A growing centralisation of power

ANTHONY BUTLER: A president at the wheel is far better than a reshuffle

First published in BL Premium and Business Day

10 JUNE 2021

Few events in politics are as captivating as a cabinet reshuffle. There is the excitement of new ministers rising to confront great national challenges, and there is the more profound satisfaction of seeing lousy incumbents demoted.

But perhaps the value of a reshuffle is overstated. Certainly President Cyril Ramaphosa has avoided the frenzied reshuffling that scarred the Jacob Zuma era. Then we had a new energy minister every year, the “weekend special”, yokels from the maize producing provinces, and spooks from KwaZulu-Natal — and all of the appointments were proclaimed in advance in the New Age newspaper.

Announcing his last reshuffle in May 2019 Ramaphosa explained he had taken “a number of considerations” into account, including “experience, continuity, competence, generational mix and demographic and regional diversity”.

Now that leading ministers are keen to spend more time with their families, or at least with their lawyers, Ramaphosa has presumably been scouring a list of members of the ANC national executive committee looking for these qualities, perhaps with a growing sense of despair.

He will also have run his finger down the roll-call of liberation movement members deployed to parliament. This dismal catalogue prominently features political zombies such as Supra Mahumapelo and Faith Muthambi, consigned to rot in the committee rooms precisely so they could do no further harm to the country.

Ramaphosa is less pressured by opposition parties than he should be because the white walkers of Dainfern and Bryanston will not breach the wall to vote in large numbers. Ramaphosa’s primary concerns are closer to home, and he will be wary of pushing powerful comrades out of cabinet without very good reason.

Ramaphosa may conclude that a cabinet reshuffle is merely the rearrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic. Why not go straight to the bridge, and steer the ship away from the iceberg himself?

First, Ramaphosa can exercise power through the senior officials who are the repositories of a modicum of wisdom, or at least institutional memory, in government departments. If they do their jobs properly, officials in the forum of directors-general (DGs) can avoid disturbing the placid intellectual waters that ideally should characterise the ministerial mind.

Reforms under way may indeed soon extend the tenure of effective DGs, and a new role for the head of the public service in managing officials’ careers may soon tilt the balance of power towards the centre.

Second, the presidency itself can surely take on some roles previously reserved to ministers. The National Treasury is under enormous strain, but it remains far more capable than its sectoral peers, and Ramaphosa has used Operation Vulindlela to tap into its expertise — not least in energy policy. It may be that reason can be more generally deployed, for example in expenditure reviews, to rein in the budgets of functional departments.

The president’s advisory bodies, presidential councils, and commissions have been widely ridiculed. But the Presidential Economic Advisory Council, the Investment and Infrastructure Office, and the Presidential Climate Change Coordinating Commission are starting to generate realisable goals and concrete actions. The president can use their recommendations to drive strategic priorities from the centre of government.

Finally, “do nothing” ministers have not been the central problem. The real challenge has been the small number of very capable ministers who have been actively obstructing Ramaphosa’s stated priorities, energy minister Gwede Mantashe and public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan among them. As Ramaphosa showed yesterday, when he lifted companies’ electricity generation threshold to 100MW, he is perfectly able to overrule his ministers when they are blocking key reforms.

Governing from the centre can be a hazardous enterprise, and the odds against success remain daunting. However, for passengers on the Titanic, Ramaphosa’s decision to centralise greater authority in the bridge of the presidency is a more positive development than yet another rearrangement of the deck chairs.

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

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