The new cabinet ministers following their swearing in at the Tuynhuis, in Cape Town. Picture: GCIS
The new cabinet ministers following their swearing in at the Tuynhuis, in Cape Town. Picture: GCIS

In the first cabinet of President Cyril Ramaphosa, announced on Monday, there was something of the magnetism of old TV soap operas like Dallas. It’s an old trick: when the producers think the series needs an injection of vooma but are running out of ideas, they haul out earlier successes and rewrite history.

It was just such a moment this week, when Ramaphosa walked out from behind a metaphorical curtain and said: "Don’t worry, it’s been a bad dream. It’s the same as two years ago — Nhlanhla Nene is still finance minister, Pravin Gordhan is still in the cabinet, and Malusi Gigaba is wreaking havoc at home affairs, rather than finance ..."

For starry-eyed idealists, Ramaphosa’s first cabinet was a disappointment. But this failed to recognise the realpolitik that all cabinets are balancing acts. They reflect the leader’s attempt to exploit, manipulate and placate the range of ideologies and factions in the ruling party.

So in this sense, Ramaphosa’s choices are generally explicable. Which is just as well, when you consider the immensity of the power a president has in SA to choose his cabinet.

In SA, the leader of the majority party does not have the theoretical legitimacy that is conferred on the US president, say, by the direct votes of the people. (An unwise use of this vote when it came to Donald Trump, but a direct mandate, nonetheless.) Here in SA, the president is appointed by his colleagues in the ANC, so he depends on their direct support.

Once he is in office, he alone has the power to select a cabinet. But he doesn’t want to risk losing support by failing to consult on cabinet appointments. After all, Jacob Zuma refused to consult — and look how well that worked out for him.

In this context, it’s hardly surprising that there is detritus remaining from the Zuma era which Ramaphosa felt duty-bound to accommodate in his cabinet, given his narrow victory in the ANC leadership race. Bathabile Dlamini, possibly the worst minister ever to draw a ministerial salary, is one clear example.

But perhaps the real surprise is that Gigaba, hitherto minister of finance, was accommodated as minister of home affairs. It’s a portfolio he held before, in 2015, where he almost single-handedly torpedoed SA’s tourism arrivals thanks to the bizarre diktat that children must carry a full birth certificate to travel. It also comes a week after judge Neil Tuchten ruled that Gigaba had "deliberately told untruths under oath" in a case involving his time at home affairs. It was a "violation" of the constitution, the court heard.

Clearly, Gigaba shouldn’t be in cabinet. But at least he no longer holds the purse strings. That job now falls to Nene, while Gordhan is minister of public enterprises. Both are respected by the markets and adept at delivery.

Gwede Mantashe could also prove a shrewd appointment to mollify the mining industry, which has been alienated from government.

A key challenge for Ramaphosa will be changing the culture that grew during the Thabo Mbeki and Zuma eras, in which ministers would do their own thing amid a loose agreement that if you don’t interfere in my portfolio, I won’t challenge you.

Of course, we mustn’t kid ourselves: some degree of patronage in high office is inevitable. All elected leaders have debts to pay, and ambition and loyalty make the clock tick. But the civil service should try to minimise patronage.

A final thought, to cast a shadow over the Cyril Spring: Mbeki compromised his cabinet when he picked Zuma as his deputy. Could Ramaphosa have made the same mistake with his deputy, David Mabuza? Especially now that premature presidential recall has become an ANC tradition.