Which road will you choose, Mr President?
‘You can’t go hunting with another man’s dogs’ ... President Cyril Ramaphosa must resolve ANC tensions and secure a Cabinet that supports him.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
After avoiding and often laughing off the question of a Cabinet reshuffle for months now, President Cyril Ramaphosa finally realises it is no laughing matter.
South Africans have lost their patience and his credibility depends on it – his ability to be seen to be dealing with glaring weaknesses in government and replacing incompetent ministers.
Speaking in Tembisa, where he had visited a vaccination centre on 29 July, Ramaphosa gave the clearest indication that a reshuffle is on the cards.
“I have said that clearly the deployment of people in various parts of the government is a matter that occupies the mind of a president at all times. That is what I am applying my mind to. I know there is a lot of anxiety and impatience and it is a matter that is under consideration. What I would say is watch this space,” said Ramaphosa.
As with most of his decisions, Ramaphosa has to navigate a political minefield in a divided ANC to effectively govern over a broken society and to grow a stagnant economy. Some say he is too afraid to make decisions lest he offends opponents within the party, who might topple him.
Lawson Naidoo from the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution says Ramaphosa can be criticised for many things, “but lame duck wouldn’t be an accurate description”.
He says Ramaphosa has provided some leadership and increased his control over the ANC. “Whether he has used that power appropriately is another question.” Naidoo says these problems existed before the recent riots and looting and these could not be blamed for a lack of implementation.
“A more holistic view would be to say Ramaphosa has been president for three and a half years now, what does he have to show for it?” he asks.
The broken Cabinet
Ramaphosa inherited a divided national executive committee (NEC) and may have believed he could unify it. But he is solely responsible for his Cabinet choices. As pressure mounts on him to reshuffle – and he hints at changes in the executive – Ramaphosa is to blame for the disjointed Cabinet, whose ministers publicly clash and contradict each other.
“You can’t go hunting with another man’s dogs. The president must take responsibility for what is happening in the country. He appointed people who opposed him, as ministers in important positions. All the people who had presidential ambitions going to Nasrec were awarded with Cabinet positions. So we can’t be surprised when the security cluster behaves in the manner in which it has done in the past few weeks,” said a senior official in the security cluster, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ramaphosa is understood to be mulling over changes to the security cluster, with Minister of Defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and her State Security colleague Ayanda Dlodlo in the firing line.
Apart from failing to detect and respond to the costly unrest, Dlodlo is said to have angered the president over the failed espionage project in Mozambique, which led to the suspension of the head of the foreign branch of the State Security Agency, Robert McBride. Dlodlo was aware of McBride’s mission but had not told her boss about it until the detention of SA operatives in Mozambique.
Senior officials in government feared that the continued detention of the South African operatives – who had their passports confiscated by the Mozambican authorities – would be used by the Mozambicans to force Pretoria’s hand to hand over the country’s former finance minister, Manuel Chang, who is in a South African jail.
Chang was arrested at OR Tambo in December 2018 after he was flagged by Interpol. He is wanted by the US in connection with an alleged billion-rand fraud. Dlodlo travelled to Mozambique to secure the South African operatives’ release.
Naidoo says Ramaphosa has difficult choices to make in terms of the reshuffle. “He’s got a KZN problem and a gender problem,” he says. “Can he afford to take action against Zweli Mkhize and Bheki Cele (who are both from KwaZulu-Natal) at the same time, or can he afford to get rid of both Ayanda Dlodlo and Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula? Are there other women he can bring in? These are the kind of decisions and factors that he has to engage with.”
A veteran on the NEC, who did not want to be named, said Ramaphosa “doesn’t want to rush into things because he must be able to stand by it”; he is “slow and frustratingly so” but had to protect the unity of the ANC and build an inclusive Cabinet.
The veteran said that Ramaphosa’s inaugural Cabinet, appointed after he became interim president in February 2018, had to be constructed in consultation with then ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, who has since been suspended.
The Cabinet was an exercise in political unity rather than a “fit for purpose” executive team. With Magashule out, Ramaphosa could clean house and appoint a more effective team. “He has majority support on the national working committee. He can move if he wants to; no one is stopping him,” said the veteran.
Where is DD?
As the president fights fires on all fronts – a failing economy, a third wave of Covid-19 and the restlessness of the poor – his deputy, DD Mabuza, is nowhere to be seen. Apart from a short statement in June indicating Mabuza would seek medical attention in Russia, nothing has been heard from the deputy president. This is his third known visit to Russia to seek help for an undisclosed illness. His first was on a Gupta plane, as organised by Duduzane Zuma in 2015 after an alleged poisoning.
