Picture: 123RF/ Aleksandr Kalugin
Picture: 123RF/ Aleksandr Kalugin

The reconfiguration of the cabinet was always going to be decidedly difficult political terrain for President Cyril Ramaphosa to navigate. His small cabinet reshuffle last week provided a taste of what is to come. Should the ANC receive an overwhelming mandate in next year’s elections it would allow him to craft the state in his own image, so to speak.

So far, it seems he is taking a pragmatic approach to the reconfiguration question.

Last week he announced that the ministries of communications and telecommunications & postal services would be combined into a single ministry under new minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Ramaphosa was clear that his reshuffle had an economic focus, saying the aim was better alignment and co-ordination on matters critical to the economy in the context of the fourth industrial revolution. The reshuffle was necessary after the resignation of home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba and the death of environmental affairs minister Edna Molewa.

Gigaba resigned this month after the public protector found he had violated the constitution and the executive ethics code in the Fireblade Aviation matter. He was found by the courts to have lied under oath.

He came out fighting after the public protector’s finding against him, but was effectively forced to resign after Ramaphosa was given 14 days to act against him by the chapter 9 institution. Gigaba quit before he would have had to face parliament’s ethics committee.

Molewa died in September after a lengthy illness. She has been replaced by former communications minister Nomvula Mokonyane.

Mokonyane’s retention in the cabinet has not been welcomed by opposition parties, but factional dynamics in the ANC have made it necessary to keep her on board.

A key backer of former president Jacob Zuma, Mokonyane was also at the centre of the controversy that resulted in Ace Magashule being elected ANC secretary-general at the national conference last December.

However, Ramaphosa’s allies say he has taken a pragmatic approach, ridding his government of Gigaba through the reshuffle while allowing official processes to work out the rot in the system.

Ramaphosa’s allies say he has taken a pragmatic approach, allowing official processes to work out the rot in the system

Mokonyane, the minister of water ahead of Ramaphosa’s February reshuffle, has been accused by parliament’s standing committee on public accounts of "collapsing" the water department. Ramaphosa has authorised the Special Investigating Unit to look into alleged corruption, running into billions, in the department. Wasteful expenditure alone reportedly increased by R8bn under Mokonyane.

Opposition parties are wary of her appointment to environmental affairs, which commands a much larger budget than that of the communications portfolio.

Another controversial retention is Bathabile Dlamini, minister in the presidency in charge of women. She was labelled "incompetent" by the Constitutional Court over her handling of the social grants fiasco, which would have had a damning effect on 17-million grant beneficiaries.

Dlamini’s continued survival is also primarily due to factional considerations after Ramaphosa’s "compromise" victory as ANC president last year. Dlamini is president of the ANC Women’s League, the first structure to publicly support Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for president of the party.

Her axing at this stage would probably backfire on Ramaphosa and embolden his opponents. The erstwhile Zuma faction is already waging a fightback and has found a willing ally in the EFF. They have combined their efforts to focus on public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan, who has spearheaded a strong push for the clean-up of the state, focused at present on state-owned companies.

The FM understands that the campaign against Gordhan in recent months was aimed at ensuring Ramaphosa would remove him from his post in the reshuffle.

Even ANC leaders joined the attack on Gordhan. Last week the party’s Ekurhuleni chair and executive mayor, Mzwandile Masina, took to twitter Twitter to launch a broadside against the minister.

He posted a picture of Gordhan and his daughter, Anisha, with the sarcastic caption: "Pravin and Anisha, our defenders of state capture in SA … in them we trust."

The tweet dovetailed with allegations levelled by EFF leader Julius Malema that Gordhan’s daughter had benefited from state tenders.

During his testimony at the state capture inquiry last week, Gordhan dismissed the allegations, providing evidence that showed the EFF had falsely accused him and his daughter of corruption.

The EFF’s theatrics ultimately backfired on Gordhan’s opponents: the ANC and Ramaphosa were forced to rally around him.

This week Gordhan laid complaints of crimen injuria, criminal defamation and incitement to commit violence against Malema and his deputy, Floyd Shivambu.

Gordhan also lodged a complaint with the equality court, demanding R150,000 in damages from the pair, an unconditional apology and the payment of costs.

Gordhan argues that the EFF leaders have impaired his dignity, character and political persona, and propagated hatred and violence against him.

What it means

Factional divisions in the ANC have limited Ramaphosa’s decisions around executive appointments

The EFF responded in kind, continuing its battle to ensure "Pravin must fall", the chant taken up by EFF protesters when Gordhan testified at the state capture inquiry.

The EFF said it would open a case of corruption against Gordhan on Tuesday morning. It said it would lay complaints of "money laundering, corruption, racketeering, fraud, contravention of the Intelligence Act, Prevention & Combating of Corrupt Activities Act, and perjury". It did not detail specific allegations.

The EFF has also laid a complaint against Gordhan with the office of the public protector.

This is the intensely contested terrain that Ramaphosa will have to navigate when he reconfigures his cabinet next year.

He does have some breathing space, in the form of a resolution taken at the Nasrec conference.

The party resolved that the presidency is the "strategic centre of governance" and should be the "central driver" of the state. This vests considerable power in Ramaphosa’s office and empowers him to be at the centre of the reconfiguration of the cabinet after next year’s elections.

Ramaphosa himself is chairing the committee that is working on the plan to reconfigure the executive.

Speculation is rife that the economy will be at the heart of Ramaphosa’s new-look cabinet, should the ANC win more than 50% of the vote in the national and provincial elections.

Bloomberg has reported that he is mulling the creation of a super-economic ministry to prevent the duplication of function. This may entail combining ministries that focus on economic policy and co-ordination, such as economic development, small business and trade & industry.

But first he will have to navigate the intense political power plays within his own party, and in SA at large.