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

President Cyril Ramaphosa used his Cabinet reshuffle to simultaneously shore up a dire, uninspiring government and prop up his own political power.

The new Cabinet appointments indicate shrewd political manoeuvring that has neither thrilled nor enraged any particular sector of society — it was safe.

Nevertheless, the reshuffle saw sweeping changes to what was effectively former president Jacob Zuma’s cabinet. It had to be so — it was critical for Ramaphosa to stamp his authority so ministers who account to him could understand that they are indeed serving at his pleasure.

It is a delicate balance, which he described as "transitional", rather than a compromise. It was also always going to be difficult to appoint ethical, completely untainted individuals from the festering mess which the ANC has become after a decade under his predecessor.

It was clear from the onset that Ramaphosa would not have a free hand during his stint as ANC president, particularly at this early stage — the party’s national conference was held less than three months ago.

The "unity" leitmotif which emerged at the ANC’s conference runs thick through his choices. An extension of this theme is the 2019 election.

The ANC cannot afford another split and it has experienced one in the wake of a former president’s axing from the state — the Congress of the People was formed after Thabo Mbeki’s axing.

Ramaphosa cannot be putting out factional fires in the party in the run-up to a national election and as he has to begin building his own legacy.

His key priorities were clearly the economic posts in the Cabinet — with Nhlanhla Nene returning to the National Treasury and Pravin Gordhan set to head up public enterprises.

Mondli Gungubele as deputy finance minister was also a solid choice. It is understood that former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas was also considered as a possible finance minister, but there was concern expressed over the reasons he resigned from Parliament after he was fired by Zuma. It was thought that he was too hasty, and this angered party bosses.

Ramaphosa has also snatched the key security cluster ministries from known Zuma acolytes, another key move to cement his position and prevent the continuation of his predecessor's use of key institutions for his own benefit.

The appointment of his close ally, Bheki Cele, as police minister is likely to yield huge changes in the police, its crime intelligence unit and the Hawks. There was even talk about revisiting people purged from these institutions, such as former Hawks boss Anwar Dramat.

The absurd appointment of Bongani Bongo as state security minister has been reversed, with Dipuo Letsatsi-Duba appointed to the post. Bongo had admitted that he was following instructions when he attempted to bribe the evidence leader to derail the parliamentary inquiry into state capture.

His predecessor, David Mahlobo, who became one of Zuma's key henchmen, was also axed from the energy ministry.

Ramaphosa appointed his ally, the capable Naledi Pandor to head higher education. Zuma had left him the bitter task of managing his promise of free higher education for the poor and left a lackey at the helm of the department, Hlengiwe Mkhize, who has now been dropped from the Cabinet.

The likes of Nomvula Mokonyane and Bathabile Dlamini could be troublesome for Ramaphosa if left to their own factional devices — Dlamini in particular. As president of the ANC Women’s League, she has a significant base in the party. It is clear that the ANCWL reluctantly accepted Ramaphosa’s leadership after their failed bid to instil their preferred candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, as the party’s president.

It is understood that they were initially on the chopping block, but he was convinced that it may be politically damaging to do so.

Strangely, Malusi Gigaba was always set to be shifted from the Treasury, but not fired. He has shown an uncanny ability to survive Cabinet shake-ups. But insiders say his coming reckoning over state capture will likely trip up his rather unremarkable political career.

The country’s new second in charge has many people spooked: David Mabuza was sworn in as ANC deputy president on Tuesday. He told the Mpumalanga Cabinet two weeks ago that he was resigning on Monday, strongly hinting that he was heading to the Union Buildings.

Mabuza’s name is associated in his province with political killings — which he has always denied. It is also associated with allegations of corruption and mismanagement. But Mabuza sympathisers say his "near-death" experience two years ago "changed him". Ramaphosa and South Africa will soon find out.

The Cabinet appointments were Ramaphosa’s first exercise of his executive authority, how he wields that power over the people he has appointed will be his next test.

He is seeking to bring a sense of normalcy to the very abnormal administration he inherited.

Former president Kgalema Motlanthe has often said of the ANC that things will have to get worse before they improved. He says "like-minded people create stagnation because there is no debate". Progress is a function of working out opposites.

Whether Ramaphosa can work out the opposites both within his party and his in government will determine whether he will pass the next test.