Picture: 123RF/erstudiostok
Picture: 123RF/erstudiostok

Statecraft has emerged as a key theme in ANC and alliance meetings since President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in his state of the nation address that he was reviewing the configuration of the cabinet.

The government is also looking into the size of the public service, after reaching a wage deal with state employees that senior government sources acknowledge has strained the fiscus.

After a two-day cabinet lekgotla last week, one news report said 30,000 public-service jobs were to be cut, prompting a union outcry. Cosatu’s health & education affiliate, Nehawu, threatened to withdraw support for the ANC in next year’s elections. But the government has denied the jobs-cut report.

At its lekgotla last month the ANC reaffirmed that reconfiguration of the cabinet is a critical pillar in creating stable, effective and professional government at all levels.

The work is already under way; Ramaphosa has promised that the process will be completed next year, and he is expected to appoint a new team of ministers after the elections.

But is it as simple as that?

Former president Jacob Zuma used cabinet appointments to reward loyalty, punish dissent and facilitate corruption and state capture.

Aside from practical and financial considerations, the power to hire and fire ministers is a political tool that will continue to be used.

Prof Ivor Chipkin, director of the Public Affairs Research Institute think-tank, notes that after a long period of stability under presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, major changes in the number and mandates of ministers were made when Zuma took over in 2009.

Three new departments were established, five were split or divided and five changed their names and mandates. There was also huge flux within the cabinet. Zuma’s firing of Pravin Gordhan as finance minister in 2017 marked the 11th reshuffle of his tenure.

Between 2009 and 2017, Zuma made 126 changes to the national executive — 62 to ministerial positions and 63 to deputy ministerial posts.

It was the reshuffle in December 2015, in which David Des van Rooyen (briefly) replaced finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, that started Zuma’s slide from grace within the ANC and ended with his recall in February.

The way Ramaphosa configures his cabinet after the elections will speak volumes about the kind of presidency — and policies — we can expect.

But the leader of the ANC does not function in a vacuum; he or she is part of a collective, the members of which have come to rely on political patronage for enrichment.

One way in which Zuma cunningly maintained a vice-like grip on power, despite the many scandals of his presidency, was by filling his cabinet both with members of the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) and non-members such as Faith Muthambi and Mosebenzi Zwane. He thereby bought loyalty within the NEC, but also had supporters in cabinet who, despite their dismal performance, were not subject to NEC discipline.

Naming a new cabinet will therefore be a fine balancing act for Ramaphosa if he is to improve governance and the economy while ensuring he is not politically weakened

Public service & administration minister Ayanda Dlodlo said after last week’s lekgotla that the government is still "a long way" from finalising the new-look cabinet. There has to be "quality assurance", "alignment of stakeholders" and "interfacing" to achieve the "desired outcome" — in short, zero progress has been made.

ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule — who as Free State premier picked his provincial cabinet to prop up his own power base — said the challenges facing the state are "not insurmountable".

Interventions would include boosting capacity at the local level, building a stable administrative leadership, retuning the organisational design of the state, ensuring the effective use of public money, and dealing decisively with corruption.

In other words, more hot air that describes exactly what the ANC has failed to do over the past 24 years.