Analysis

South Africa’s brand new government — still a difficult work in progress

By Stephen Grootes 30 May 2019
Caption
Pravin Gordhan and Cyril Ramaphosa address members of the Western Cape Farming Sector on November 1, 2014 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Nasief Manie)

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s appointment of his first post-election Cabinet was always going to be the first public expression of his own assessment of his own power within the ANC. This Cabinet gives a strong impression that those who thought he had managed to strongly consolidate power were misguided.

He has had to retain many people who have not shown extreme competence in their positions, and even some who appear to have actively worked against his agenda in the past. Despite the fact he has been able to retain some important symbols of his “new dawn”, he now appears weaker than previously thought.

Ramaphosa’s Cabinet contains many old faces and names, while some of the newer members do not necessarily appear to sing from the Thuma Mina hymn-sheet. That said, he has been able to win some of the battles that were of crucial importance to him. He retains the people he needs to control public finances, continue the cleanup at Public Enterprises, and ensures that the Justice Ministry is not used against him.

To go through the “new” Cabinet list is to be struck by how many people retain their positions. Ebrahim Patel “moves” from Economic Development to Trade and Industry (and so is likely to be locked in an ideological battle with Tito Mboweni at Finance), Nathi Mthethwa keeps his job and now gets to go to football and rugby matches, Bheki Cele stays at Police. Angie Motshekga, after a decade at Basic Education gets another five years there.

Incredibly, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula retains the Defence Ministry. This is despite the fact she could not deny she had used a South African plane to actually smuggle a friend into South Africa.

This suggests that where there could be no agreement between the groups, or where Ramaphosa could not get his way, it was decided that the incumbent should simply stay. This would probably not satisfy many, but allow the various groups to continue. In some ways this continues a trend where the factions within the ANC agree to something just to buy peace for five minutes, knowing that other battles will rise again in, say, 10 minutes.

In some cases, people who have appeared to outright reject Ramaphosa’s agenda have been retained. Lindiwe Zulu, a fearless and strong campaigner for the ANC (and one of the best spokespeople it has ever had), was one of only four people who refused to join a standing ovation for Pravin Gordhan after he delivered the 2017 Budget in Parliament. She joined Bathabile Dlamini, Des van Rooyen and David Mahlobo in what was clearly a pointed political gesture, considering the politics of the time. Despite this, she remains in Cabinet.

She is not the only one with smallanyana skeletons.

Fikile Mbalula returns to Cabinet, this time as Minister of Transport. That’s despite strong evidence that he received money from a sporting goods group for a holiday in… Dubai.

There are also several important names who have been moved around.

Dr Aaron Motsoaledi leaves the Health Ministry after 10 years there. Pressure had been building for him to leave, with Cosatu saying in 2018 that he was responsible for the poor state of that Ministry. He now goes to Home Affairs, where he may be met by more long queues.

Interestingly, the new Health Minister is Dr Zweli Mkhize. For a month or so in 2017 it looked like he had a chance of being the person to leave Nasrec as the ANC leader, but he withdrew his candidacy at the last minute. He is seen as competent and experienced, but also as a canny political operator and a good administrator. But much will be asked of him. The Health Ministry is thankless and comes with incredible headaches and even worse headlines.

Greeting this Cabinet, perhaps unfairly, Business Unity South Africa President Sipho Pityana lost no time in suggesting that, there is “too much of the old stock, too many people candidates for a retirement village, in my view”. That is a comment likely to be echoed by opposition parties over the next few days.

However, there are some important victories for Ramaphosa here.

The importance of his retention of Gordhan cannot be over-emphasised. Gordhan has been the target of an unprecedented campaign over the past few days. The EFF, combined, it seems, with the Public Protector and certain people within the ANC (including, of course, Tony Yengeni), have been incredibly vociferous in their condemnation of him, based on the Public Protector’s finding about the pension payout to then SARS deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay.

Over the years, Gordhan became a bellwether of a movement against Zuma and his supporters; if Ramaphosa was not able to retain him, it would have been a powerful signal that he was not actually able to do what he wanted to do. It would also likely have indicated the end of the clean-up campaign in the state-owned entities.

Amazingly, less than an hour after the Cabinet announcement, Ekurhuleni Mayor Mzwandile Masina (who previously said he would resign if Ramaphosa won at Nasrec) tweeted a condemnation of Gordhan’s appointment.

So much for the oft-stated claim that everyone in the ANC is working for unity.

Governor Emeritus Tito Mboweni’s retention is also important, it shows that Ramaphosa is not going to trust the public finances to an unorthodox pair of hands.

However, it could also be revealing of a weakness. When Mboweni was first appointed in 2018, it appeared that this was only on a temporary basis, until after the election. His retention, despite his many culinary gifts, may show that Ramaphosa had no other options, or did not have the political capital to appoint the options he would have chosen.

Then there are the new faces.

Ronald Lamola, who played an important role in helping Ramaphosa win the ANC’s Nasrec conference, will head the Justice Ministry. He has been Ramaphosa’s point-person on land, and was perhaps successful in actually lowering the temperature on this issue to the point where it hardly played a role in the elections.

Holding not one, but two Masters degrees in Law, he is more than qualified for the post. But his appointment may also be a sign that Ramaphosa expects to need firm control of the Justice Ministry, and has thus appointed a trusted ally to that position.

Barbara Creecy, who has been incredibly competent at every Gauteng portfolio given to her (from Sport and Recreation to Education to Finance) joins the national stage as Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries. For some, her identity as a white woman minister will be seen as very important. For others, this will be a proper reward for her own track record during the Struggle and in the provincial government.

While much of the important analysis of this Cabinet is around the assessment of Ramaphosa’s own power, the real question may be whether this group of people will be capable of solving the country’s problems, and crucially, growing the economy and thus reducing unemployment.

For the moment, it seems the continual ideological arguments around how to grow the economy will simply continue. Patel is a fundamentally decent and honest human being. Very few politicians are like him. But he has not shown an ability to grow the economy after his time at Economic Development, and business may well be wary of him in his new role.

Thulas Nxesi, the new Minister of Labour and Employment comes from the SACP. He is likely to be aligned with Patel (who comes from the union movement).

It may be hard to understand, at this juncture, how this team (along with Mboweni), will be able to change policy and conduct real deep reform.

What is startling is that Ramaphosa himself made growing the economy and “eradicating poverty within a generation” the centrepiece of his inauguration on Saturday. Can this be achieved with such ideological dissonance within his own Cabinet?

Rather, it could be a sign that he has been unable to follow his own instincts. And that suggests the president is still far from his preferred space and the government he truly wants. DM

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