/ 24 March 2021

A major cabinet reshuffle is on the cards

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After 750 days, the president has lifted restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic. (Photo: Baba Jiyane)

A major shake-up in the department of public enterprises has been mooted as President Cyril Ramaphosa mulls over slashing his bloated cabinet. Several sources close to the talks told the Mail & Guardian that Ramaphosa is gearing up to move some of the beleaguered state-owned enterprises from Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan’s portfolio. Among them is South African Airways (SAA), which is expected to move to Minister Fikile Mbalula’s transport portfolio.

The sources also told the M&G that the struggling power utility Eskom will be transferred to the department of energy under Minister Gwede Mantashe.

One source said there were talks of a possible cabinet reshuffle held just last week. 

Ramaphosa is still deciding whether he should bite the bullet and axe some of his struggling cabinet ministers. However, according to another source, the president may make an announcement soon. 

“There is that debate that we collapse public enterprises because the portfolios are two-fold. For instance, with Eskom, you find that Gwede is struggling to enforce action in minerals and energy.”

One source said: “Gwede has been vocal that he feels there is a stranglehold, because there are two portfolios which handle sections of our energy generation. Independent power producers (IPPs) are in his hands, and yet Eskom is with Pravin. This creates confusion, and considering the state of Eskom, we need to be more decisive when forging ahead with a rescue plan.” 

Mantashe has in the past told the media that having Eskom under Gordhan’s department only made it more difficult to manage the power utility. Analysts have called the infighting between Gordhan and Mantashe a “titanic clash” as the two powerful ANC ministers are Ramaphosa’s strongest allies.

Cosatu, which has never favoured Gordhan, has in the past also indicated that Eskom should be shifted towards the department of energy and minerals for a better synergy.

News of the possible collapse of Gordhan’s portfolio comes after Mantashe announced that the government had sourced eight IPPs to help boost Eskom’s waning energy supply.

Last week Mantashe said these IPPs would provide energy from wind, liquified energy gas and solar energy, with a boost from the private sector totalling R45-billion.

Recently Mantashe has been at the helm of unlocking strategies to help boost the power utility, with Gordhan seemingly taking a back seat.

“It’s simple, and it all has to do with the line of reporting at Eskom. As the regulator, when you don’t have the powers you are disregarded. It’s like you [are] just suggesting and proposing, and then public enterprises have the power to do something completely different. Load shedding is another challenging area. Gwede has nothing to do with it, yet people look at him. It makes more strategic sense to move Eskom,” one party insider said.

The high-ranking ANC and government insiders have also indicated that SAA, which is currently under business rescue, will be moved to the transport ministry.

SAA received a total bailout of R10.5-billion from the government last year, with some of that money paid out earlier this year.

The national carrier was placed under business rescue in December 2019 amid allegations of mismanagement, which left the airline unable to pay its debt. The business rescue practitioners have reportedly indicated to creditors that it could hand back the company by the end of this month.

“There has been a confusion of roles and responsibilities, and alignment of roles and responsibilities is needed. Out of the analysis that has been worked out, we will not end this month without a decision being made and communicated with the country. It’s almost as good as done; there are a few details that need to be ironed out. Most pressing is the replacement of the members of the executive who have died. A critical role like the one of the minister in the presidency needs to be filled,” one party leader said.

Former minister in the presidency Jackson Mthembu died in February this year after complications related to Covid-19. Ramaphosa also suffered a loss when deputy minister of mineral resources Bavelile Hlongwa died in a car accident last year. Both of these positions have not been filled, but in the meantime Ramaphosa appointed Minister of Small Business Development Khumbudzo Ntshavheni as Acting Minister in the Presidency.

There has also been speculation that Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille could be moved to a different portfolio.

In January, an insider said there was a debate among Ramaphosa’s advisers about replacing De Lille with a senior provincial leader, whose name is known to the M&G.

De Lille recently ruffled feathers in the ANC when she demanded that MPs repay rent for ministerial houses, the Sunday Times reported.

“She comes from the PAC generation, and she is a no-nonsense person. I don’t think she will be replaced, but she is no pushover, and she is strong enough to execute her job even if [her decisions are] not popular. If he removes her, she should be reshuffled to a position where she will have the most impact,” the party leader said.

Ramaphosa has been criticised for doing very little to trim his bloated cabinet, barring when he took office in 2019, when he cut his cabinet from former president Jacob Zuma’s 36 to 28.

He has indicated during media engagements that he is considering slimming his executive further.