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South Africa's President Jacob Zuma waves as he arrives to address the National Youth Day commemoration, under the theme "The Year of OR Tambo: Advancing Youth Economic Empowerment", in Ventersdorp, South Africa June 16, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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By Tanisha Heiberg

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa's top court, in a potential blow to President Jacob Zuma, ruled on Thursday that secret ballots may be held for motions of no confidence in parliament, but stopped short of ordering one.

A secret ballot is seen by Zuma's critics as emboldening lawmakers from his own party to support his ouster by shielding them from pressure.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said in effect that whether a secret ballot actually takes places is up to the Speaker of parliament.

Zuma, who will be in parliament later on Thursday, has survived four no-confidence votes during his eight years in power thanks to loyal voting by African National Congress (ANC) lawmakers, who form a strong parliamentary majority.

But opposition parties believe a recent cabinet reshuffle that led to the dismissal of respected finance minister Pravin Gordhan and a slew of credit rating downgrades have angered ANC MPs sufficiently to desert Zuma.

Speaker Baleka Mbete, a top ANC official, had said parliamentary rules did not allow for a secret ballot but the court disagreed.

In handing down a unanimous ruling by the full bench, Mogoeng said a vote in parliament should not be "a fear or money-inspired sham" and the Speaker should consider the interests of the country, rather than party, when deciding the nature of the vote.

"Crass dishonesty in the form of bribe-taking or other illegitimate methods of gaining undeserved majorities must not be discounted from the Speaker's decision process," he said. "When that happens in a motion of no-confidence, the outcome could betray the people's interests."

In a statement, the Speaker noted the court's ruling that it was up to her.

"The Court has ruled that the Speaker of the National Assembly has the Constitutional power to determine if motions of no confidence should be conducted by way of a secret ballot or not," her office said in a statement.

After the ruling, the rand <ZAR=D3> pared its gains to 0.5 percent against the dollar from 1 percent earlier. The currency had firmed on hopes Mogoeng would order, rather than simply permit, a secret vote.

The ANC -- once all-powerful as heir of South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle -- has lost popularity under Zuma, underscored by its worst electoral showing in over two decades of power in local elections last year.

One ANC lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that in a secret ballot they would vote for Zuma's removal. "I would vote for him to go. He is ruining the country," the legislator told Reuters.

Zuma's administration has been best by scandals and criticised for failing to address serious economic problems.

South Africa has sunk into recession and had its credit rating downgraded to junk by two of the top three credit rating agencies. Unemployment is at a 14-year high of 27.7 percent.

SECRET BALLOT?

The main opposition Democratic Alliance party said Mbete now would have little choice but to call for a secret ballot.

"I think it's a great day for democracy for South Africa. I think the speaker will be very hard pressed indeed to deny a secret ballot in this particular case," said the party's Federal Executive Chairperson James Selfe.

The ANC rallied behind Zuma, saying it will vote against the motion to remove the 75-year old leader. A successful vote of no-confidence would trigger the collapse of Zuma's government.

"We have unqualified and unequivocal confidence in the ANC caucus not to vote in support of a motion to remove the president," ANC's parliamentary chief whip Jackson Mthembu said.

Zuma has suffered a string of judicial setbacks, but has held on to power with the backing of his party.

Zuma last month defeated mounting pressure against him within the ANC, surviving a no-confidence motion against him by several officials at a meeting of top members within the party.

Analysts said that there was no way the Speaker could be forced to call for a secret ballot vote against Zuma.

(Additional reporting by Wendell Roelf in Cape Town and Ed Cropley in Johannesburg; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

Reuters