Parliament Watch – part of The Dullah Omar Institute – has published a FAQ relating to the rules that govern the only three ways South African MPs can remove a sitting president, and what conditions need to be met for it to succeed.
According to the group, there are only three legitimate ways to unseat the president – through impeachment, a motion of no confidence, or resignation.
Each method has its own conditions, with the easiest and quickest route being a voluntary resignation. However, president Jacob Zuma has said in the past that he will never resign on his own, so that avenue is widely considered to be closed off.
A fourth option is also available – a recall of the president from the ANC itself – but as has been demonstrated over the past years years, the ANC on an official level is in full support of the president, and will not issue such an order despite an evident split in the party.
On 18 April, Parliament will vote in yet another motion of no confidence against Zuma – the seventh during his time as president – with the question of a secret ballot being contested.
Speaker of the National Assembly, Baleka Mbete, insists that she cannot order that the vote be done via secret ballot as Parlimentary rules do not allow for it. Some argue that she does have the power to allow it.
The United Democratic Movement (UDM) has approached the Constitutional Court, seeking a ruling that would force the vote to be done in secret – the party is arguing that threats and intimidation are stopping MPs from fulfilling their duty as public servants.
The table below details the main differences between the three routes to unseating Zuma:
RemovalImpeachmentMotion of no confidenceResignation
How it is doneNational Assembly adopts a resolution to remove the President from office.National Assembly passes a motion of no confidence in the President. The President must then resign.President informs Speaker of the National Assembly of his or her resignation.
Grounds for removal1. Serious violation of the constitution or the law;
2. Serious misconduct; or
3. Inability to perform the functions of office.
National Assembly no longer has confidence in the President (i.e. a political decision)Political/personal decision
Majority neededTwo-thirds majoritySimple majorityN/A
Votes needed267 of 400201 of 400N/A
Rest of cabinetRemain in officeMinisters and deputy ministers must resignMinisters and deputy ministers must resign
Presidential benefitsNo benefitsEntitled to benefitsEntitled to benefits
Who takes overDeputy presidentSpeaker of the National AssemblyDeputy president
How the vacancy is filledWithin 30 days, the Chief Justice presides over the election of new PresidentWithin 30 days, the Chief Justice presides over the election of new PresidentWithin 30 days, the Chief Justice presides over the election of new President
Parliament Watch also answered some frequently asked questions:
Can MPs vote however they want?
The law does not force MPs to vote in a particular way. However, the tendency has been for MPs to vote in accordance with a position, adopted by the party’s leadership. There is a concern that a party’s position on a particular matter may differ from the view of its constituents (i.e. those who votes for the party).
If an MP votes against the party line, the party is likely to discipline that MP. It will probably mean that he or she will be removed from Parliament and replaced by another party member.
This is only different when 1) there is no party line, i.e. the party allows its MPs to vote according to their own beliefs or conscience or 2) when the vote is secret so the party leaders will not know how each MP voted.
Does voting on the election of the President happen in a secret ballot?
Yes, the President is elected by secret ballot.
Does voting on a motion of no confidence or a resolution to impeach happen in a secret ballot?
No, the Rules of Parliament do not provide for a secret vote for a motion of no confidence or for a resolution to impeach. So this is done in an open vote
Has this rule been challenged before?
Yes, in 2015, AGANG SA, COPE and the UDM asked the Western Cape High Court to rule that voting on the removal of a President should be by secret ballot. The Court ruled that it didn’t have the power to tell Parliament how it must organise voting procedures and that Parliament itself must decide.
During the 2015/16 review of the Rules of Parliament, several parties suggested that the Rules provide that a Motion of no Confidence be voted by secret ballot (see EFF proposal). This was not accepted by the majority party.
Is it nevertheless legally possible for a secret ballot to happen on 18 April?
Yes, the National Assembly itself may agree to a secret ballot. An MP may bring a motion suggesting that a particular decision be voted on by secret ballot. For such a motion to pass, it needs the support of a majority of the National Assembly.
What is the Constitutional Court case on the ‘secret ballot’ about?
On 11 April 2017, the UDM asked the Constitutional Court to force Parliament to have a secret ballot on the motion of no confidence. The UDM is arguing that the ANC’s threats to discipline those MPs that vote in favour are undemocratic.