Richard Calland: Cyril’s wicked cabinet conundrum

“My challenge is that I do not know how he may react — to the caller, to me or the president. Wild card.”

This was the response of an adviser to President Cyril Ramaphosa to a request to connect a major South African company, which found itself in the frontline of the wave of destruction that was rapidly engulfing its depots and stores in KwaZulu-Natal, with Police Minister Bheki Cele.

The fact that Cele is a “wild card” is hardly breaking news — and the man himself is such a maverick that he would probably regard it as a compliment — yet it is still a shocking indictment of the state of the cabinet.

At an extreme moment of vulnerability, for people and for the economic assets that provide livelihoods as well as tax revenue for a fiscally constrained state, the government was not only unable to meet its duty to protect but could not even offer a reliable counterpart for major economic stakeholders to deal with.

Any crisis is likely to shine a penetrating light on both the strengths and weaknesses of an organisation. So while some cabinet ministers stood up immediately and acted in a manner that befitted the urgency and gravity of the situation, others were mercilessly exposed.

It reflects not so much weakness on the president’s part or any perceived lack of authority, but his political predicament.

It is unthinkable that former president Thabo Mbeki would have appointed, let alone tolerated, a minister such as Cele. But then Mbeki did not inherit Ramaphosa’s “divided house”.

Whereas in 1997 and 2002, Mbeki was elected unopposed as ANC president, and with essentially a winner-takes-all victory for his slate in the elections for the top six positions in the ANC as well as the 80-member national executive committee (NEC), at Nasrec in 2017 Ramaphosa’s victory was narrow, and the top six and NEC divided 50/50 between the Ramaphosa reform faction and his opponents.

Power has a gravitational pull, however, and so a significant chunk of those elected to the NEC on the opposing ticket moved rapidly towards Ramaphosa — a fact that was reflected in the election of a Ramaphosa loyalist-dominated national working committee, which is pretty much the first major act of a new NEC. But many of those individuals are swing voters, as Ramaphosa very well knows. If they smell blood, or inflexion point in the president’s fortunes, they might look for the next gravy train to jump aboard.

This mixed inheritance was recognised at the time as a potentially poisoned chalice. And so it has proved to be, forcing the president to drive government with at least one eye on the rear-view mirror, checking that his fractious party is following him.

In the aftermath of the failed insurrection, Ramaphosa must decide whether to reshuffle his cabinet, at a time when the public has a legitimate expectation that heads will roll as a result of the failure to anticipate it or act fast enough in response. 

The threat is posed by an ideologically inchoate (they wouldn’t know a Marxist theory of revolution if it hit them in the face at 100km/h), but dangerously cornered group of disaffected radical economic transformation politicians, rogue intelligence operatives and their tenderpreneur and organised crime syndicate buddies.

Picking or reshuffling a cabinet is not easy at the best of times. And these are not the best of times. Even when an economy is flourishing and the governing party has a sturdy majority in parliament, there are important political balancing acts to perform.

For the uninitiated, especially those from corporate cultures where a chief executive can hire and fire almost at will, this is hard to comprehend. “Just get on with it, man! Show them who’s boss!”

As former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell points out in his brilliant memoir from his time in Number Ten, The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World, a prime minister “should exclude from their mind the notion that the appointment of a cabinet can be handled like a management exercise. It cannot. The appointment of a cabinet is politics, not human resources.”

Powell proceeds to warn about how in a parliamentary system of government, such as Britain’s or South Africa’s (where the president is a president primarily in name alone and in constitutional reality a first-among-equals prime minister in cabinet) the head of government depends on the continued support of the members of his party in parliament and, moreover, since “the manifestation of collective government … is the cabinet … the prime minister has to ensure that they are with him if he is to remain in office. It is the loss of their support that most commonly brings down a prime minister between elections, as Mrs Thatcher discovered to her discomfort in 1990”.

This is why calls for the president to go over the head of his party and try and govern “for the country” are misguided. 

Ramaphosa faces one of several dilemmas. He could go one of two ways in response to the self-evident shortcomings of several of his current cabinet. Ignore the public and keep them in place in the hope that they will be so relieved to retain their jobs that they will remain loyal forever — or at least until the end of 2022 and the ANC’s next five-yearly national elective conference, at which Ramaphosa hopes to secure a much-needed second term.

The alternative is to cull the cabinet in order to impose his power and authority, and to set a new standard in accountability, gambling thereby on enforcing fear and fidelity within the top echelons of both government and his party.

Reshuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic?

But even if he opts to take this bolder approach, it only takes him so far, because the next question is no less tricky: where does he find stronger new appointments?

A team is only as good as the squad from which is can be drawn. And the constitution limits the options for the president: all but two of the cabinet must be appointed from the ranks of the National Assembly. Since one of those spots is filled by the energetic and capable Ebrahim Patel at trade and industry, he only has one pick if he were to draw from the talent available in civil society or the corporate sector.

Again, the long shadow of Nasrec is cast. In 2019, Ramaphosa either lost control of the ANC’s parliamentary list process or opted not to expend limited political capital fighting then-secretary general Ace Magashule’s grip over the process — which meant that there was little churn and that an ultra-Zuma loyalist group of MPs was returned to parliament.

Nasrec also added to Ramaphosa’s “KZN problem”. Not only was Zuma’s hostility and that of his most ardent die-hard loyalist supporters going to be a thorn in Ramaphosa’s side, but for the first time in ANC history no senior KZN/isiZulu political leader was elected into the top six, adding to the sense of political exclusion and defeat.

Zweli Mkhize fits the bill, and was duly appointed to a senior cabinet position when Ramaphosa took office in 2018, and was then thrust into the Covid-19 limelight last year as minister of health. He is currently on special leave and probably on the brink of being sacked now that the Special Investigating Unit investigation into the Digital Vibes scandal is complete.

How likely is it that Ramaphosa would add to his KZN problem by sacking another senior KZN political figure, Cele, at the same time?

All of this presents Ramaphosa with a wicked problem, meaning that there is no one single perfect solution, only a series of clumsy, imperfect options from which to choose. Each one entails risks and precious little reward. Which explains, no doubt, why he has not yet acted.

Wicked or not, this is a political conundrum that Ramaphosa had better settle as smartly as possible, lest it derail his ride to re-election next year.

Three weeks ago, a smooth, uncontested canter to a second term looked like a good bet. 

But a political event as big as the insurgency flings the jigsaw pieces into the air.

When they come to rest, the picture may look less clear. As a result, Ramaphosa faces a potential inflexion point in his presidency and in his long political career. And so, therefore, does the country. 

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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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