ANTHONY BUTLER: Leftists in cabinet likely to dabble in state-centred experiments
Apparent ideological balance will evaporate with the eventual departure of Mboweni, Gordhan and Godongwana
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet reshuffle has been widely greeted as “balanced”. The relatively sanguine assessment from analysts, however, may underestimate the possibility of a leftward shift in policy over the medium term.
Several factors have distorted analysts’ perceptions. Disproportionate attention has been focused on the fate of a small number of Zuma-era malfeasants. Many observers believed Ramaphosa would be forced to reappoint ministers such as Malusi Gigaba, Bathabile Dlamini and Nomvula Mokonyane to the cabinet because they featured high on ANC candidate lists. The fact that Ramaphosa swept them aside was a step forward, but only starting from a position of low expectations.
The “good ANC” versus “bad ANC” narrative that was central to the movement’s election campaign continues to shape analysts’ expectations. Theuns Eloff, chair of the FW de Klerk Foundation’s board of advisers, calculated in this spirit that only five out of 28 cabinet ministers “are known Zuma supporters … this implies that Ramaphosa has more than 80% of his cabinet not in opposition to him or his plans”. This rather depends on what his plans may be.
The rumpus over Pravin Gordhan’s reappointment to cabinet was overdone. His retention scarcely demonstrated the “firm hand” some observers discerned. Ramaphosa’s reappointment of the market-friendly Tito Mboweni as finance minister at the same time gave cabinet a misleading appearance of ideological balance.
In reality there is a growing concentration of leftist actors in economic cluster portfolios. Trade union and SACP-sponsored leaders now head three consolidated super-ministries that oversee more than one large department.
Ebrahim Patel is minister of a beefed-up department of trade & industry; Gwede Mantashe, former SACP chair, now rules the domains of energy & mineral resources; and Thulas Nxesi, creator of the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) and a SACP central committee member, is minister of the conjoined departments of employment & labour. An SACP intellectual, David Masondo, has been appointed deputy minister of finance, and he could well be destined for the top job.
The furore this week over ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule’s announcement of ostensible changes to the mandate and activities of the SA Reserve Bank was instructive about the fragile balance in Ramaphosa’s cabinet.
On the national executive committee there remains potential for alliances of convenience between the left and the significant enrichment contingent returned at Nasrec. This alliance has previously brought initiatives such as a parastatal-driven developmental state. Both groups have been unified in their castigation of the “neoliberal” Treasury.
Now the shared preoccupations of this unholy alliance seem to be the defanging of the central bank and the reintroduction of prescribed assets. The response to Magashule’s rambling announcement on Tuesday was rapid. Enoch Godongwana, chair of the ANC’s economic transformation committee, reassured nervous investors that no change was anticipated. Finance minister Tito Mboweni weighed in that the government alone sets the mandate for the Reserve Bank and “there is no quantitative easing thing here”. The following day, Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago added that quantitative easing was not an appropriate response to current economic conditions in SA.
What links these three bastions of common sense with the redoubtable Gordhan at public enterprises? They may all be on their way out. Godongwana has long signalled his intention to step down. Rumours that he might play a major role in Ramaphosa’s presidency have so far come to nothing. Kganyago is reaching the end of his term, and it is unclear if he will be reappointed. Mboweni may not serve in office for more than a year or 18 months, and Gordhan has likewise indicated a reticence to remain in office for long.
Ramaphosa doubtless intends to make major changes to the society of which he is now president. However, in a political universe from which Mboweni, Kganyago and Godongwana have departed — and perhaps with finance minister Masondo at the helm — the prospects of major state-centred policy experiments are likely to increase.
• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.