANC to wave it away as mere opposition politics — another mindlessly anti-Zuma campaign driven by those who would happily see the ANC driven out of power. This past week, the Economic Freedom Fighters moved into the protest space and said they’d pick up from the action launched by the DA and civil society body Save South Africa.

Many of the protesters, ordinary people who are simply gatvol of Zuma, corruption and the government’s mishandling of economic issues, were at pains to avoid advertising a particular party-political affiliation. And, at Wednesday’s Union Buildings gathering, EFF leader Julius Malema was ­careful to pronounce the matter at hand one of general concern that was not just of importance to opposition parties.

He was right, and it’s worth taking note of all the ANC-aligned bodies or groups with a history in the ANC, such as the movement of party stalwarts and veterans, who have added their voices to the call for Zuma’s resignation. There is a great deal of opposition to Zuma from within the ANC but it’s also clear that he still has enough power to silence such voices, as he did to his ­fellow members in the ANC’s top six leadership cohort.

The president managed to slap down the highest-ranking members of his own party who objected to his actions and he casually tried, at a commemoration service for Chris Hani, to shrug off Friday’s public protests against him as being “racist” in tone and intent. More protests, such as the largely black gathering in Pretoria on Wednesday, may increase the pressure on him but we know from his history that he’s not one to give up easily.

The obstacles he surmounted (or avoided) on his way to the presidency, including a trial for rape and 783 corruption charges, must have allowed him to believe that he would be able to continue riding roughshod over anyone or anything standing in his way. Now, well into his second term as president, he seems to believe he can hang on for some time yet.

Understandably, then, the battle continues in Parliament, in the form of a no-confidence vote. But the ANC has the majority, so is it likely to go anywhere if members have to vote openly, as they now do? Hence the drive by opposition parties to conduct a secret ballot in any no-confidence motion, so that ANC MPs can vote with their “consciences” and not their party loyalties.

It seems like an attractive plan, and the United Democratic Movement has urgently approached the Constitutional Court to rule on the matter. So far, the court has invited representations from all sides and said it will consider whether it will hear the matter. For some, this is a triumph because a secret ballot is more likely to dislodge Zuma — but for others, it’s a problem because all this court stuff is likely to delay the actual vote of no confidence.

The bigger problem, however, is that the opposition may end up making a change to the way Parliament works that looks like a good idea in the short term to realise their most immediate goal (to get rid of Zuma), but they are not thinking clearly about the long term. Removing Zuma is not so pressing that we must risk damaging the underpinnings of democracy to hasten him on his way. Nor is it worth opposition parties creating a monster that will, as they should have learned from their own history, probably turn on them.

Remember the floor-crossing for which opposition parties fought, also in the Constitutional Court? They won, and the floor-crossing started; at first it benefited smaller parties but soon it became an unsightly political cattle show, and ultimately the ruling party benefited more than the opposition.

A secret ballot undermines the principles of transparency and accountability to which we would like to hold our public representatives. In any case, Parliament has not exactly proven itself trustworthy: it elected Zuma, was unable to prevent his excesses and then failed to hold him to account. It must not be rewarded for that failure by being allowed to conduct its business behind a veil of secrecy.

The focus should be less on the velocity of Zuma’s exit and more on ensuring that we never suffer his like again. 

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