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All the president’s men and women – key advisory vacancies remain

All the president’s men and women – key advisory vacancies remain
Illustrative image, from left: | Political adviser Steyn Speed (Photo: LinkedIn) | President Cyril Ramophosa. (Photo: Maja Hitij / Getty Images) | Economist Trudi Makhaya. (Photo: Supplied) | Images sharpened using AI.

After a year of remote working in Germany, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s political adviser Steyn Speed is headed home in April. But it’s been an uphill battle to fill the posts of presidential advisers on the economy and international relations, vacant now for about a year.

Since early 2023, presidential political adviser Steyn Speed was based in Germany’s capital Berlin, it is understood, for family reasons. While remote working, however, Speed remained hands-on, most recently in South Africa for a central role in preparations for the 8 February 2024 State of the Nation Address.

But efforts to fill the vacant economics adviser to Ramaphosa fell apart at the eleventh hour when the earmarked candidate ultimately declined to take up the post.

That post has been vacant since April 2023 when economist Trudi Makhaya resigned after a five-year contract. Today Makhaya attends global dialogues and conferences, according to her social media posts, but is also a hair product entrepreneur for #happyscalps. Or as her pinned tweet dated 14 September 2023 on social media platform X puts it:

“For some, it starts in the garage. For others, in the kitchen. Or even in a makeshift lab in the foyer. And for us at Project Happy Scalps, all three. With biochemist Khuthadzo Mavhona I am working on an intervention in the multibillion$ haircare industry.”

Black Like Me businessman and now politician Herman Mashaba might well agree with such enterprise.

“We were close to filling the vacancy of the economic adviser,” said Presidency spokesperson Vincent Magwenya in a text message on Friday. Confirming Speed’s return, he said the earmarked economics presidential adviser couldn’t secure a secondment agreement from their current employer.

“So, the search continues. The process of finding an international relations adviser is under way.”

The international relations adviser post became vacant in the March 2023 Cabinet reshuffle when Maropene Ramokgopa was appointed performance, monitoring and evaluation minister.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ANC women’s hopes — Emancipation expectations weigh heavy on Maropene Ramokgopa

In 2020 Ramokgopa, a one-time ambassador, became chief adviser to Ramaphosa as he took over as AU chairperson on 9 February 2020, and then as international relations special adviser. She succeeded Dr Khulu Mbatha, who had advised both Ramaphosa and ex-president Kgalema Motlanthe, later deputy president, from July 2008 to June 2014.

The lack of economy and international relations advisers raises questions in a Presidency that has put economic growth as central in its policy priorities and is pursuing a global agenda with African continental integration, peace outreach in the Ukraine-Russia war and, most recently, the International Court of Justice case against Israel over genocide in Gaza.

A contributing factor may well be the pending 2024 elections, heavily contested as pundits predict the governing ANC may lose its majority. Advisers’ posts are linked to the term of the incumbent and resigning a job to move to the Union Buildings could be viewed as a risk at this point.

Salary may also be an issue for private sector candidates; the Presidency advisers earn around the R2-million a year mark, according to the Presidency 2022/23 annual report.

Health director-general from 1995 to 1999, academic and bronze Order of the Baobab recipient Olive Shisana has since May 2018 served as the president’s special adviser on social issues, including the National Health Insurance (NHI).

Ex-minister and ambassador Charles Nqakula stepped down in early 2021 from the post of presidential security adviser he had held since mid-2018 – and in August 2021 was replaced by Sydney Mufamadi. Previously the chair of the High-Level Panel Review of the State Security Agency (SSA) from June to December 2018, Mufamadi remains director of the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Public Policy and African Studies, according to the university website.

Meanwhile, Nokukhanya Jele, legal adviser to Ramaphosa since 2014 when he moved into the Union Buildings as deputy president, donated one day a week during 2023 to United Nations special adviser on racism in the workplace, Mojanku Gumbi. The legal adviser to former president Thabo Mbeki was appointed to this UN post in January 2023.

Jele is one of several close associates of Ramaphosa who continue to support him, as is Speed, a former ANC communications official, who joined Ramaphosa at Shanduka and moved with him into the deputy presidency and then from February 2018 to the Presidency.

Other close associates include Donné Nicol, the presidential special projects adviser since September 2018, who was a secretary at ANC’s Shell House HQ while Ramaphosa served as ANC secretary-general. She served as CEO of the Ramaphosa Foundation for 22 years until 31 August 2018. 

Roshene Singh, one-time ANC election manager in Nelson Mandela’s party presidency, was appointed to the Presidency in 2018 as director-general heading Ramaphosa’s private office at the Union Buildings. Singh is also chief of staff – a role that would include behind-the-scenes dispute and problem solving, getting ministers to fall in line, and also meeting people on behalf of the President.

Not an adviser, but pivotal to the Presidency as director-general, is Phindile Baleni, whom Ramaphosa appointed in April 2021. Cabinet-approved structural changes in late 2022 moved her into a super-DG position as Hopa, or head of the public administration. In that role she’s “integrally involved in the processes to recruit, select, train, and develop HODs (heads of departments). The Hopa will also be involved in the performance management of HODs,” according to the Presidency 2022/23 annual report. DM


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