President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

President Cyril Ramaphosa wants the Constitutional Court to rule that he is not legally obliged to explain his cabinet reshuffle decisions, if and when the rationality of those decisions are challenged in court.

The outcome of this case — which was originally linked to the DA’s review of then president Jacob Zuma’s controversial decision to fire former finance minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy Mcebisi Jonas — arguably has significant political implications for Ramaphosa.

His advocate, Ishmael Semenya, argued in court on Thursday that the constitution confers powers on the president to appoint or dismiss cabinet ministers. 

“During his term of office, the [president] is most likely to change the constitution of his cabinet, either by reallocating ministers to different department or dismissing them and appointing others in their stead,” Semenya said. 

He said the question of whether Ramaphosa had to explain his reshuffle decisions “will arise in every instance” if a ruling that ordered his predecessor Zuma to provide a record of his decisions to fire Gordhan and Jonas is allowed to stand.

Ramaphosa’s current cabinet includes ministers accused of corruption, or found to have acted with “gross negligence” in the exercise of their duties.

Any ruling that potentially compels Ramaphosa to explain his decisions to fire or hire such ministers could, in the words of advocate for the DA, Steven Budlender, be both “embarrassing or awkward”.  But he insists that there is no legal reason why these reasons should not be disclosed.

Ramaphosa’s lawyers asked the highest court to overturn the ruling that would have forced Zuma to explain why he fired Gordhan.

When he dismissed Gordhan and Jonas during a midnight cabinet reshuffle in 2017, Zuma reportedly used an “intelligence report”, later widely discredited and disavowed by intelligence authorities, to accuse the pair of treason and justify their removal.

The DA challenged the rationality of Zuma’s decision. 

As part of that challenge, the party won a court battle to compel the former president to hand over whatever material informed his decision — a ruling that was later challenged by Ramaphosa, but upheld by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA).

The SCA dismissed the appeal on the basis that the relief sought would not have any practical effect or result, as Zuma had stepped down.

Ramaphosa now wants the Constitutional Court to rule on whether he is constitutionally obliged “to disclose reasons and a record for constituting or changing cabinet”.

Semenya has argued that the high court judgment against Zuma would be invoked to compel not only the president to explain his appointments or dismissals of ministers, but also “all executive decision-makers”.

Ramaphosa is also fighting a separate high court challenge to his decision not to fire women’s minister Bathabile Dlamini, and has argued that he chose to retain the ANC Women’s League president —  who is under investigation for perjury — on the basis of his “political judgment”.

The DA’s James Selfe says Ramaphosa’s anxieties about having to explain his cabinet decisions speaks to political, rather than legal, concerns.

“His attitude is undoubtedly fuelled by politics. He doesn’t want to have to provide reasons for hiring and firing people, because those reasons clearly won’t stand up to scrutiny.”

The Constitutional Court has reserved judgment.