President Cyril Ramaphosa announcing changes to the Cabinet. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa announcing changes to the Cabinet. Picture: GCIS

President Cyril Ramaphosa brought his friends close and kept his enemies closer in a far-reaching cabinet reshuffle on Thursday night.

The move indicates that Ramaphosa feels more secure in his post — as he brought in his key allies — since his opponents in the radical economic transformation (RET) faction have largely been neutralised, with the suspension of ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule and the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma.

However, his reshuffle also reflects a Ramaphosa-esque level of caution.

Ramaphosa’s staunchest backers were brought into the cabinet and given prominent portfolios — Joe Phaahla is the new health minister, Mondli Gungubele replaced Jackson Mthembu as minister in the presidency and Enoch Godongwana was appointed finance minister. The three were not in the cabinet ahead of the reshuffle, after Ramaphosa had to appoint ANC leaders across factional lines — to the exclusion of many of his own allies — in his initial cabinet in 2019 to unite the fractured party in the aftermath of his election at Nasrec in 2017.

The trio were key to his 2017 campaign for the ANC presidency; Phaahla was the head of his campaign and Gungubele and Godongwana played central roles.

Gungubele, a former mayor of Ekurhuleni credited for steering the sprawling metro successfully for nearly a decade, was a fierce critic of former president Jacob Zuma and played a key role in parliament during the inquiry into state capture allegations at Eskom. He is outspoken against corruption in the ANC national executive committee (NEC) and Ramaphosa can count on him to back his positions in the ANC’s 80-strong leadership body.

Godongwana takes on a rather poisoned chalice as he replaces Tito Mboweni, who has wanted out of the tough post for a while now. Godongwana’s appointment comes after months of searching for a replacement for Mboweni — with approaches made to Reserve Bank governor Lesetja Kganyago, who apparently twice turned it down.

While insiders say Godongwana, a former trade unionist, would be useful in dealing with the ANC’s labour allies, he is also known to the market. He was vocal about the danger of nationalising the Bank at the Nasrec conference and is seen as more practical than radical when it comes to economic policy.

Godongwana, say insiders, would be more adept at navigating the difficult economic climate the country faces — with high unemployment, bankrolling the largest vaccination rollout in SA history and ensuring that the poor and unemployed are cushioned.

“Dealing with someone conservative [like Mboweni] or Hawkish [like Kganyago] at this moment would make things difficult,” a government source says. Does this mean that Godongwana will be pliable and open to taking irresponsible fiscal decisions? Unlikely.

But the problem which may come back to haunt Godongwana (and Ramaphosa) are the skeletons from his past — he was involved in a scandal over about R100m in missing union pension funds, dating back to his tenure as deputy minister of economic development.

Another staunch Ramaphosa ally, Zizi Kodwa, also moves to the presidency, where he effectively takes over the running of the intelligence portfolio — which is no longer a fully-fledged department as the function has been shifted into the presidency.

Fixing state security, which Zuma bent to his will and corrupted almost entirely, is a key move for Ramaphosa to rid the state of the lingering influence of the former president and his allies.

Scrapping the state security department and appointing a team to strengthen the country’s intelligence capacity is in line with the recommendations of a high-level panel investigation into the state of the intelligence agency headed by former minister Sydney Mufamadi — who has now been appointed Ramaphosa’s national security adviser.

Another minister who played a key role in his campaign for the presidency and has proved loyal, effective and competent is Khumbudzo Ntshavheni. She was promoted to the crucial communications portfolio — hopefully to take charge of the spectrum rollout, part of Ramaphosa’s economic reforms.

Mboweni told the SABC recently that the process has been delayed for so long because there were “too many fingers in the till”.

Turning to his “enemies”, Ramaphosa retained two wild card ministers who were said to be working with his opponents in the RET grouping. Ayanda Dlodlo was shifted from state security to public service & administration, a post she has held before, and Lindiwe Sisulu was shifted from human settlements, water & sanitation to tourism.

Dlodlo and Sisulu were effectively demoted, though Ramaphosa could still command their loyalty since they were not axed outright. The FM understands that the initial intention was to remove Sisulu completely, but after a meeting with the ANC’s officials and the alliance partners on Thursday afternoon, Ramaphosa changed his mind.

He axed minister of defence Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who repeatedly and publicly contradicted him on characterising the recent unrest as a “failed insurrection”. Mapisa-Nqakula has been part of the cabinet under both former president Thabo Mbeki and Zuma.

Ramaphosa also did not risk moving another lieutenant in his CR17 campaign, police minister Bheki Cele, whose response to the unrest was poor and chaotic. Insiders say Cele’s problem is the sour relationship between him and police commissioner Khehla Sitole, who is likely to face removal soon.

Neither did the president touch mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe, another ally who has riled industry and proved cumbersome and ineffective in this key portfolio; the same applies to public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan, who has been criticised for taking too long to reform the country’s fiscus-draining state-owned companies.

Ramaphosa shifted Senzo Mchunu, a key ally, to the newly separated water & sanitation department — a significant move, given the magnitude of the leadership and corruption challenges in that crucial department. Mchunu is from KwaZulu-Natal, which has been rocked by the unrest linked to Zuma’s jailing.

Another KwaZulu-Natal leader, Zweli Mkhize, “resigned” before he could be axed as health minister after damning allegations emerged that his department awarded an R150m tender to close associates of his, which his son Dedani allegedly benefited from. Mkhize has maintained his innocence and is contesting a damning report on him and department officials by the Special Investigating Unit. It is understood that he was “persuaded” to resign.

The reshuffle is largely a consolidation of Ramaphosa’s power in the cabinet — hopefully an indication that he will behave less like a leader with his hands tied behind his back by his opponents.

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