Cyril's Cabinet: What happened behind the scenes

It’s official: President Cyril Ramaphosa, followed by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, walks the red carpet to the swearing-in ceremony of his new Cabinet. (Delwyn Verasamy)

It’s official: President Cyril Ramaphosa, followed by Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, walks the red carpet to the swearing-in ceremony of his new Cabinet. (Delwyn Verasamy)

The negotiations started before the elections and continued until the very last moment. After the president briefed alliance partners and the ANC’s top brass on the final list of ministers and their deputies late on Wednesday, the small group was kept inside the Union Buildings. Their phones were taken away: nobody would put a spoke in the president’s big reveal


In an unprecedented consultation process that saw names of potential Cabinet ministers moved on and off the list, President Cyril Ramaphosa has managed to keep his allies close and his enemies closer.

After canvassing a host of well-placed sources, the Mail & Guardian can reveal some of the machinations that went into the Cabinet restructure and how individuals were selected to fill key posts.

The intrigues included burning the midnight oil on what to do with Barbara Creecy, the trade-offs to retain Tito Mboweni as finance minister, appeasing the Jacob Zuma/Ace Magashule faction, how to exclude Bathabile Dlamini, all the while appeasing both business and labour.

Ultimately, the Cabinet is designed to shore up Ramaphosa’s support inside the ANC, the alliance and society as a whole.
As one source put it, “no one is unhappy”. This is largely because of the intense consultation process held in the run-up to the announcement.

It is understood that the process began well before the elections, in which the broad principles of restructuring the Cabinet were discussed. The second step was the mechanics that went into merging departments and the last element was determining geographical spread, demographics and gender.

“In appointing a new national executive, I have taken a number of considerations into account, including experience, continuity, competence, generational mix and geographic and demographic and regional diversity,” Ramaphosa said, announcing his Cabinet on Wednesday night.

A pool of names was initially brought to the ANC and its alliance partners by the presidency, with people assigned to particular positions — and the wrangling over posts and individuals began. Finally, a shortlist was arrived at.

The final consultation happened on Wednesday, with alliance partners and the ANC’s top brass coming together to hear the final outcome of the intensive process from Ramaphosa. The small group of leaders was not permitted to leave the Union Buildings after the briefing and their phones were taken away until the announcement was made late that evening. The consultation process was described by Cosatu as “unlike any other” Cabinet discussions in the past decade.

The ANC’s battered alliance partners, trade union federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP), made a strong comeback, gaining a number of important positions in Ramaphosa’s Cabinet.

Cosatu is Ramaphosa’s unofficial base because he is a former trade unionist. It was also the first in the congress movement to endorse him as a presidential contender. The SACP opted not to publicly endorse any candidate, but a large number of its leaders campaigned for his win at Nasrec.

The Cabinet path, however, was not an easy one, with the SACP having to lobby hard to return general secretary Blade Nzimande to the newly configured ministry of higher education, science and technology. It is understood that the SACP also lobbied for former deputy minister of economic development, Madala Masuku, to be appointed, but he failed to make the cut.

Another point of contention between Cosatu and Ramaphosa’s preferences was Mboweni’s return as finance minister. Cosatu had been lobbying to have Mboweni replaced, issuing strongly worded statements in the run-up to the elections in which it accused him of behaving like the “prime minister” and urging him to retire. Cosatu argued to prevent his appointment, but eventually agreed, provided he was given a “talking to”, said a source familiar with the matter.

“We don’t want to individualise this issue but we can assure you that if it was about individuals, surely we would not be having problems since Trevor Manuel’s time?” said Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi. “Overall, Cosatu will always have reservations about this portfolio, because it is about orientation, not an individual.”

Insiders say there was also a push by the ANC treasurer Paul Mashatile and the party in Gauteng to have Creecy installed as finance minister. But this failed, with speculation rife that she would emerge as a deputy in this post. It is understood that there were fears, particularly in investor and business circles, that this was Mashatile’s attempt to strengthen his hand in directing the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), which is traditionally chaired by the deputy finance minister. David Masondo was selected for the role instead and is set to be groomed to take over the running of the treasury.

Creecy was made minister of environment, forestry and fisheries.

Allies: President Cyril Ramaphosa and Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi (left) at a May Day rally. Cosatu is Ramaphosa’s unofficial base, but not all his appointments pleased the federation. (Rajesh Jantilal/AFP)

Ramaphosa, in his address on Wednesday, said: “We have also included a significant number of young people. This is in fulfilment of our commitment to giving young people roles of responsibility in all sectors of society. This is part of a generational transition in which we are creating a pipeline of leaders to take our country further into the future.”

The youngest member of Cabinet, at 36, Ronald Lamola takes up a portfolio requiring heavy lifting: justice and correctional services.

“He was the natural choice, especially to oversee the Ramaphosa clean-up. He is a doer and the president trusts him,” said a national executive committee (NEC) source.

