ANALYSIS

Cyril’s Nene choices: Strong, sweeping action or continuing game of Cabinet seats

By Stephen Grootes 8 October 2018

President Cyril Ramaphosa engages with South African business leaders at a business breakfast in Beijing, the People's Republic of China, ahead of the state visit and the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). 01/09/2018, Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

While there is no certainty yet about the future of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, what is now surely certain is that President Cyril Ramaphosa is facing an interesting and complicated headache. One of the complications is that it could be an opportunity to increase or consolidate his power. But it is also a moment fraught with political peril that may throw dark shadows over his “new dawn”.

When discussing a potential reshuffle, it is always important to remember that the only political analysis that matters is that of the person who is doing the reshuffle; really, the only analyst who matters in this case is the President himself. That said, it is possible to define a few boundaries that could limit his choice, and understand that that is still a finite number of realistic opportunities.

By Monday morning, Business Day was reporting that Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene had asked to be allowed to resign from his job after the double whammy of revelations that he had lied about meeting the Guptas, and the claims about his son Siyabonga Nene’s creative business affairs. This, coupled with the untimely death of Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa, means that Ramaphosa now has mounting pressure to refashion his Cabinet.

To add to the current complexity, the clock is ticking: the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement is just two weeks away, and Nene may feel it would be inappropriate for him to deliver it. It would mean not only trouble from the opposition parties while he was delivering the speech, but would also be the second time this year that a finance minister on their way out is delivering one of the two big set-piece financial speeches of the year, after now Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba delivered the Budget in February.

The first problem that Ramaphosa has is that Nene appears to want to go of his own volition, as he feels he betrayed the nation’s trust. There is no evidence in public that he actually behaved improperly as a result of his Saxonwold meetings. Thus, for him to leave office over this issue, while Gigaba, Bathabile Dlamini, Nomvula Mokonyane, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and others are not owning up for their own wrongdoing, feels downright unfair.

This issue of lingering injustice may strengthen the case for a big reshuffle, a moment for Ramaphosa to finally clean house. While this might be a smart move on one level, it will be difficult to pull off on another. It would show that he is prepared to be assertive, and to lead, and would strengthen his claim that there is in fact a change in the ANC. It would also give him more power through the state while possibly strengthening the ANC’s image with the electorate. This could be important, considering that opinion polls appear to offer vastly variable outcomes for the 2019 election result. Broad society might also welcome seeing the back of some people who are accused of governing for their own, or Zuma/the Guptas’ benefit.

But such strong action could also tip him over the edge of what is possible within the ANC right now. One of the big accusations against former president Jacob Zuma was that he reshuffled his Cabinet without consulting Luthuli House. As then ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe explained after the appointment of Des van Rooyen to the finance ministry, the Top Six are supposed to be consulted before a reshuffle.

This accusation was also levelled during the reshuffle that saw Pravin Gordhan removed as Finance Minister in 2017. For this to work, Ramaphosa would need to get current Secretary-General Ace Magashule and Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte on board, which seems unlikely. Still, Magashule and Duarte can’t veto Ramaphosa’s decisions, and Deputy President David Mabuza, Treasurer Paul Mashatile and Mantashe as the chair would probably back Ramaphosa. However, the next meeting of the national executive committee, where the balance of power could be different, might spell trouble for Ramaphosa.

At the same time, there is another problem that he has to face. If he allows Nene to go now, it is because of a series of events put in play by EFF leader Julius Malema. The nightmare would be to appoint a new Cabinet, and then, two weeks later, for Julius Malema to start tweeting claims about one of the new ministers. What would Ramaphosa do then? And this is one of the big quandaries here. Ramaphosa may well feel that he needs to convince Nene to remain, not because it’s the morally correct thing to do, but because he cannot afford to let Malema pull the strings.

Coupled to this is the fact that it appears, for now at least, that Malema and those allied to Zuma have the same agenda, in that both want to weaken Ramaphosa. Their agendas could obviously soon align again, and possibly even for a longer period. This means Ramaphosa has to tread carefully with any action, as he faces the distinct possibility of a crisis continuing all the way into the 2019 elections.

However, just to add some complexity to an already decidedly not simple situation, the EFF’s deputy leader, Floyd Shivambu, tweeted on Monday, in response to a point by Wits Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib, that there was a completely different source for the information.

It seems unlikely that his claim is true. But it must also be remembered that some people allied to Pravin Gordhan in the battle for the soul of SARS, such as former deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay, may well harbour a grudge against Nene because he did not protect them from then commissioner Tom Moyane. In other words, they may believe he allowed Moyane to remove them from the institution, and did nothing to stop it. However, a tweet such as this does what the EFF may want to do, which is to sow disunity and confusion. It could also be an attempt to make Ramaphosa question even those who are politically close to him.

All of this might mean that Ramaphosa may want to play it safe again, and go for a relatively small reshuffle, where he makes just two appointments, to Finance and Environmental Affairs. This would be politically easier, and could get around some of the problems of a bigger reshuffle. But it might also appear weak, and demonstrate that he is not fully in charge.

This then reveals another aspect of our current political situation. The fact that something, at some point, has to give. Ramaphosa surely cannot be enjoying trying to govern through an ANC that will not let him make the changes he believes are necessary, while those within the ANC who seek to frustrate him must themselves be frustrated. More important than that for the ANC itself is that voters, the people who are relied on to keep the ANC in power, may also be growing frustrated.

It is this last dynamic that may be the deciding factor for Ramaphosa. And this situation could, in some way, be seen as a major turning point, if he decides to act decisively. The question, really, is a turning point in which direction? DM

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