EDITORIAL: A meaner Ramaphosa must choose a leaner, fit-for-purpose cabinet
The president has run out of time, and will anger citizens if he keeps incompetent ministers in place
Anticipation of a cabinet reshuffle has reached a level of high anxiety. While President Cyril Ramaphosa is waiting for the perfect moment in terms of the internal ANC dynamics he must manage, the rest of the country is losing heart. This is especially so among the business and investment community who are again disappointed in Ramaphosa’s failure to act decisively to tackle what was the biggest crisis of the democratic era, in the form of July’s looting and rioting.
It is also, given the state of the country and an economy that has received a devastating blow from Covid-19, the single most important action Ramaphosa can take right now to shore up confidence and get the government working better.
What needs to be done?
There are the obvious, pressing issues, and then there is the bigger picture.
Clearly there is a serious problem with all three ministers in the security cluster. If any one of them remains after this, Ramaphosa will have to explain to the country in what possible way they deserve to stay. We cannot feel safe with a police minister who is unable to deploy police, unable to summon resources when confronted by mob behaviour and unable to investigate crime that was plotted and carried out in plain sight.
We cannot feel safe with a minister of intelligence who presides over an intelligence service divided by factionalism, riven with cliques and that is corrupt and incompetent. We are also not safe with an intelligence minister who does not work hand-in-glove with the president and the police minister.
The incompetence and poor judgment of the minister of defence is indisputable by now. She failed to realise that troops were needed to restore peace and then picked a petty argument with the president, when to shoulder responsibility was what was required above all.
The need for a replacement for the minister in the presidency is also obvious and clear. This is a vital position, potentially very powerful if used well and can be a trusted support for Ramaphosa, who is in fact quite alone at the pinnacle of government. The health minister must obviously also be done: Zweli Mkhize has to go — that too is obvious.
But if Ramaphosa wants to use the reshuffle as a confidence reboot, he should make a bigger statement than doing the obvious and essential. In the last few months, it has become clear that his position as head of the ANC is unassailable. While the ANC will always have factions, opposition has been subdued and disorganised. Control is in his hands.
SA is in a more dire situation than it was when he took over in 2018. Back then, he might have thought he had the luxury of time to turn things around; now that has all been used up.
The fact is, his cabinet has been a disappointment. It is not what he promised us: that it would be smaller and fit for purpose. We need a smaller cabinet, a more competent one and a younger one.
But like Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa has used his cabinet for patronage and to balance political interests in the ANC. There is always the pressure of pragmatic politics when it comes to cabinet decisions. Thabo Mbeki ignored this to his detriment, choosing an elite and talented team and paying for it with his ousting in the end. But bearing this mind, it has clearly been a mistake to put party over competence.
The consequences are many. Over the past two years: new broadband spectrum is no more available than it was; passenger rail is in a worse state than it was before; home affairs is worse; more municipalities are collapsing; energy reform has proceeded at a snail’s pace and virtually at gunpoint; and though public finances have at last been committed to improvement, the Treasury as an institution has not been led, is losing skills and is adrift.
Then there is the question of youth. Youth, energy and drive are correlated; so are being older, complacent and easily accepting of the way things are done.
We hope that given the experience he now has behind him, Ramaphosa can be more ambitious this time.
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