Cosatu’s Mboweni compromise paid off — it fought hard for Ebrahim Patel to return as trade and industry minister, and won. Also, senior unionists, long ignored or discarded by Zuma have emerged in powerful positions in Ramaphosa’s Cabinet. Patel, who did not make it on to the ANC’s list to Parliament, was retained as one of two appointees that can be made by Ramaphosa from outside of Parliament. Ramaphosa combined Patel’s former ministry, economic development, with trade and industry, and appointed former National Education Health and Allied Workers Union general secretary Fikile “Slovo” Majola as his deputy.

“Slovo has been very unhappy for a long time in Parliament as he was never considered for a post,” said an insider close to the former unionist. Majola was a largely lone battlement against Zuma’s nuclear aspirations during his tenure as chairperson of Parliament’s portfolio committee on energy.

The Cabinet announcement sees the key economic portfolio headed by two unionists, forming a powerful bulwark in the face of the more conservative treasury, say federation insiders. Thulas Nxesi, a former South African Democratic Teachers Union general secretary, was appointed minister of labour and employment. Adding unemployment to the labour ministry is another expression of Ramaphosa’s economic thrust in the Cabinet.

Reacting to the strong showing for Cosatu leaders, Losi said the federation had high expectations. “They have proven themselves inside the federation and in their work in their portfolios. We want to hit the ground running. We hope that within the first five days they meet with trade unions in the space they are working in,” she said.

The grouping aligned to Magashule received a leg up in the Cabinet with a number of inclusions. Insiders say this was done, mostly at the level of deputy minister, to dispel any notion of a post-Nasrec purge. Some Ramaphosa sympathisers, however, expressed alarm at the number of Zuma loyalists appointed as deputy ministers. At the same time, most of those appointed serve under strong Ramaphosa loyalists, a source on the NEC said.

David Mahlobo, a former state security minister and Zuma lieutenant, returns to the executive in what was described as a “harmless” post, that of deputy minister of housing. Another key Magashule ally, Sdumo Dlamini — who has been working as an aid in the ANC secretary general’s office since his removal as Cosatu president — made it as deputy minister of land, agrarian reform and rural development.

“There is an awareness that he [Dlamini] is still 120% behind Zuma,” a source said.

It is understood that Magashule had lobbied for Dlamini to be appointed labour minister but the idea was shot down because of his corrosive relationship with Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the country’s second largest trade union federation, the South African Federation of Trade Unions. (Dlamini booted Vavi out of Cosatu in 2014.)

Another leader fought for by this group was Bathabile Dlamini, the president of the ANC Women’s League. But insiders said Ramaphosa’s appointment of 50% women to the Cabinet would go some way to dispel the pushback after Dlamini’s exclusion. The country has become one of only 11 nations globally with an equal number of men and women ministers.

Ramaphosa has become the first ANC president to exclude Jeff Radebe, his brother-in-law, from Cabinet since 1994. It is understood that Radebe hoped to retain his position as energy minister. Earlier consultations had seen Radebe mooted as a replacement for Sisulu at the helm of the department of international relations and co-operation. There was a heated debate and disagreement over this, but it is understood that senior ANC leaders believed that he had been in Cabinet for too long and that it was time for new blood. A potential ambassadorial post could be on the cards for him.

Mondli Gungubele, the former deputy finance minister, was a notable exclusion from the Cabinet. Many insiders saying it was largely because of the unresolved matters being discussed in the inquiry into allegations for impropriety at the PIC.

Patricia de Lille’s entry into the Cabinet came as a shock, even to some who were familiar with the process. It is understood that the initial thinking was to include a member of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), a similar arrangement to the Cabinet under former president Thabo Mbeki. But FF+ leader Pieter Groenewald said he was not approached. This could also be attributed to a standing FF+ resolution, which it adopted in 2014, never to work with either the ANC or the EFF at any level.

The “De Lille factor” was widely welcomed by NEC members, who said it would help bolster the party’s image among coloured people, particularly in Gauteng. De Lille’s tough, no-nonsense approach on corruption, said another NEC source, would also be useful to Ramaphosa in the murky public works department.

It is understood that former public works minister Thulas Nxesi had been on the verge of acting against key officials in the department before his removal from the position by Zuma in his final Cabinet reshuffle in 2017.

The EFF publicly said that after Zuma’s departure last year, Ramaphosa had offered its leaders Cabinet posts. Although the EFF declined the offer, it is understood that the president was urged to consider Cassel Mathale, the former Limpopo premier who presided over the province during EFF leader Julius Malema’s tenure as ANC Youth League president, instead. “Mathale is seen as a proxy for the EFF there”, an insider said. Mathale was appointed deputy minister of police, again under a minister who is a key Ramaphosa ally, Bheki Cele.

The EFF on Wednesday described Ramaphosa’s Cabinet as a “declaration of war”, mainly because of the return of Pravin Gordhan as public enterprises minister .

Natasha Marrian

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