Letting the genie out of the bottle
A secret ballot is not in the interests of the public, writes
IT IS not without significance that neither the constitution nor the rules of the National Assembly provide for a vote of no confidence against a sitting head of state to be conducted by secret ballot.
Considering that any member of the National Assembly has the right to request for such a motion of no confidence to be debated and voted for, it is clear that this was no oversight.
In not being prescriptive, the drafters of our constitution had due regard to two main factors: firstly, the principle of separation of powers; and secondly, the ramifications of conducting a vote on such an extreme form of censure under the veil of secrecy.
Is such a move in the interests of the public, or to serve short-sighted political ends? Perhaps there has not been proper consideration of the consequences for our democracy of letting this genie out of the bottle.
Today it may be used for the removal of public officials elected by the people. Tomorrow it may be to pass unsavoury motions under the cloak of darkness, or to pave the way for the nefarious system of chequebook politics, where the votes of MPs can be bought and sold.
It is daunting to consider the resulting paralysis that would ensue as every secret ballot would end up in the courts.
It is paradoxical that those pushing for a secret ballot hold themselves up as advocates of a more open system of governance. In pushing for this motion, they are advocating for the business of Parliament to be conducted away from the eyes of the public. This is a slippery slope towards closed government and should be resisted, not least by the courts.
Persons elected to Parliament are there at the behest of the constituencies they serve and we should not allow a situation to prevail where MPs operate in secret.
It is problematic that the opposition parties involved in the court action are cloaking their shrewd political move in the language of benevolent concern for ANC MPs who need “protection” from their own party. The inference is made that there is something wrong with MPs voting along party lines.
South Africa is a multiparty democracy. We don’t vote for individuals but for parties and MPs are not “free agents” who can cherry-pick party decisions. They owe their position to being called to serve their parties and the ANC says MPs will not support this motion of no confidence in the president.
Influential political theorists like John Stuart Mill have held that voting in secret should be an exception rather than a rule and that legislators are carrying out a public duty, not acting in their own personal interests.
The ANC has been voted into power in all the successive elections since democracy because the people of this country see it as the only party capable of delivering on its electoral mandate to realise a better life for all.
It follows then that those called upon to serve the ANC and their country in Parliament should respect the decisions of the party that put them there.
Then there is the craven opportunism and hypocrisy of calling on ANC MPs to exercise their “conscience” – a luxury they deny their own public representatives in Parliament.
The DA’s constitution is clear: a member ceases to be a member of the party when he or she, being a public representative of the party in a legislative body, in any meeting of that legislative body, votes in a manner other than in accordance with a party caucus decision which is consistent with party policy, in that legislative body, or being a single public representative in a caucus votes in a manner inconsistent with the instructions of higher party structures or party policy “save in the case where the party allows a free vote on the issue being voted on, or the caucus has given permission for that member to vote in a particular manner”.
For all its talk of free political agency, the EFF’s track record on dealing with dissent within its ranks is well-established. Its constitution notes that the minority is subordinate to the majority, that the lower level is subordinate “to the higher level” and that “the decisions of the upper structures are binding on the lower structures”.
The EFF should also in the interests of transparency, make its code of conduct for party members public, especially the parts about the consequences for breaking party ranks in voting.
Clearly then, what is good for the goose is not good for the gander.
They want the ANC to be civil democrats (which it is) whereas they are Stalinists themselves.
It is regrettable that political parties continue to abuse this crucial constitution entitlement aimed at safeguarding our democracy, to score political points. It points to an increasing desperation and lack of rigour to deal maturely with the cut and thrust of being in a modern political state.
Having failed in these endless bids, they are now trying to enlist the services of the judiciary as their political hatchet men and women; hopefully the Bench will see through this obvious ruse.
That MPs should spend precious hours debating endless motions of no confidence that never succeed, instead of dealing with the real business of Parliament, is a distraction.
This application to have a motion of no confidence passed in secret is an attempt to justify underhanded behaviour by MPs. Worse still, the courts are being asked to endorse this duplicity. Molewa is a member of the national working committee and national executive committee of the ANC.