President Jacob Zuma effected a Cabinet reshuffle this week because he was convinced it would prevent a great deal more damage that would otherwise have resulted from the malfunctioning departments of communications and co-operative governance and traditional affairs over the next few months.
But the president kept the much-maligned Angie Motshekga as minister of basic education because he believes that she has achieved much more than is acknowledged by her critics. This is according to a senior government official familiar with the president's restructuring exercise, who spoke to the Mail & Guardian but preferred to remain anonymous.
On July 9, Zuma announced the axing of Dina Pule as communications minister, Richard Baloyi as co-operative governance and traditional affairs minster, and Tokyo Sexwale from the human settlements portfolio.
He also swapped the portfolios of Energy Minister Dipuo Peters and Transport Minister Ben Martins.
The government official answered the burning question of why Zuma would have insisted on a Cabinet reshuffle when the country is only nine months away from national and provincial elections.
"Nine months is a long time and it can make a big difference," the official said. "You guys are not aware that the co-operative governance department had almost collapsed. At the department of communications a lot more could have gone wrong.
"This [communications] is a department critical to the economy and all this talk about economic growth and development could not be realised if you have a department which is just not moving," said the official.
"We are quite behind on many projects in the information and communications technology [ICT] sector. You had the situation of a minister who was quite distracted in trying to deal with allegations against her."
Asked why the president had not waited for the outcome of the public protector's investigations against Pule, the official said the minister was not necessarily fired for the allegations against her.
Pule is under investigation by the public protector for her role in the ICT Indaba. Her department hosted the indaba in June last year, during which a reported R26-million of sponsors' money disappeared.
Her alleged boyfriend reportedly had undue influence in appointments in the department and benefited improperly from contracts in the communications department.
"We were just not meeting targets and we were behind," said the official. Pule's successor, Yunus Carrim, said immediately after his appointment that "time was running out".
"We have to move quickly," he said.
"We have to confer with a wide range of stakeholders and ensure that we work in a less fractious and more consensual manner.
"By the standards of middle-income developing countries we are lagging behind in the ICT sector. There is no reason we cannot move with due expedition," said Carrim.
The newly elected minister promised to stabilise the SABC and improve its performance.
"The public has reached the limits of its tolerance of difficulties at the SABC," he said.
Richard Baloyi, whom Zuma removed as head of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, was seen as one of the worst performing ministers in the Cabinet.
Under his leadership, municipalities continued to fall into disarray and most of them have failed to win clean audits from the auditor general.
The government official said the department appeared to be unlucky and had just never regained the momentum set when Sydney Mufamadi was minister.
After Mufamadi, the late Sicelo Shiceka was appointed minister. Shiceka was a lot more in the public eye and developed the local government turnaround strategy, which has since gathered dust in government cupboards.
Shiceka was followed by Nathi Mthethwa, who acted for months in the portfolio after Shiceka was fired for abuse of government funds and other financial improprieties.
Baloyi was considered to have put in a lackadaisical performance in a department that required a sense of urgency.
"Baloyi was too laid-back," said the official. His replacement, Lechesa Tsenoli, is seen as vastly more experienced in local government.
Tsenoli was a local government MEC in the Free State and chaired the local government portfolio committee in Parliament.
After his appointment Tsenoli said he knew his tasks were of critical importance but declared that he was "ready" to face the responsibilities.
The government official said the president decided to move Andries Nel to local government as deputy minister to back up Tsenoli, because Nel had an eye for detail.
Nel was replaced as deputy minister of justice and constitutional development by John Jeffery, who has been an MP for the ANC since 1999.
Jeffery has been a parliamentary counsellor for several deputy presidents including Zuma, Baleka Mbete and Kgalema Motlanthe.
The government official described Jeffery as "extremely hard-working and efficient".
Jeffery landed in trouble recently when he described Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko as "a person of substantial weight" and had to apologise for the remark.
Although there has been speculation that Sexwale was removed from the human settlements portfolio because he was a critic of the president and wanted him out as ANC president, the official said Sexwale had nothing to show for his four years in office.
The official said not much had changed since former minister Lindiwe Sisulu left the department, having built two million houses.
As for the basic education minister, the official said they were aware that many people "hated" Motshekga, but said they should look at all the systems she put in place since she was elected.
"Even right now they must look at the [area of] early childhood development where her work has ensured that eight million children are in pre-school. The matric results speak for themselves.
"People castigate her for the ANA (annual national assessment) because the results are sometimes bad. But what the ANA results do is force schools to invest in improvement."
Zuma has also publicly defended Motshekga's performance.
The official said there was no basis for people to call for the axing of Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi (who has just arrived in the post), Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, or Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile, who have all "done well in their areas of work".