A few weeks before the national elections, President Cyril Ramaphosa bestowed national honours on one of the country’s most celebrated minds — William Smith. As the country’s unofficial national maths and science teacher, Smith helped generations of students navigate their way through problems and theorems. But even his skills would struggle to solve the conundrum Ramaphosa faces now.

As the nation’s chief administrator, Ramaphosa’s job involves identifying and appointing individuals with the requisite skills to help him fulfil the mandate of running the state. Ideally, such a process would be wholly within his control, but as fate would have it, his role is heavily influenced by elements that are both peripheral and ephemeral. While the president would prefer autonomy on the question of the size and composition of his executive, the fact that he derives his political legitimacy from a party means such autonomy doesn’t exist...

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