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President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

President Cyril Ramaphosa walked the political tightrope on Monday evening when he changed his cabinet. Such events are naturally tricky, considering the myriad of political constituencies to placate against growing public expectations for dramatic action.

The reshuffle needed to create a team that could perform better and move SA forward. It failed to cultivate market confidence, as it seems more about the political palace than the urgent job of boosting SA’s economy, the slump of which in the fourth quarter should make him regret his failure to assemble a wartime cabinet.

To begin with, Ramaphosa failed to look beyond the ANC’s narrow interests to tackle SA’s most pressing problems, choosing instead to bulk up his office with two new appointments, including picking Kgosientsho Ramokgopa as the electricity minister. 

That is not to say Ramokgopa is not qualified for the job. A civil engineering graduate with a PhD in public affairs, he has been the head of the government infrastructure and investment office in the presidency, a role that gave him the front-row seat in what investors at home and abroad look for before they pump money into the economy. No prizes for guessing that the electricity supply crisis topped the list of issues that spoiled the mood, led to potentially multibillion-rand deals falling through and called into question Ramaphosa’s economic revival policies.  

Still, it is not hard to imagine that Ramokgopa, an Atteridgeville-born former mayor of Tshwane, would be averse to rocking the boat too much at Eskom as that has the potential to annoy two ministers at the centre of the crisis, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan and Gwede Mantashe, who heads the mining & energy department.

Ramokgopa is walking into a political battlefield and may struggle to create room for himself. To succeed, he would have to prise power away from Gordhan and Mantashe, an unlikely scenario as the two also fly the flag for Ramaphosa in a fictionalised ANC. In this role, Ramokgopa could also be a foil between Mantashe and Gordhan, whose departments are often at loggerheads.

In addition, the institutional framework places Eksom under the stewardship of Gordhan, while Mantashe, by law, controls the regulation and policy aspects. His word and instructions to Eskom would carry no legal force as the company falls under a different political figure.

Conceivably, Ramaphosa has so far averted a far worse scenario in which Eskom could have fallen under the direct and sole supervision of the department of mineral resources & energy. In their wisdom, the delegates of the ANC Nasrec conference in December resolved that Eskom should fall under the department. That would have placed Mantashe in a powerful position. He would not be the right person to take political stewardship for such an important entity. He has dragged his feet about bringing in new generation capacity. He is often at the centre of controversies that raise questions about his suitability for public office.

Monday’s reshuffle also demonstrated a continuing trend where Ramaphosa loads the presidency with more people than his predecessors did. The presidency now has two ministers, two deputies, the deputy president and Ramaphosa. A “super presidency” will not, on its own, automatically lead to an efficient administration.

There is evidence that the bureaucracy is broken. Creating a parallel cabinet or super presidency could entrench silos. Also, the accountability mechanisms are a weakness in how parliament holds the executive accountable. The presidency is responsible for a sizeable budget for which it ought to account. But that does not happen adequately as parliament does not have a dedicated portfolio committee to look into the affairs of the most powerful political entity in the country.

As Ramaphosa plays with the ANC’s realpolitik, the country’s future suffers. The economy is crying for a better approach to economic policy or management. It will continue to suffer with no change to the ministries that drive the economy.

The president missed an opportunity to grapple with the leadership crisis afflicting his cabinet. He is probably waiting for next year, which would be a bad strategy. All indications are that the ANC will drop 50% below and he will need the help of partners to get back to the Union Buildings. Coalitions are notoriously difficult to run. They will make the ANC look like a Sunday picnic.

There is still time for Ramaphosa to revisit his approach as the economic situation demands more from him, and the public expects more.

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