The new cabinet ministers appointed by Cyril Ramaphosa following their swearing in at the Tuynhuis, in Cape Town. Cyril Ramaphosa inherited a cabinet of 35 ministers, and 38 deputy ministers from his predecessor. Picture: GCIS
The new cabinet ministers appointed by Cyril Ramaphosa following their swearing in at the Tuynhuis, in Cape Town. Cyril Ramaphosa inherited a cabinet of 35 ministers, and 38 deputy ministers from his predecessor. Picture: GCIS

Since President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address there has been intense speculation that the size of the cabinet will be reduced dramatically. It currently has 73 ministers and deputy ministers,  the same number as Jacob Zuma's administration when it came to an end. Imagine trying to chair a meeting with so many people. How much time is there to discuss any particular issue, never mind pressing ones?

If the practical rationale for restructuring cabinet is compelling, the political case for Ramaphosa is much less so. The growth of the national executive since 2009 has seen a dramatic transfer of power in SA, to local and regional elites and away from national ones.

Between 1994 and 2007 the size of the cabinet was relatively stable, remaining in a range of between 26 and 29 ministers and between 12 and 19 deputy ministers. Then in 2009 the size of the executive shot up. Zuma had 33 ministers and 27 deputy ministers (60 in total), compared with Kgalema Motlanthe’s 27 ministers and 20 deputy ministers (47 in total). By the end of his term the executive had 35 ministers and 38 deputy ministers.

Compared to the 1994 cabinet, the number of deputy ministers had doubled, and then some.

Some important work has been done showing the turbulence Zuma brought to the structure of the government and its composition. For example, Vinothan Naidoo has shown that after the relative stability of the Thabo Mbeki period there was a sharp spike in the number of government entities. Cabinet saw 15 “big bang” organisational events, including the creation of new ministries, the splitting of some and the renaming of others.

Gareth Van Onselen has noted that between 2009 and the end of 2018 there were 164 changes to the cabinet. On May 25 2014 alone 25 ministers and 22 deputy ministers were shuffled. In the political-administrative interface there was similar instability. Some 172 directors-general were appointed across 38 departments. On average they served less than two years. They seldom remained with the same minister for more than a year.

Van Onselen described this period as one of “profound turmoil and dramatic and frequent change”. With characteristic bluntness, he writes: “This is not how you manage a national government, it is how to sow chaos, uncertainty and disorder.” Yet it was not only chaos these changes produced. Cabinet shuffles were the pretext for a transfer of power, from national figures to local and regional politicians.

In The Provincialisation of Power, I have looked for trends in the composition of cabinets from 1994 to 2018 by compiling basic biographies of their respective ministers and deputy ministers. Two processes are clearly at work. The first is what I call provincialisation: more and more people with only local political careers were catapulted into cabinet after 2009. The second is a process of juniorisation: there is a noticeable decline in the qualifications, experience and worldliness of government ministers. Provincialisation is suggestive of ethnic considerations playing an important role in ministerial appointments.

The Mandela and Mbeki governments were overwhelmingly composed of national politicians. In 2004, the provincial and local presence in cabinet was small. Of the 49 ministers and deputy ministers only six had homeland and/or provincial government experience. This represented 12% of the cabinet. During the interim administration of Motlanthe this percentage declined by half to just over 6%.

Then came Zuma. In 2009 a whopping 26% of ministers were former provincial or local government officials and/or politicians. By 2014 the figure had risen to almost 40% of cabinet. From 1999 there is evidence of the first national politicians deployed to provincial government arriving in cabinet.  This more or less coincides with the disappearance of bantustan leaders in the national executive. There is a steady growth of national politicians returning to national politics through the 2000s, rising quickly from 2009. This trend peaks in 2014 and then falls off dramatically. What is most striking, however, is the rise of local and regional politicians into cabinet. It starts slowly after 2009 and then skyrockets from 2011, stabilising at a very high level in 2014.

By local and regional politicians I refer to people whose political careers developed at a community or regional level and who, until they were catapulted into cabinet, never occupied a leadership position in a national political body. Local and regional politicians are more likely to represent parochial and even ethnic interests.

When Dina Pule became communications minister in 2011, for example, union federation Cosatu in Mpumalanga rejoiced that “the honourable president Jacob Zuma has made history by appointing the first minister from Mpumalanga after a 17 year period of drought”. She was clearly understood as a provincial politician.

Provincialisation reflects the growing assertiveness of local and regional elites, located at all levels of the state, against national bureaucracies. It does not, however, show that a new governing elite is forming. The rapid turnover in the executive under Zuma shows that no particular coalition was able to win power.

The current situation is thus characterised by the weakening of state institutions, not simply through corruption, but through elite competition; and the absence of either a ruling class or a governing elite. Together these phenomena give expression to various kinds of chauvinisms in the political domain and create ongoing instability in the economy and in the delivery of public goods.

It is wishful thinking to believe economic growth and development will be borne of bold statements. How will elite competition be contained or stabilised so a ruling coalition can emerge in the state? How will national administrations establish and/or re-establish their authority throughout the land? There is no future for SA as a unitary state without answers to these questions. There is very little prospect that economic growth can deliver developmental benefits for poor, working families, the vast majority of whom are African and coloured, without effective national bureaucracies.

The answers to these questions are not obvious, though asking them is a good place to start.

• Chipkin is the author, with Mark Swilling, of Shadow State: The Politics of State Capture, published by Wits University Press. He is based at the Centre for Change. The paper is available at Chipkin  on Politics and Current Affairs