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Baleka Mbete, the speaker of par­lia­ment, is known for her spec­tac­u­lar head­gear, to which she seems to pay much more at­ten­tion than to be­ing an im­par­tial ar­biter of par­lia­men­tary de­bate. But she now has a heavy bur­den to bear in jug­gling her fig­u­ra­tive hats: speaker, pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and chair of the ANC.

On Au­gust 8, the land­mark par­lia­men­tary vote on a mo­tion of no con­fi­dence in Pres­i­dent Jacob Zuma will take place. It threat­ens to break the log­jam of SA pol­i­tics by ini­ti­at­ing a split in the ANC — or, al­ter­na­tively, con­demn­ing SA to fur­ther de­struc­tion un­der a cor­rupt and rud­der­less party.

It is Mbete, as speaker of par­lia­ment, who must de­cide whether the vote should be se­cret, which would open the way for ANC MPS to vote against the pres­i­dent with­out fear of reprisals. In a way, she al­most doesn’t have a choice. Chief Jus­tice Mo­go­eng Mo­go­eng made it clear a month ago that the speaker’s power must not be ex­er­cised “ar­bi­trar­ily or whim­si­cally”. He said par­lia­ment has a duty to en­sure the vot­ing process “is not a fear or money-in­spired sham, but a gen­uine mo­tion for the ef­fec­tive en­force­ment of ac­count­abil­ity”.

The word on the street is that the ANC’S top six (of which Mbete is part) has al­ready in­structed her that the vote must not take place in se­cret. Cun­ningly, Mbete has de­layed an­nounc­ing her de­ci­sion to the other par­ties just yet — a clear gam­bit to avoid play­ing her hand too early. But she’s be­tween a rock and a hard place. If she al­lows the se­cret bal­lot, she will be seen within the ANC as part of the plot to get rid of Zuma, po­ten­tially en­hanc­ing her own pres­i­den­tial am­bi­tions. She would be vest­ing her po­lit­i­cal fu­ture with those who are al­ready lined up against the pres­i­dent.

If she ve­toes the se­cret bal­lot, she would be (rightly) ac­cused of putting party be­fore state — essen­tially break­ing her oath to par­lia­ment.

It’s a tough call. In the cen­turies-old Bri­tish par­lia­men­tary tra­di­tion (which SA in­her­ited), the speaker is ex­pected to leave all party of­fices when elected by fel­low MPS and not later re­turn to the po­lit­i­cal pro­mo­tion lad­der. There, the speaker can con­tinue to hold of­fice in­def­i­nitely, even if govern­ment changes hands — a safe­guard to en­sure he or she re­mains non­par­ti­san.

Of course, it must be pointed out that a se­cret bal­lot isn’t sanc­tioned by the West­min­ster par­lia­men­tary sys­tem, pre­cisely be­cause po­lit­i­cal par­ties don’t like their MPS to take an in­de­pen­dent view. Votes are not se­cret and sel­dom free.

But here in SA, the bad news for Mbete is that the fall­out over the death threats to rebel ANC MP Makhosi Khoza couldn’t have come at a worse time. Khoza urged other MPS to vote with their con­science on Au­gust 8 — prompt­ing the party to dub her as “ill-dis­ci­plined”. Worse fol­lowed: a raft of threats to her life and to that of her daugh­ter.

Into this caul­dron stepped the clown-inchief, Fik­ile Mbalula, cur­rently serv­ing as the po­lice min­is­ter. SA’S top cop, who seems more at home post­ing pictures of him­self on so­cial me­dia look­ing ghetto-fab than think­ing deeply about law-en­force­ment, com­pared Khoza to a “sui­cide bomber”.

It is this in­flam­ma­tory talk that has led the ANC into a cor­ner from which a se­cret bal­lot is now the only ra­tio­nal al­ter­na­tive. It shows that any in­sider who chal­lenges the party can ex­pect reprisals — and when that hap­pens, he or she can rely on zero sup­port from Mbalula’s cir­cus.

If Mbete now rules against a se­cret vote, she will be hand­ing a gift-wrapped case to op­po­si­tion par­ties to ap­proach Mo­go­eng again and ar­gue that while fear stalks Zuma’s crit­ics, any de­ci­sion to hold an open bal­lot would be ir­ra­tional and against the in­ter­ests of democ­racy.

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