EDITORIAL: The art of taking a hatchet to cabinet
President Cyril Ramaphosa's cabinet choices will, like it or not, be what creates the most lasting public perception of him
There is much public expectation ahead of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s inauguration and, soon thereafter, the announcement of his cabinet. Will he clean out the Augean stables? Can he seriously cut the number of ministries from 35 to 25 and the number of deputy ministers to just 10?
By now, Ramaphosa must be sick of questions such as those. It can sometimes seem that the entire country doubts him. This time, though, he has a chance to silence his critics.
His cabinet choices will, like it or not, be what creates the most lasting public perception of him. Nothing wrong with that, because picking a smaller cabinet should be the easiest job he has ever had.
Ramaphosa has already said leaders tainted by corruption should stand aside. We would be naive to think he will not have to make political compromises, but his clear position on tainted colleagues should surely mean Nomvula Mokonyane and Bathabile Dlamini, at the very least, do not return to the government.
Then the rest is common sense. You want 25 people of integrity. And they don’t have to know everything. You don’t need a medical doctor as minister of health, nor a professor for education, nor a French speaker for international relations. What you need are service-minded people who are comfortable with themselves, who are not afraid to gather people around them who are smarter than themselves.
There are also innovative ways to cut the numbers back. In the UK, for instance, the home office (their equivalent of our department of home affairs) runs the police, immigration service, intelligence, prisons and the judiciary. The trick is to appoint seriously qualified and experienced officials to run those distinct arms.
And while the Zuma administration may have been correct to split basic and higher education, it was dead wrong to split the ministry of economic development from trade & industry. Those two departments should be joined up again. You could even add transport, environmental affairs, mineral resources, small business and tourism to that portfolio.
It will be vital to economic recovery that home affairs and economics talk to each other regularly and Ramaphosa will have to find a way to facilitate that. A far more liberal immigration regime is essential to our future prosperity.
There is no harm in creating super-ministries, provided that the people running them are sensible and mature. There are easy wins in merging, say, public works with rural development & land reform; women and sport with social development.
The fact is Ramaphosa could go well below 25 ministers without his cabinet losing coherence, but his cuts will inevitably involve compromises. Some constituencies — labour, the communists, the youth and women’s leagues — will have to be accommodated.
But what the country needs are the right compromises. We are too damaged now to experiment with ideologies. We must be practical and do whatever works. Our greatest problem is poverty, and that can only be fixed with wealth. And the only way to create wealth for the country is to ensure that the private sector can maximise employment and profits, so that they can be taxed. You cannot tax a loss, rather obviously.
Equally, the public sector needs to make money to survive. Otherwise it is a drain on rich and poor and serves no purpose. It is clear that private sector participation in the state sector, particularly in management, is urgently required. We hope Ramaphosa picks ministers who no longer need to be told the obvious.