/ 23 November 2018

Cyril can’t lose the wicked trio – yet

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s smart move was appointing Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams as the minister of communications.
President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. (Phill Magakoe/Gallo Images)

We do not know whether President Cyril Ramaphosa has the Cabinet he wants. More than half the men and women in his executive were appointed by his predecessor.

His predecessor, Jacob Zuma, appointed a Cabinet specifically to oversee the project of state capture. You need only to follow the proceedings of the Zondo commission currently under way to understand how thoroughgoing that project was, and how dedicated our former president was to its fulfilment.

There is one thing we do know of Ramaphosa and the messy art of Cabinet-making, or at least one thing we may think of as reasonably certain: Ramaphosa did not want another Cabinet reshuffle right now. Why would he? He is six months before an election, and the ANC is not exactly in its best shape.

The first reshuffle in February, just weeks after he took over from Zuma, was necessary and the political climate for it was right. It was a time of change and the country expected a clean and complete break with the Zuma past — at least as clean and complete a break as a country may expect after an internal party transfer of power.

READ MORE: Communications Ministry on fifth reshuffle

It also helped that Zuma had appointed a bunch of no-name backbenchers for the primary purpose of signing Gupta-sanctioned contracts, people with no real weight in the ANC or credibility in the industries and sectors they were meant to oversee. The likes of Lynne Brown, Mosebenzi Zwane, Bongani Bongo, Faith Muthambi, Des van Rooyen, Hlengiwe Mkhize, David Mahlobo, Joe Maswanganyi and Nkosinathi Nhleko were low-hanging fruit. These were easy to pluck with no real comeback from the firing of any of them, either individually or as the rotten collective they were.

Others survived, and their survival reflected not only their standing in the ruling party, but also the limits of Ramaphosa’s power at the time. The president had been (narrowly) elected only two months earlier, and two weeks before the reshuffle he gently but firmly had to push Zuma out of the Union Buildings’ backdoor.

Three names stood out: then finance Minister Malusi Gigaba, then social development minister Bathabile Dlamini, and then water and sanitation minister Nomvula Mokonyane.

These three were staunch Zuma supporters and Mokonyane and Dlamini were at the head of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign when she fought Ramaphosa for the presidency last year. Gigaba was considered a rising star of the Zuma-Gupta conglomerate, and dependable enough to give him the keys of the treasury to unlock key projects such as the nuclear energy procurement programme.

The reasons those three had to stay were fairly simple: Mokonyane and Dlamini are powerful figures in the ANC Women’s League, who come from two significant provinces, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Gigaba, a former president of the ANC Youth League, also had power.

The most Ramaphosa could do with this trio in February was to move them from their sensitive portfolios, where all three had already done the country considerable damage.

Make no mistake, though, Ramaphosa would probably have preferred them out of his Cabinet, and it is likely that none of them will be considered fit for purpose after the 2019 election.

Then Gigaba’s state-capture chickens came home to roost. Although his resignation came as an unexpected fillip for the president, it is not something he needed right now. He still cannot afford to upset the apple cart in the ANC. What Ramaphosa needs is a good election in 2019, the kind that allows him to do as he pleases even in the face of resistance from the Zuma remnants, KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, the leagues, or anyone else that might have cause to rebel.

And that is why, despite continuing unpopularity with the chattering classes, Dlamini and Mokonyane remain. The same calculations Ramaphosa made in February 2018 still hold true: keep a modicum of unity and cohesion in the ANC, neutralise the Zuma backlash, manage the state-capture fallout with the electorate and make a reasonable showing in May 2019. Then dictate terms from then on.

Already there are insidious murmurings inside the ANC trying to impose a strange and untrue narrative on the fall of Gigaba. He was the victim of the “older generation” attempting to cling on to power. Gigaba has also promoted this account, going so far as to suggest — implausibly — that his troubles are a result of his enemies, and detractors’ attempts to prevent him from becoming the president of the ANC and the country in the future.

That is why Gigaba’s true replacement is not Siyabonga Cwele, who has been moved from telecommunications and postal services to take over the home affairs portfolio. The real replacement for Gigaba is Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, who has been promoted from her post as Cwele’s deputy and now takes over the communications ministry.

She is younger than Gigaba, untainted, and has her own solid youth league credentials. Her elevation puts the lie to any notion of a resistance to promoting young leaders.

Ndabeni-Abrahams is considered a rising star in ANC top structures and was appointed deputy minister of telecommunications and postal services in March 2017. She took on the portfolio with some gusto, even styling herself “the commander-in-chief of the 4th industrial revolution”. She was a strong supporter of Ramaphosa’s presidential campaign. Between October 2011 and March 2017, Ndabeni-Abrahams served as the deputy minister of communications, a portfolio that has now been collapsed into hers, making her one of the most important ministers in Ramaphosa’s Cabinet.

When Zuma appointed her in 2011, at 34 she was the youngest member of the national executive. It doesn’t hurt that she is also a member of the ANC’s Eastern Cape provincial executive committee, and so hails from one of the party’s larger provinces, and one of its traditional strongholds.

With this Cabinet change, Ramaphosa will hope that he can hold stations for six months, until he can get the team he wants in June 2019.