Thursday’s Cabinet reshuffle in many ways is a holding pattern, while signalling intentions of change set to come after the 2019 elections. It is also an indicator President Cyril Ramaphosa remains, if not fettered by the factional interests of the governing ANC he leads, then constrained.
The holding pattern is in that there has been none of the musical chair changes South Africa witnessed during the presidency of Jacob Zuma. The politicians appointed were all in the national executive already: Siyabonga Cwele, who moved to Home Affairs, came from Telecommunications, which his deputy Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams took over. Former Communications minister Nomvula Mokonyane moved to Environmental Affairs.
The indicator of what’s to come post-2019 elections lies in the merger of telecommunications and communications, effectively undoing the separation Zuma had announced after the May 2014 elections amid much talk of a telecommunications ministry making most of “a fast growing telecommunications sector which in 2012 was estimated at being worth R180-billion”.
Broadband fell under the Telecommunications ministry and with the much talked about auction of spectrum there would have been many potential looting possibilities. But that broadband was always linked to digital migration, or the move from analogue to digital broadcasting, required freeing up the spectrum – and that fell under Communications.
Telecommunications went to Cwele, who was moved from State Security where on his watch his then wife, Sheryl, was convicted and jailed for drug trafficking, while ANC backbencher Faith Muthambi was appointed to head Communications.
Shortly after her appointment Muthambi got in touch with the Guptas, not only on the new Cabinet structure and responsibilities, but also what seemed like a turf war over digital migration with Cwele, according to the #GuptaLeaks. These leaked emails show how Muthambi, on whose watch the SABC was pushed to the brink of disaster, did not directly email Tony Gupta, but went via Gutpa-owned Sahara CEO Ashu Chawla, who forwarded these ministerial emails.
But over the past four years it appears not very much ever happened, aside from South Africa missing the June 2015 digital migration deadline set by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Having missed several self-set deadlines, it’s all eyes on June 2019. And after having spent billions on set-top boxes, the gadgets subsidised to help poor households move from analogue to digital, there was a policy shift to stop government’s involvement in their procurement, distribution and connection.
Thursday’s Cabinet reshuffle announced the Telecommunications and Communications departments will merge, remaining separate until the 2019 elections, under one minister, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
The 39-year old former deputy telecommunications minister is the face of the inter-generational mix in the national executive. But Ndabeni-Abrahams also has served just short of five-and-a half years as deputy Communications minister, who saw three Communications ministers come and go between October 2011 and March 2017 – Dina Pule, Yunus Carrim, now Parliament’s Standing Committee on Finance chairperson, and Faith Muthambi – before her move to Telecommunications. And it should also not be forgotten that she was firmly in the CR17 ANC presidential lobby.
Telecommunications will be crucial for Ramaphosa’s economic stimulus and recovery plan for South Africa, announced on 21 September 2018. The president said government would initiate the process of allocating spectrum to enable licensing:
“This will unlock significant value in the telecommunications sector, increase competition, promote investment and reduce data costs. Lower data costs will also provide relief for poor households and increase the overall competitiveness of the South African economy.”
The merger of Telecommunications and Communications is the first step in reorganising and restructuring government in line with Ramaphosa’s announcement in his February 2018 State of the Nation Address. Since then Public Service and Administration has done the research, and a super-presidency could be one option.
On Thursday Ramaphosa described this merger, or a return to how it’s always been, as the “first wave” of that realigned government structure to will be formalised and announced after the 2019 elections. While keeping the governance cards close to the presidential chest, Ramaphosa confirmed this merger was part of the reorganisation, but was done now “to help with the realignment process which we need right now in order to put into effect the transformation that we are effecting with regards to economic management”.
And so the juggling act that brings together governance, governing ANC interests and pushing boundaries as hard as possible in that New Dawn, Thuma Mina presidency, underlies Thursday’s Cabinet reshuffle.
In his first change to the national executive on 26 February, Ramaphosa ditched Muthambi, alongside other ministers and deputies closely identified with the Zuma administration, such as David Mahlobo, Zuma’s confidante in charge of State Security, Mosebenzi Zwane, who as Free State agriculture MEC is linked to the Vrede Dairy farm scandal, Des van Rooyen, who was brought in as Finance minister for four days in December 2015, and Lynne Brown under whose term as Public Enterprises minister Gupta-linked companies clinched multi-billion-rand deals at Eskom and Transnet.
It’s as far as Ramaphosa could go, given the factional interests in the governing party he leads as ANC president. There was no overwhelming victory at the ANC December 2017 Nasrec national conference that returned a fine balance of slates, not only among the top six officials, but also the National Executive Committee (NEC), the governing party’s highest decision-making structure between national conferences.
Just because factional battles are no longer playing themselves out in public does not mean the jockeying is over – and the push-back is under way, according to ministers such as Thulas Nxesi of Public Works.
And so Minister of Women in the Presidency Bathabile Dlamini survives, again, in no small part due to her role as president of the ANC women’s league, still regarded as an important constituency in the ANC.
And Nomvula Mokonyane, despite a disastrous track record at Water and Sanitation that left the department broken and R6.4-billion in the red, remains put, in consideration of her political association with the Zuma grouping. She is not only a member of the ANC NEC, but also ANC National Working Committee (NWC), the smaller structure in charge of day-to-day matters.
If Ramaphosa acts against too many of those closely associated with Zuma, the push-back may just use that as a hook to push back harder. That’s not something the president can afford politically, although having Mokonyane in Cabinet is a blot on his drive for clean governance.
However, like sidelining Dlamini from Social Development, the department that’s responsible for paying out some 17 million social grants, to the women’s ministry that has mostly a ceremonial role, moving Mokonyane to Environmental Affairs is significant.
It removes her to a tight, well-run tight that may well survive until the 2019 elections and, most importantly, away from the SABC where Mokonyane is said to have started putting on the pressure. The SABC is on a slow and painful recovery amid a R3-billion funding shortfall from government.
Opposition parties have roundly and sharply criticised Ramaphosa for keeping Dlamini and Mokonyane in Cabinet as a missed opportunity, an act of cowardice and another display of putting party above state.
As has the ANC alliance partner, Cosatu:
“People like Mama Bathabile Dlamini and Mama Nomvula Mokonyane should be among those who are released from government, when considering their questionable actions in their previous positions,” said the labour federation.
“We reminded the president that these compromised characters will continue to remain an albatross around his neck as long as they continue to serve under his leadership and will haunt his executive until he acts.”
And that’s just the point. Until Ramaphosa can bring the ANC back to government on a convincing win at the hustings come 2019, he’s hamstrung – in party and government. DM
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