Public works and infrastructure minister Patricia de Lille is congratulated by President Cyril Ramaphosa after a swearing-in ceremony in Pretoria. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
Public works and infrastructure minister Patricia de Lille is congratulated by President Cyril Ramaphosa after a swearing-in ceremony in Pretoria. Picture: REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

If Jacob Zuma’s cabinet appointments were marked by secrecy and unilateral decision-making, President Cyril Ramaphosa has taken a decidedly different tack.

Ramaphosa’s cabinet — announced late last Wednesday — did not come together overnight, or even in a week. It followed a level of consultation not seen in the SA executive in years.

In the lead-up to the announcement, Ramaphosa held a series of meetings, where discussions centred on what the reconfigured cabinet would look like, and what principles his decisions should be based on.

Talks about who would actually hold ministerial positions only took place on Wednesday morning. And unlike previous years, no information was leaked — probably because those who consulted with Ramaphosa that morning were in lockdown, their phones reportedly taken away.

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When Ramaphosa announced his slimmed-down executive — he cut the number of ministers from 36 to 28, and deputies to 34 — representatives of the ANC’s alliance partners (Cosatu, the SACP and the SA National Civic Organisation) were present.

But Ramaphosa would have had no easy task in choosing the cabinet he’d promised: competent, credible and forward-thinking.

For a start, he did not have an unlimited range of choices: his appointees would in large measure come from the list the ANC submitted to parliament (the president may appoint only two ministers who are not MPs). But, more importantly, he had to factor in gender and regional representivity, as well as the interests of alliance partners and business. And factionalism in the ruling party.

Susan Booysen, director of research at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, says Ramaphosa’s cabinet is a reflection of the "serious political bills" he has to pay.

"We know the battle for the ANC is not over, and if Ramaphosa does not remain in charge of the ANC, there [will be] no implementation of his cleanup agenda," she says. "He really has to watch his back, and that means keeping the opposing faction [in the ANC] as happy as he can afford to, otherwise he might be out of power in a year or two, and then there is no reform agenda."

The result is a cabinet that political analyst Somadoda Fikeni says is not ideal, but is better than average — and certainly better than what came before.

One concern is that a number of ministers have simply been moved to different portfolios. But Fikeni says this is indicative of Ramaphosa’s political power: he won the party presidency with a slim margin, and he remains beholden to the national executive committee’s deployment process.

"Some of the people here … have never worked anywhere else, and some of [them] are senior [party] members," he says. "So there is no room to say, ‘I’m going to make drastic changes’, and then still want support from them."

We know the battle for the ANC is not over
Susan Booysen

Ramaphosa also had to balance the demands of the labour movement, says Fikeni. Reducing the number of ministries introduces job insecurity for ministry staff. He adds: "[Ramaphosa] will need these people to support him when he starts wielding the axe against those who are seen to be corrupt."

Because the government alone cannot solve SA’s problems, Ramaphosa had to appoint ministers able to mobilise different sectors of society.

Retaining Tito Mboweni as finance minister creates a balancing act in the economic cluster.

His market-friendly neoliberal views will run counter to those of left-leaning former trade unionist Ebrahim Patel (at trade & industry) and former Young Communist League president David Masondo (now deputy finance minister).

The appointment of Masondo and justice minister Ronald Lamola suggests Ramaphosa was looking to elevate up-and-coming leaders who are seen as competent, while the movement of senior ANC leaders to key departments indicates which areas he will prioritise.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has been moved to co-operative governance & traditional affairs; Zweli Mkhize to health; Naledi Pandor to international relations & co-operation; Lindiwe Sisulu to human settlements, water & sanitation; and Thoko Didiza to agriculture, land reform & rural development. Pravin Gordhan remains at public enterprises.

These departments are key to the economic and social fabric of SA. They are also all in dire need of improvement and need to be stabilised if the country is to function properly.

Compromises were inevitable — evident in the inclusion of deputy ministers such as Zuma lackey David Mahlobo and ANC Youth League secretary-general Njabulo Nzuza. But this didn’t prevent Ramaphosa from ditching disgraced former minister Bathabile Dlamini.

He pacified her supporters in the ANC Women’s League by appointing SA’s first properly gender-representative cabinet.

Most notably, those ministers perceived as having played key roles in the state capture project are out.

As for the "rogues" who have remained: Booysen says Ramaphosa can keep an eye on them, ensuring they don’t undermine his position. There is also hope from within his camp that the various commissions of inquiry and the criminal justice system will deal with them.

Ramaphosa is clear, though, that his cabinet cannot simply carry out its duties in a same-old way — which is why his ministers will be signing performance agreements.

As he said last week: "Their performance … will be closely monitored against specific outcomes. Where implementation is unsatisfactory, action will be taken."

What it means

With unemployment at a record high and the economy not growing, Ramaphosa cannot afford to go about business as usual

This is no small promise, though it will depend on how those agreements are structured and implemented.

Booysen believes Ramaphosa should make the agreements public, if he wants to persuade a "cynical electorate" of his good intentions. "Otherwise he will sabotage himself."

But such agreements could make for flexibility at the top — an outcome Cosatu would back, says federation spokesperson Sizwe Pamla. He says ministers and senior bureaucrats should know that "only the president has a five-year term". Instead, their tenure should depend on what they achieve; there should be consequences for being ineffective or incompetent.

SACP spokesperson Alex Mashilo says voters have given the ANC a mandate — based on its promises to dismantle state capture, clamp down on corruption and clean up the state apparatus and broader economy.

But it’s up to Ramaphosa and his executive to also implement programmes aimed at eliminating class, race, gender and spatial inequalities, including the rural-urban divide.

"All of these and other national imperatives require active communities and a united and mobilised working class," says Mashilo, underscoring the need for all hands to be on deck to turn SA around.

Ramaphosa and his executive do not have the luxury of time. For many, the May election was the last opportunity for the ANC to prove it can put SA and its citizens first.

With unemployment at a record high, municipal services failing, state-owned enterprises draining public funds and the economy not growing, the ANC simply cannot afford to go about business as usual. As one alliance member puts it: Ramaphosa’s political survival depends on delivery.