[OPINION] Why a secret vote of no confidence is risky

The Constitutional Court is set to make a determination the United Democratic Movement’s (UDM) application for the upcoming vote of no confidence against the sitting state president to be done through a secret ballot. While this application brings about various debates and triggers extremely contrasting emotions from various South Africans, the precedent that could be set may have longer lasting implications.

The National Assembly is the ultimate representation of the aspirations and will of the people of South Africa. Through the power to vote, South Africans express their ultimate power to choose their rulers and decide on the direction of the country. Naturally, one expects that the National Assembly and its committees to almost perpetually be charged with debates and disagreements, and these ultimately have to get Parliament to make the best decisions on behalf of the people.

While there may have been views in support of this motion, the arguments presented have largely been influenced by the incessant desire to remove the president and less on the implications of the potential cost of allowing a secret ballot. In fact, many have anchored their support of this application on the basis that electing a president occurs through a secret ballot without necessarily questioning if the elective process itself should not be reconsidered or reviewed.

If we are to stretch our imagination beyond the current political trajectory, we would realise that there are a few reasons why South Africa must be cautious against the expediency of a secret ballot.

First, we function in a partisan democratic order. Part of the fundamental assumptions in this order are that political parties hold their ‘deployed’ representatives to account and that political parties are then held to account by the people of South Africa. On the basis of the decisions parties take or refuse to take, South Africans appraise their performance and assess if they can trust them with their votes in future. The act of making the vote secret undermines the ability of political parties to hold their representatives to account and ultimately negates the role of the people in punishing or rewarding political parties on the basis of their decisions in Parliament.

Second, and on a related note, the idea of hiding the vote from the electorate creates a backdoor for interest groups to use members of Parliament (MPs) as their proxy to power, which would undermine the power of the electorate. The world is currently dealing by inter-country state or private players who have been shown to have an interest in the internal politics of other nations. In other cases, interest groups have had an interest in influencing currencies through having an invisible hand in political decisions. If the country would enable the removal of the president by secret ballot, it would weaken the people’s protection against these external interests taking over through the use of vote buying, bribes and intimidation and it could potentially disarm us in defending our own democracy.

Lastly, MPs take an oath of office where they swear to be faithful to the Republic of South Africa. They make this declaration knowing that determining if the president should continuously enjoy the privilege of leading the nation is one of their responsibilities. They individually commit to perform these responsibilities faithfully and consistently without regard for personal expediency and self-interest. Creating rules to ‘shield the MPs’ as some have argued would be to lower our expectations of the standard of the kind of people that make the most important decisions about the future of our country. MPs must be able to make any decision in favour of the country, having reflected on dichotomy or symmetry of the expectations of their party versus those of their fellow citizens. They must then be able to reconcile (and live with) the potential consequences of any decision they make as party representatives and leaders of the people, regardless of any amount of pressure and without any need for such elevated protection. If any of them require a secret ballot as a form of protection, perhaps society is justified to ask if they are fit to be MPs and if they should still enjoy the priviledge of being representatives of which ever party they represent.

While many enthusiasts may potentially argue that in this case the means justify the end, we must question the authenticity of those who would normally oppose secrecy and publicly advocate for transparency. Yet in this case bravely declare that the country must surrender its accountability mechanisms and effectively be at the mercy of 264 MPs who can make or break the nation with lowered mechanisms to scrutinise.

Finally, we must not forget to ask if the current process of electing the president secretly adequately reflects the power relations we wish to have with those that represent us and if we should not have the right to know who the MPs vote for to be the president of all of us.

Bafana Nhlapo is the founding chairperson of non-profit organisation Black Orange Kairos. He writes in his personal capacity.