The appointment of the Cabinet is often a president or prime minister’s most significant test of judgment. The one that will be announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa in the day or two after his inauguration presents a double-layered litmus test of his statecraft and political acuity.
First, he must show that he really is in charge — that he is in power as well as in office. After the unedifying spectacle of the ANC’s parliamentary candidature list, which contained so many of the miscreant beneficiaries and agents of the Zuma-enabled state capture looting, Ramaphosa needs to offer convincing evidence that he is not afraid of the Zuma rump that continues to fight back. Yes, there may have to be a nod or two towards certain ANC conventions and structures — Bathabile Dlamini may survive simply because she remains the ANC Women’s League president, for example. But Ramphosa has to extract himself from the tendency, which started with Thabo Mbeki but then grew exponentially during the Zuma era, to use the Cabinet as a source of patronage and, thereby, as a quick-fix solution to the never-ending factional battles in the broader ANC movement.
One way of limiting the scope for such patronage would be to reduce substantially the size of the Cabinet, which rose to 36 during the Zuma years, up from about 28 during the Mbeki presidency. There are fiscal and political reasons for doing so. The Cabinet is bloated, so it is both unmanageable and unduly expensive.
There are other reasons for thinking creatively about the configuration and structure of the Cabinet, the executive arm of the government’s principal locus of both authority and decision-making. And, clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all panacea for more effective government from the top. But there are examples elsewhere in the world that can inspire a new approach here.
As can be seen from the summary of the academic literature, modern theories of government posit that smaller Cabinets can deliver more focused and efficient “joined up” decision-making, especially when buttressed by a strong centre of government. Comparative research shows how innovative some countries have been in re-thinking the structure and configuration of the ministries that comprise the Cabinet. Key points to come out of this research:
- Of the sample countries studied, the mean Cabinet size is 27.2 ministers — ranging from 56 (Ghana) to 16 (Germany and Ireland);
- Of the African countries studied, the smallest Cabinets are found in Botswana and Morocco with 20 ministers each;
- In countries with more streamlined approaches, potentially overlapping mandates and interests are combined under a single ministry. Such examples include basic education, higher education, research and innovation as well as energy, climate change and the environment;
- In countries that adopt this streamlined approach, it is common for some ministers to be supported by one or more second-tier members of the executive, a position that falls somewhere between the South African conception of a minister and a deputy minister. These individuals focus on specific areas of importance that emerge under the ministry’s portfolio. Although this may seem to defeat the purpose of the size reduction, it can do away with the need for deputy ministers — reducing the cost of the executive by almost 50%;
- Instead of a minister of public enterprises, the portfolio either falls under the finance ministry or each enterprise falls under the ministry that concerns its area of business. In the South African context, the latter would see Denel falling under the minister of defence and SAA falling under the minister of transport.
There is an opportunity to be creative and to break the mould of the South African government.
So, inevitably, the second dimension to the litmus test is that his Cabinet will also be seen as a measure of his willingness to be decisive and bold.
Ramaphosa made it clear when he first came into power early last year that he intended to reform government, including the size of the Cabinet. But it is easier said than done. Despite the relevant people cogitating over the issue ever since, no one set of reforms yet commands universal support.
In the end, it will be the president’s call.
It is an inevitably contentious matter. There are high-level, highly paid positions at stake. And, moreover, there is a legitimate concern that too much change could be counter-productive — that it may simply herald a period of restructuring that consumes too much time, something that Ramaphosa does not have. The election results clearly indicate that this sixth ANC administration must move far more effectively in delivering public services and in creating jobs if it is to retain a majority in five years’ time.
Hence, it is recognised that this will more likely be an incremental as well as an iterative process.
I recognise this political and bureaucratic reality, but I nevertheless advance a radical blueprint for Cabinet reform, which would streamline the Cabinet and seeks to take advantage of one current distinctive design feature of the government — the split between ministries and departments. What would be most destabilising and potentially majorly distracting would be to merge or to eliminate a significant number of government departments. The territorial spats would be ferocious.
Instead, there is an opportunity to keep the majority of departments in place, ideally with top-notch directors-general heading them (reporting to a head of the Public Service, a position the National Development Plan recommends but which has yet to be established), but to reorganise the ministries that sit above them and keep them light in terms of staffing.
Ministries are where the political and policy decision-making should take place. Departments are where the implementation is supposed to occur. Hence, in pursuit of better, more coherent decision-making at ministerial — Cabinet — level, the current ministerial landscape should be consigned to the scrap heap. Starting again, the president should craft a configuration of portfolios that makes practical and political sense.
It is an opportunity to signal intent — for example, emphasising the importance of climate action and national planning by having both ministries located in the presidency.
It joins trade with international relations in recognition of the centrality of economic diplomacy to modern foreign policy. It puts all the social and human development departments under one “minister for people” and all the infrastructure hardware departments under one minister.
Yes, they will be described as super ministers and a Cabinet as small as this — the smallest in the world — will no doubt be dubbed a politburo. But, it will certainly provide clearer political and policy leadership (assuming that appointments are made on merit and not patronage) as well as making vast savings for the fiscus.
Arguably, Ramaphosa is as powerful right now as he has ever been and ever will be. Hence, it may be necessary to be bold and decisive at the earliest available opportunity.
Ramaphosa has a tough decision to take in respect of composition and configuration. In both respects, he must stamp his authority on the Cabinet. It will set the tone and political trajectory for the next five years.
A year ago, Ramaphosa made it clear that the Cabinet he tinkered with after ousting Zuma was an interim one. Now he will be appointing his first real Cabinet. With the radical change such as that which I am proposing, it is an opportunity for the president to really pick his 1st XI.
PART II: The seven principles of picking a Cabinet.
The research for this article, commissioned by Richard Calland, associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and partner in The Paternoster Group, was done by Laurent Balt, Simphiwe Mahlangu and Mike Law.