President Cyril Ramaphosa announcing his new cabinet. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS/BLOOMBERG
President Cyril Ramaphosa announcing his new cabinet. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS/BLOOMBERG

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new cabinet is not the lean, mean, business-oriented machine that many in business had hoped for. But it is a start.

Ramaphosa has carefully navigated the internal dynamics of the ANC and appointed a cabinet in which all its regional parts; its youth and women’s leagues; its allies in the SACP and Cosatu; its senior corps of leaders, and its main factions are all represented.

The retention of some former deputy ministers as well as the promotion of MPs to the status of deputy ministers means that Ramaphosa has cleverly strengthened his hand in parliament, an arena which — given the composition of the ANC election lists — might have turned into a problem as his presidency gets under way.

A plan is needed to deal with the debt, which will likely balloon as the government takes over Eskom’s portion.

By appointing several of Jacob Zuma’s old teammates, Ramaphosa has strengthened himself ahead of the ANC’s national general council in 2020. It is at this gathering that the Zuma “fight-back” crowd has threatened to launch the process to unseat him.

That said, there are several younger, energetic and promising new appointments to the cabinet and most certainly a greater proportion of competence and skill than we have seen over the past 10 years. And even though the new cabinet members are not all unblemished, Ramaphosa has set the bar higher for ethical behaviour in the future.

The political consequences of this are both good and bad. The bad is that the cabinet is still padded out with deputies and some of these, as well as some of the full ministers who have been retained, have not been selected on merit. The good is that if Ramaphosa’s unity project gains real traction and the in-fighting in the ANC subsides we could be in for a prolonged period of stability.

But will we be in for a period of prolonged growth, which is what the country needs most?

The reappointments of Tito Mboweni  in finance and Pravin Gordhan in public enterprises have, as expected, been welcomed by the market. Both have the essential requirements: they are familiar with the key priorities and are competent and politically courageous. But, frankly, as far as economic reform goes, both have made little progress in the time that they have been in their roles.

In part, this is because the past year of the Ramaphosa government has been a holding operation. For example, Gordhan (and Ramaphosa for that matter) has not got down to the business of what to do with bankrupt state-owned companies. Some initial work has been done on Eskom, but none of the difficult steps has been taken. Ambiguity over privatisation in general remains.

In the case of the Treasury, where Mboweni has been for only seven months in what was considered a temporary capacity, some difficult and urgent decisions need to be taken. SA’s public finances are in their worst shape since 1994. A plan is needed to deal with the debt, which will likely balloon as the government takes over Eskom’s portion. And public finances need to be rebalanced away from consumption towards investment spending.

During the first year of the Ramaphosa presidency the reality has been that nobody has wanted to take the hard decisions. Ramaphosa himself has been the main culprit: he has promised no jobs losses to public servants and Eskom employees; he has also promised no privatisation at Eskom.

Telecoms, mining and energy need urgent economic reforms and policy clarity which can no longer be delayed. Education reform needs to be genuine and far reaching. Home affairs and the visa regime must be urgently fixed. The safety and security situation needs to be addressed.

Without these things the economy will not grow and the social needs of SA’s poor will not be met.  

Now is the time for Ramaphosa to lead. He has selected his cabinet first with an eye on the consolidation of power. For our combined future — business, workers, the middle class, the poor and the unemployed — we all need him to use it.