Curb your enthusiasm: whose cabinet is it, anyway?


President Cyril Ramaphosa announces changes to his Cabinet at the Union Buildings, Pretoria, 26 February, 2018.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announces changes to his Cabinet at the Union Buildings, Pretoria, 26 February, 2018.

Many South Africans who felt buoyed with hope after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ‘State of the Nation Address 2018’. Malusi Gigaba left some of them deflated in what turned out to be his last ‘Budget Speech’, not least because of the increase in value added tax (VAT). But among those who remained supporters of the man who promised to walk the talk, not just capitalise on the symbolism of his walks, the cabinet reshuffle of 26 February 2018 will have punctured their hopeful political buoyancy.

Much was made about the delay in the announcement for the man who had so insistently started everything on time, from his ‘January 8th Speech’ as president of the African National Congress in East London, to the very SONA 2018 for which he was so enthusiastically praised, bringing even political opponents across the aisle to their feet. Some speculated that it was an ill omen of his own disempowerment in relation to his party. Others suggested more sinister significance, especially in the wake of the unfortunate formulation of the reason given by Ramaphosa’s spokesperson: the President of the Republic of South Africa was ‘in consultations’ an hour beyond the time the cabinet was supposed to be announced.

As for the announcement itself, several people will be gleaning some sort of silver lining from a rather oddly coloured cloud; not entirely dark, but hardly the sort of sunshine Ramaphosa’s SONA seemed to augur, and not just for the mining industry and business investors. For the folks who focus on the economy, it was mostly good news. Gigaba was out, and Nhlanhla Nene was returned as Minister of Finance. 

Pravin Gordhan, another former occupant of that portfolio beloved of the business sector in South Africa, was returned to cabinet, replacing Lynne Brown, with whom he faced off in the parliamentary portfolio committee investigating malfeasance at Eskom in October 2017. Clearly it has not been Brown’s best week, given that the Public Protector, the centre of critics’ ire herself, indicated concerns around her misleading of parliament. 

Brown was not alone in her summary dismissal from the executive. Among others, Faith Muthambi, lately of Public Service and Administration, and before that Communications, where she either could not or would not implement her party’s policy on digital migration, also got axed. As did a man whose name is too closely linked to the Gupta family for the comfort of many South Africans: Mosebenzi Zwane, lately of Mineral Resources, but prior to that embroiled in Free State politics and its uneasy relationship with the Gupta family via the Vrede dairy farm. One imagines Gwede Mantashe, who has knows the mining sector both from political experience and from academic research, would be a tougher figure to face for industry players in that portfolio.

Let us also not forget the flushing of David Mahlobo from the Energy portfolio he had only been given in the last quarter of 2017. It was seen by many as Jacob Zuma’s attempt to push through the nuclear deal which had been at the core of Nene’s axing in 2015, and of Gordhan’s dismissal along with his deputy Mcebisi Jonas at the end of March 2017. He had also served as Minister of State Security, where his tenure was marked by controversy around his infamous visit to an alleged rhino horn trader’s massage parlour. He was also seen by many as one of Zuma’s chief enforcers in the securocratic phase of the post-apartheid Republic.

But the most anticipated removal was probably the man who had been redeployed from what many, pace Brenda Fassie, called his ‘weekend special’ stint as the Minister of Finance: those fateful and economically disastrous three days in December 2015 after Nene’s firing and before Gordhan’s deployment. And who can forget the multiple reasons for the removal given by the head of state at the time, as well as various senior figures in government and the ANC? The most ridiculous of these was the suggestion that Nene had been hand-picked for a job with the BRICS bank; nothing came of this, and Nene has denied it was ever offered him.

But Ramaphosa’s new cabinet kept some of its Caligulan figures, even if it flushed its more monstrous outrages. Despite a spectacular and politically disastrous, even inept tenure as Minister of Social Development – the SASSA crisis has not been fully resolved yet – Ms Bathabile Dlamini was swopped out with Ms Susan Shabangu. The Minister for Women in the Presidency would become the Minster for Social Development, and vice versa. Clearly her position at the head of the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) required her retention. She brings a major constituency, even though that constituency’s manoeuvres during the elective congress failed to get more than one woman elected into the party’s top officials. 

One can only wonder what women, 54% of South Africa’s population, can expect from this perennially underperforming and counter-productive public servant. As for Ms Shabangu, recall her tenure as Minister of Mineral Resources: months after the Marikana massacre, at the Mining Indaba, she declared with confidence that it had been a fairly good year for the industry. Also recall her unfortunate remarks in May 2017, as Minister for Women in a country blighted by disturbingly femicidal violence, about a young woman killed by her intimate partner.

Many behave as if the market (often conceived of as a divinely immanent order, not the consequence of work done by individuals and groups to their own advantage) and its evaluation of policy ought to trump the concerns of citizens in a democracy. They look to currency trade and market fluctuations, using measures like investor confidence to judge the wisdom or folly of government policy. The demands and requirements of citizens easily become secondary concerns in such arguments. 

For many such enthusiasts of the Age of Ramaphosa there may be much to celebrate in the first Ramaphosa cabinet reshuffle. The economic cluster appointees are commensurable with the economic priorities of Budget 2018. Remember the hike in the fuel levy and the VAT increase, which we were told would not adversely affect the poor majority because they rely on exempted staples, and would get an increase in their social security benefit. It was delivered in the name of ‘radical economic transformation’, alongside heightened talk about recommitting to land reform and restitution without compensation. That talk will have to be back by more than symbolic walking in the months ahead of the 2019 general election.

Jeff Radebe’s new appointment in the Energy portfolio will be closely watched, given concerns around the nuclear deal, the persistence of fracking exploratory in water sensitive areas like the Karoo, the troubled relationship with renewable energy sources and independent power producers, and the continued corporate limping at Eskom. Presumably Gordhan will assist on the latter, though the basket of ailing and moribund state owned enterprises may prove a bigger challenge than many assume. Let’s not forget that the judicial commission into state capture led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo may unearth material which could compromise more individuals, some of whom are still in cabinet, and some of whom have just been included.

Whose cabinet is it anyway? Some insist it is Cyril Ramaphosa’s, reiterating that gem from the Age of Zuma, which held that cabinet appointments are the president’s prerogative. Such a view, of course, does not suture easily with the Age of Ramaphosa’s call for public service and servitude in leadership. It ought to be the cabinet for South Africa and its people. It is that group, all 57 million us, after all, on whose behalf this cabinet ought to work, and whose interests ought to be paramount in any decisions made about it, and by those appointed to it.

But in a party which keeps suggesting its divisions are signs of unity, it is clearly neither Ramaphosa’s whim or prerogative, nor the interests of the country and its people alone which determines the composition of the executive. Perhaps that mysterious ‘bag of commitments’ Ramaphosa brought back from the World Economic Forum at Davos played a role as well, and it may be imperative for us to know whether it did, and if so, to what extent, and with what consequences. Perhaps we ought to curb our enthusiasm for the man, and do our duty as citizens of a democracy that has just come through years of crisis, by holding him to account. 

It would be farcical if the tragedy of the Zuma years – in which people not elected could claim to have the power to appoint ministers; in which the head of a government for the people could claim he did not have to explain his administrative actions to the people; in which members of the governing party’s intelligentsia and nomenklatura, and ANC apparatchiks happily defended the indefensible as ‘presidential prerogative’. Let us hold ourselves to a higher standard, and let us, as citizens, hold those who govern in our name, to greater accountability.

The good times are not here yet, not for all of us. We made that mistake once, with tragic results. Let us not subject ourselves to the farce of repetition.