Zuma’s skill as Cabinet-maker faces new test

What now? Another Zuma administration, that’s what. Cabinet-making is probably any head of government’s most significant task. And as there is no such thing – perhaps thankfully – as “Zumaism”, because the president-elect remains an ideology-free zone, the composition of his Cabinet provides the greatest clues as to the general tenor, personality and likely trajectory of his government.

Cabinet-making requires real political craft and dexterity, imagination and, above all, judgment.

Jacob Zuma is known for some, but not all of these characteristics. In theory, Cabinet-making is the president’s sole (constitutional) prerogative. In practice, he must consult senior ANC leaders and perform a delicate piece of political and, to some extent, ethnic, balancing act.

For example, he must take account of factors such as seniority in the party – as expressed in the national executive committee election outcome from the ANC’s last national conference, in Mangaung in 2012, and in its list of candidates for Parliament – but also the need to keep both his political allies and political enemies sufficiently happy.

In this respect Zuma has more room for manoeuvre than in 2009, when he owed a large and hungry coalition of supporters a great deal for his victory over Thabo Mbeki at Polokwane in 2007.

This time he may take the view, however unwisely, that he owes no one anything. I say unwisely, because, despite the ANC’s victory this week, there will be plenty of significant voices in the party who will be ready to argue that any electoral success was in spite of Zuma rather than because of him, and that overall he is a liability rather than an asset to the organisation.

Like an idling engine in the background, the Nkandla scandal will continue to bug the president. And the judicial review of the decision to drop serious corruption charges against him looms large on the horizon.

So he is far from being invulnerable, regardless of the electoral outcome. Some commentators are apparently willing to eat their hats if Zuma survives six months (Max du Preez), but the president-elect already gives me quite enough indigestion for me to match such speculation, however much merit I think it may have.

Thus, Zuma is likely to use Cabinet selection as an opportunity not just to dispense patronage in the highest echelon of government, but also to shore up support and to ensure that the ANC’s most powerful players are less likely to stab him in the back.

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe will be the key consultee – the pivotal cog in the ANC alliance’s complex wheel – along with Cyril Ramaphosa who, as deputy president, has to be given a big say in the composition of the new government.

But what sort of Cabinet will it be, and what lessons from the first Zuma administration can be drawn to help to predict the character of the next one?

Zuma’s first Cabinet was “big government” in every sense: a bloated assemblage of more than 30 members and a vast ideological spectrum – big-tent politics to a fault.

It was also structurally very different from those that preceded it, though the main reforms were hatched largely on Thabo Mbeki’s watch, for instance the department of performance monitoring and evaluation that was established in 2009 and the National Planning Commission, both led by ministers in the presidency.

The latter idea, with its underpinning notion of greater central planning, was taken up enthusiastically by the South African Communist Party and trade union federation Cosatu, not reckoning that Zuma would appoint their nemesis Trevor Manuel to head the commission. The department of performance monitoring and evaluation appealed to Zuma’s simple, nonideological desire for “better delivery” – hence the appointment of his loyal lieutenant Collins Chabane to the post.

The department has done well in establishing the metrics as well as the principle of measuring and reflecting on performance, and does so with an admirable mixture of professionalism, focus and candour.

Yet it is hard to say that this has delivered better government, and by no fault of his own Chabane has found it hard to impose his political will on his peers in Cabinet – an unenviable task – despite his location in the presidency.

Hence the talk of creating a second deputy presidency to cover the department of performance monitoring and evaluation. But this would require a constitutional amendment: section 91(1) of the Constitution speaks of a Cabinet that consists of just “a deputy president” in addition to the ministers.

And what of the minister of national planning, now that Manuel is finally departing the scene? What, indeed, of the national planning commissioners, whose terms expire next year. What are Zuma’s plans?

As the current deputy chair of the National Planning Commission, Ramaphosa will want both the commission and the department of performance monitoring and evaluation functions subsumed into his deputy presidential role. That would give him real heft and make him a de facto prime minister, which is what many in the ANC leadership want – as a way of masking and overcoming Zuma’s own painfully obvious inadequacies as a modern head of government.

Ramaphosa may well have been promised such a role when he agreed to join Zuma’s ticket at Mangaung. Whether he gets it now is another matter; Zuma may be wary of giving so much executive power to his deputy. Generally, he prefers to spread it around, so as to render it more susceptible to his control.

Then there is the vital question of the economic-policy ministries – finance, trade and industry, public enterprises and economic development – and how the various incumbents will determine how much the ideological balance of power in the Cabinet tilts – as it almost certainly will – to the right, or towards what may come to be seen as a “new realism”, if the new administration decides to make a strategic shift away from a heavily regulated labour market and the ideal of “decent work” towards a lower-wage, reindustrialised approach to the ­absolutely urgent task of job creation.

In terms of macroeconomic governance, the establishment of the economic development department was the other structural reform introduced with the 2009 administration, and again it had little or nothing to do with Zuma himself. It was a gift to Cosatu, which wanted an alternative centre of power within the government to dilute the tight hold the treasury had had over macro­economic policy-making in the Mbeki-Manuel years.

Thanks to the single-minded resolve of its minister, Cosatu placeman Ebrahim Patel, the economic development department has achieved more than could reasonably have been expected, though its influence over economic policy per se has been limited. Still, Patel has managed to chisel out a vital role for the department as the head of the presidential infrastructure co-ordinating commission and then, last month, managed to push through in the nick of time an Act of Parliament – the National Infrastructure Act – that places his department formally in charge of co-ordinating all the national strategic infrastructure projects, which is this government’s, and the ANC’s, primary, and perhaps only real, strategy for creating jobs.

Patel may be the first politician in history to have attempted to save his job by legislative means. Ironically, given his Cosatu history and the fact that he has no base to speak of in the ANC, and whose earnestness hardly makes him the most popular or convivial of Cabinet colleagues, he may well survive. Again, however, the function of co-ordinating infrastructure ought logically to be placed under Ramaphosa’s control in the presidency.

Above all, the decision about how much extra executive power and authority to vest in Ramaphosa’s deputy presidency will be Zuma’s biggest call, the biggest test of his judgment, and the most significant pointer for the next five years of Zuma government.

Richard Calland’s most recent book, The Zuma Years, is on the long list for the Alan Paton Award.

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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