This is the Zumas’ biggest gripe with Mabuza. Both father and son feel they literally saved Mabuza’s life. At the time he was a Zuma ally, part of the “Premier League” of provincial strongmen with premiers Magashule and Supra Mahumapelo.
Yet Mabuza helped Ramaphosa take the ANC presidency from Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the preferred candidate of the Zuma/Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction. They have never forgiven him.
Also confusing are the developments in Mpumalanga, Mabuza’s home province, where he once enjoyed cult-like status. When Magashule appeared in the Bloemfontein Magistrates’ Court on charges related to the R235-million asbestos contract in February 2021, those who showed up at the court to show their support included ANC members who had travelled from Mpumalanga.
The same Mpumalanga grouping travelled to Nkandla three days before Zuma was jailed last month and pledged their support to the former president. They were led, once gain, by one Ngrayi Ngwenya, the ANC chairperson in Ehlanzeni and a proud supporter of Mabuza’s.
Ngwenya is not shy about his loyalty to Mabuza, telling journalists at Nkandla: “The deputy president is like a father to me.” He had been asked if his presence there could be interpreted as a sign of Mabuza’s tacit support for Zuma.
Mabuza’s once-strong grip on political power in Mpumalanga was made possible by trusted henchmen like Ngwenya, who lead powerful structures with large memberships. In Mpumalanga political circles, Ngwenya is known to be a trusted Mabuza ally.
The deputy president has avoided appearing in public with Ramaphosa lately. When he was supposed to share a platform with Ramaphosa in June and answer questions from the media in Parliament, he pulled out at the last minute. The chair meant for Mabuza was taken up by Acting Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, who moderated the media session.
As in 2017, when he played his cards close to his chest, Mabuza seems engaged in a political game his rivals have yet to figure out. But one thing is clear: he is not trusted by either faction in the ANC.
For now Ramaphosa seems comfortable with strong support in the NEC and national working committee of the ANC.
The ANC parliamentary caucus is divided along factional lines, with a rather vocal, though not dominant, RET grouping. As with much else in the parliamentary corridors, RET numbers fluctuate.
Some ANC MPs are publicly associated with the RET grouping. Mosebenzi Zwane, the transport committee chairperson, alongside tourism committee chairperson Supra Mahumapelo and, a little less prominently, standing committee on finance chairperson Joe Maswanganyi, all gathered at the court in Bloemfontein to support Magashule.
These former ministers and premiers became committee chairpersons when Magashule managed to insert them into key parliamentary posts. Committee chairpersons direct the work of a committee and can stifle or push certain issues, as emerged at the State Capture commission in February 2021 when Deputy Transport Minister Dikeledi Magadzi, the former transport committee chairperson, testified as to why the committee did not probe State Capture.
But much depends on the day and the issue. And often actions contradict words. ANC MP and Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association (MKMVA) chief Kebby Maphatsoe objected vocally to a vote on the inquiry into the removal from office of Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, in many ways the RET poster child, but in the end he stuck to the party line – and voted in favour.
The often performative ANC caucus – the May 2019 elections stripped it of much experience and institutional knowledge – will at least not publicly contradict Ramaphosa, but opposition leaders make hay during presidential Q&As, and other parliamentary moments.
EFF leader Julius Malema acerbically fingers Ramaphosa for being useless and both he and DA leader John Steenhuisen have raised, repeatedly, the ANC factional battles as stalling governance and service delivery.
It’s often a tough space, even as Ramaphosa determinedly talks of progress, reconstruction and recovery.
The reshuffle options
If Ramaphosa were to reshuffle his Cabinet, what would his options be?
Trade, Industry and Competition Minister Ebrahim Patel has taken up one of the two Cabinet posts that may go to someone who’s not an MP. So one appointment from outside Parliament to Cabinet may still be made, but otherwise any new minister will come from the current backbenchers.
Shuffling the lists of ANC public representative candidates, which determines who becomes an MP, is only possible during a brief window in the year after an election. Space could be freed up on a much shorter provincial party list by getting someone to resign (that’s how former Eskom boss Brian Molefe arrived in Parliament in 2017 for three months), but it’s messy.
A reshuffle could be an opportunity to return the Small Business Development Department to the Department of Trade & Industry. This means Acting Minister in the Presidency Ntshavheni is likely to be confirmed in that role.
Another change could be that the Public Enterprises Department becomes the hub of a State-Owned Enterprise Council run out of the Presidency.
The government has long mooted the possibility of the governance of individual SOEs being moved to the relevant departments. Eskom would fall under the Department of Energy, Transnet would report to the Department of Transport, and so on. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.