President Cyril Ramaphosa flanked by Deputy President David Mabuza and Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa flanked by Deputy President David Mabuza and Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. Picture: GCIS

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new cabinet is reminiscent of the government of national unity that presided over SA from the first democratic elections in 1994 until February 1997: a government made up of adversaries, forced to co-operate in the name of running the country.

Of course, the situations are not exactly the same.

The government of national unity was made up of different political parties, with ANC comrades working alongside members of the National Party (NP) and the Inkatha Freedom Party. Ramaphosa’s government springs from the factionalism that split the ANC in the lead-up to the party’s national conference in December — factionalism so severe it was akin to two different parties vying for control. His cabinet — in essence a reshuffle of former president Jacob Zuma’s administration — can thus be seen as a modern-day government of unity, albeit of ANC unity. Ramaphosa, after all, was the ANC’s chief negotiator in the talks that led SA to its first democratic elections.

Following his election as president of a divided ANC, Ramaphosa emphasised that unity of the party was paramount. He also swiftly returned to the tradition of consulting the ANC’s alliance partners before making his first cabinet reshuffle — a move to strengthen the alliance following the period in which it was at its weakest, with Zuma at the helm of the ANC.

It will be interesting to see if Ramaphosa’s adversaries, such as the thoroughly demoted Bathabile Dlamini, will stick around or whether she and others who aligned with Zuma will choose the route once taken by the NP, which opted out before the time was up.

Alternatively, Ramaphosa has left the door open for an ignoble exit for many in the current executive, having said the bloated cabinet has yet to be reconfigured. More ministers will be axed if ministries are combined or eliminated.

The highlights of Ramaphosa’s cabinet reshuffle on Monday were the return of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister and Pravin Gordhan as public enterprises minister.

Gordhan has been a formidable force in parliament’s portfolio committee on public enterprises, doggedly grilling those who appeared in the Eskom inquiry about their role in allegations of state capture at the power utility.

With the appointment of Gordhan came the axing of Lynne Brown. And with Nene’s appointment as finance minister, Malusi Gigaba — Brown’s predecessor at public enterprises — was shifted from treasury to home affairs. Both ministers have been accused of peppering the boards of the country’s state-owned enterprises with Gupta associates.

During the parliamentary inquiry there were allegations that Brown had called former Eskom board chairman Zola Tsotsi to a meeting at her home at which Rajesh "Tony" Gupta and family associate Salim Essa were present. She was also accused of withholding information from parliament relating to contracts between Eskom and consulting company Trillian.

What it means:

Retaining some dead wood in his cabinet could hamper Ramaphosa’s long-term political project

Brown has insisted that she did not lie or withhold information, but merely relayed information given to her by Eskom, and that she was lied to by executives at the parastatal.

Public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane has also found Brown guilty of misleading parliament, and has given Ramaphosa 14 days to take action against her. This was revealed by the DA’s Natasha Mazzone; the party had earlier laid a complaint against Brown with the public protector’s office.

Gigaba’s move back to home affairs — he headed that ministry from 2014-2017 — has shocked many who believed he should have got the chop because of perceived connections to the Guptas and allegations of state capture.

Gigaba returns to home affairs less than a week after the high court in Pretoria found he had lied under oath during his earlier tenure at the ministry. This relates to a matter involving Oppenheimer aviation company Fireblade, which wanted home affairs to allow it to offer immigration and customs facilities at its luxury private terminal at OR Tambo International Airport.

Gigaba will also very soon have to answer allegations of state capture, as he is set to appear before the public enterprises committee inquiry.

Despite a court of law finding Gigaba guilty of perjury, he remains in cabinet. But the decision to keep him in the executive will be a difficult one for Ramaphosa to explain.

Ramaphosa is shoring up support inside the ANC while slowly culling the deadweight that began to sink the party under Zuma

In the course of his reshuffle Ramaphosa made 23 changes, axing 10 ministers in the process — including some who have been directly implicated in allegations of state capture and come under fire for their involvement with the Gupta family.

In addition to Brown, SA has said good riddance to mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane, who has been implicated in the Vrede dairy farm project; co-operative governance minister David Des van Rooyen, the Guptas’ pick for finance minister; and public service & administration minister Faith Muthambi, who shared confidential cabinet information with the controversial family. David Mahlobo — who, as energy minister, was likely to ensure Zuma’s plans for nuclear were implemented — was also kicked to the kerb.

A disappointing decision was the call to retain Dlamini, who has been blamed for the social grants fiasco. However, she has been moved from social development to the presidency, where she will be responsible for the portfolio for women — and likely to cause less damage.

Dlamini swapped places with Susan Shabangu, who herself has not been effective in the other ministerial positions she has held. It will be interesting to see how she handles the SA Social Security Agency dilemma.

The reshuffle has also introduced some new faces to the executive.

ANC chairman and former National Union of Mineworkers general secretary Gwede Mantashe enters cabinet for the first time, as mineral resources minister. He will have to fix the mess Zwane has left behind, especially in relation to the mining charter.

Former ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize has also finally made it to the national executive, where he will be heading co-operative governance & traditional affairs.

Ramaphosa has also cleared out the criminal justice portfolios: state security minister Bongani Bongo has been replaced by Dipuo Letsatsi-Duba, who has served as deputy minister of public service & administration and has been chair of the portfolio committee on public enterprises for almost three years; and former national police commissioner Bheki Cele takes over from Fikile Mbalula as police minister.

It is clear that Ramaphosa is playing a long game, shoring up political support inside the ANC by taking an inclusive approach while slowly culling the deadweight that began to sink the party under Zuma.

On the flip-side, he has retained many ministers who in the past — under Zuma and even before — are simply incompetent and ineffectual.

Ramaphosa’s political project to unite the ANC may end up hampering his own project of building a new society, one that can look forward to a "new dawn".

The announcement of his cabinet was Ramaphosa’s first major political statement. How he manages this cabinet will be his next test.