Time for a Cabinet reshuffle

ANTHONY BUTLER: Paranoia in the cabinet signals a reshuffle is on the cards

With ministers resorting to self-promotion and backstabbing, Cyril Ramaphosa needs to enrol competent recruits

 First published in BusinessLive

08 OCTOBER 2020

A cabinet reshuffle is an important political instrument for any national leader. In a fully presidential system the head of state is constrained by the need to secure ratification from the legislature. In a parliamentary system like ours, in contrast, the president has a pretty free hand in removing and installing ministers.

Shuffles allow a leader to change the public image of the government, to kick out the insolent or incompetent, and to reward political allies. But a leader is also obliged to balance factions, ideological blocs, age and gender profiles and regional interests. Such multidimensional reconfiguration puzzles do not have one correct resolution: a president’s political judgment is key.

Former president Thabo Mbeki mostly opted for continuity, even when his ministers were physically unwell or psychologically unhinged. He instead used loyalist deputy ministers and sympathetic directors-general to help him centralise power.

Jacob Zuma, by contrast, used frequent cabinet reshuffles to disorient his enemies and secure personal advantage. He even made Malusi Gigaba finance minister, an appointment memorably described by Julius Malema as “placing a rat in charge of the cheese”.

Ramaphosa’s approach is closer to Mbeki’s than Zuma’s. In 2019 he kicked out Gigaba, Bathabile Dlamini and Nomvula Mokonyane but retained ideological diversity in senior portfolios such as finance, public enterprises, and trade & industry.

Events are pushing Ramaphosa towards a fresh reconfiguration. Heavyweight ministers such as Tito Mboweni and Pravin Gordhan have signalled a desire to step down. When such senior ministers go the vacancies cascade down the cabinet system as lesser souls are promoted.

Meanwhile, Gwede Mantashe, who has not flourished at mineral resources & energy — perhaps primarily as a result of being too close to vested interests — may be obliged to return to Luthuli House when the current secretary-general’s duties are reallocated.

Ramaphosa faces unprecedented challenges in managing the economic fallout from Covid-19. A patronage cabinet that merely placates diverse constituencies will result quite rapidly in a fiscal crisis, intervention by international financial institutions and a loss of national economic sovereignty.

Any successful recovery plan will require a reallocation of resources, and so unavoidable cuts to big programmes. These will be met by consolidated resistance from politically powerful actors as diverse as teachers, social grant recipients and beneficiaries of the Eskom coal supply chain.

Ramaphosa’s cabinet will therefore need to be committed to serving a reform programme — once there is one — rather than powerful interest groups in the ANC and the wider society.

This means further centralisation of power in the presidency. It also requires more ministerial focus on collective goals, and nothing motivates career politicians better than fear of dismissal.

One sign that a reshuffle is on the way is a recent upsurge in mutual ministerial back-stabbing. Politicians who have received a slap on the wrist for relatively minor indiscretions, such as social development minister Lindiwe Zulu or defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula have been chalked up as impending casualties.

But the clearest indicator that a reshuffle is coming is an uptick in self-promotion by the incompetent. At a press conference on Tuesday communications & digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams launched an extended defence of her record in office. (Nobody was asking.) She insisted that allegations of her interference in the management of the Post Office and other entities had been “baseless, unfounded and devoid of any truth … I am Ndabeni-Abrahams at the end of the day. I’ve always been challenged and attacked.”

Such victimology and paranoia suggest that fears of a shake-up are building. How the next reshuffle unfolds will provide a major insight into Ramaphosa’s determination to chart a distinctive course for the country’s future.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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