For Baleka Mbete listens the secret ballot decision is more than just about Zuma. It involves her career too. File picture: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
"The fact that the speaker is appointed from a closed list system and that she is a political appointee and can easily be removed from the National Assembly by the party could create fertile ground for a perception of bias.

It is unavoidable there will, at times, be tension as regards the speaker’s continued role as NEC chairperson due to the difficulties in keeping a balance between the dual and conflicting roles”, reads Judge Patricia Goliath’s judgment of October 7, 2015.

Delivered at the Western Cape High Court, the judge was ruling on a case that had been brought by Agang SA’s Andries Tlouamma.

Tlouamma wanted Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete removed from the position. In the instance that failed, Tlouamma pleaded with the court to order her to recuse herself from presiding over a motion of no-confidence in the president of the republic, Jacob Zuma.

Tloummana accused Mbete of bias stemming primarily from her position at the apex of the leadership of the ANC. As further illustration of the supposed bias, Tlouamma referred the judge to instances where Mbete gave more talking time to her fellow members of Parliament over opposition MPs; protected Zuma from probing questions; and referred to the leader of he EFF, Julius Malema, disparagingly as a ‘cockroach’.

Judge Goliath was not convinced, however. “Affiliation to a political party”, the judge stressed, “cannot in itself point to a lack of objectivity and impartiality”.

After all, the judge pointed out, the SA constitution, unlike in Britain, allowed for a politically active speaker. Referring to the US, where the speaker is even considered the leader of the majority party in parliament, Judge Goliath even insinuated that it was not far-fetched that Mbete would have taken decisions that favoured her party. Such decisions would be objectionable if only they violated parliamentary rules or the law.

As Mbete decides on the manner of voting on the vote of no-confidence in the president, it is worth noting that she’s more than just a politically active speaker. She’s also a candidate in a contest for her party’s presidency in December.

Mbete really wants to become president of the ANC. She was the first to declare her availability, back in March last year, way before the rush we’ve been seeing lately.

Her announcement was even preceded by a customary ritual in her remote ancestral village of Mqanduli, just outside of Mthatha. Mbete appealed to her ancestors for blessings.

Now ask yourself this question: for someone who wants the ANC presidency so badly, why wouldn’t she decide on the vote of no-confidence in a manner that bolsters her presidential bid? Her campaign hasn’t really taken off. She only has ambition, but is without a constituency or infrastructure. Deciding over the vote offers Mbete a rare opportunity to revive her presidential bid.

She needs campaign infrastructure, which Zuma can offer. Mbete can give Zuma what he needs most - more time in the presidency and a dignified exit.

Zuma needs as much time as he can get to influence the succession. He’s the manager and glue that keeps his ex-wife’s campaign together. Support for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s candidature is not enticed by her per se, but derives from indebtedness towards her former husband.

That’s why KwaZulu-Natal ANC chairperson Sihle Zikalala hasn’t been entirely convincing about his support for Dlamini-Zuma and Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza is non-committal. Zikalala owes his rise to chairperson of the province to Zuma’s backing.

Mabuza became a provincial party baron because Zuma allowed him to. Without Zuma at the helm of Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign, it will flounder. That could possibly happen if the vote of no-confidence is secret. How so? There is a real chance that, if allowed to vote secretly, ANC MPs would side with the opposition to oust Zuma.

He fears that too, which explains his expressed opposition to a secret ballot. Being out of office denies Zuma leverage over loyalists.

He won’t wield the power to threaten punishment if they refuse to help out his ex-wife and his routine would be disrupted and his stature reduced drastically by an instant prosecution.

Ramaphosa’s path to the presidency, in turn, would be made much easier. That’s definitely something Zuma doesn’t want. An open ballot, however, limits the prospects of Zuma being voted out. Fear of reprisals could dissuade an overwhelming majority of ANC MPs from voting openly to oust Zuma. Remember most of them are career politicians. The party leadership largely determines their employment in Parliament.

That could end if Zuma retains his job and goes after those that wanted him out. In any case, ANC MPs are unlikely to stick their necks out when they’re uncertain that they’ll get enough numbers to vote Zuma out. That’s the only way Zuma can be voted out through an open ballot - certainty that MPs not only have sufficient numbers from within their ranks, but also that they’ll carry through their promise to vote Zuma out.

That level of certainty is difficult to attain within the ANC. There’s just too much mistrust within.

All this means Mbete has a potent leverage over Zuma.

She can offer him an open ballot, which could prolong his presidency, in exchange for his support for her presidential bid.

Her delay in announcing the decision suggests a number of things. One is that the horse-trading may be proving too complex. Zuma obviously trusts his ex-wife to keep him out of prison and may not have a similar level of trust on Mbete.

If that’s true, then the discussion may be bogged down around Mbete settling for something less than a presidential candidacy.

Another possibility is that Mbete may have already decided on an open ballot, but is working on what she thinks is a tight argument against a likely legal challenge from opposition parties.

Unfortunately for Mbete, the Constitutional Court is likely to overturn a decision against a secret ballot. An open ballot exposes ANC MPs to harm, which inhibits their ability to hold the executive accountable. That alone is sufficient to sway the Concourt to dismiss an open ballot decision as irrational.

For Mbete this decision is more than just about Zuma.

It involves her career too. Deciding in favour of a secret ballot will upset Zuma and, as a result, put an end to her presidential bid.

But she would remain speaker and might even have a stint as acting president, if Zuma is voted out, until a new president is elected.

If she decides that MPs vote openly and that decision is later overturned by the Concourt, she’ll attract the ire of opposition MPs and like-minded colleagues in the benches of the ANC. Public resentment against Mbete will grow.

People will conclude that she approves of the devastation that the Zuma presidency has brought onto the republic.

This vote of no confidence is not just about removing a bad president. It is an attempt to arrest further decline of public institutions and morality.

It is about the country. Mbete must choose which she values most: personal ambition or country.

A closed ballot might just keep her presidential bid alive, but will commit her name forever in infamy. She might even suffer the same fate that awaits Zuma - oblivion.

* Ndletyana is an associate professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent