/ 15 May 2023

Top technocrats are dumping Ramaphosa

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South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo by MARCO LONGARI / AFP) (Photo by MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images)

President Cyril Ramaphosa could soon be out of key figures in his presidency after the exit of top lieutenants in his failing “kitchen” cabinet. 

The presidency has confirmed that another key Ramaphosa adviser, Trudi Makhaya, has left the Union Buildings. Makhaya opted not to renew her contract with the office of the president. 

This comes as Ramaphosa is said to be on the verge of losing an additional key figure in his office, according to insiders with close ties to the Union Buildings. 

His director general Phindile Baleni is said to be flirting with the idea of leaving. Insiders said Baleni is at loggerheads with Ramaphosa’s chief of staff Roshene Singh. 

The independent sources said Bejani Chauke, who now serves Ramaphosa on a voluntary basis, was working overtime to convince Baleni not to jump ship. 

“It has been a little bit bumpy between the two of them. A director general is key in the office and cannot be allowed to leave because it would signal that there are very serious issues,” one high-ranking official at the Union Buildings said. 

They said there was concern among those in the president’s office that Ramaphosa was losing too many important figures. 

“The office is getting empty of key people and they are not people you can say are leaving because they have greener pastures. They are key policy leaders. You don’t allow them to leave, you fix the situation.” 

Another insider confirmed there was tension between Baleni and Singh and a struggle for access to Ramaphosa. 

“That thing is becoming toxic. Whether she [Baleni] has taken a decision to leave, I’m not sure because a lot is being done to convince her. You have to understand that the president and the chief of staff come a long way, so it’s hard to assert yourself when you are in that position as the DG,” they said. 

Singh had assumed total control of Ramaphosa’s office, alienating Baleni, the source added.

Presidency spokesperson Vincent Magwenya dismissed the allegations as malicious rumours, saying Baleni had no intention of leaving. 

“The president has full confidence in Ms Baleni’s leadership. And there’s no strain whatsoever in the working relationship between Ms Baleni and Ms Singh.”

Ramaphosa’s appointment of Singh in 2018 raised eyebrows in the ruling ANC. Singh was married to Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan’s son and her selection was seen as a further sign that the minister was deepening his control in Ramaphosa’s office after the party’s Nasrec 2017 elective conference.

At the time of her appointment, the Sunday Times quoted Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema as suggesting it gave credence to his party’s claims that Gordhan had become more powerful under Ramaphosa’s presidency.

Baleni, who is married to one of Ramaphosa’s close associates, Frans Baleni, was appointed to her position in March 2021. She had previously been with former Gauteng premier David Makhura. She was a replacement for Cassius Lubisi, who had left the office six months prior, and she received death threats after the release of the Zondo commission’s state capture report.

Makhaya is said to be part of a growing list of Ramaphosa’s close associates who are disappointed by the slow pace at which he is implementing his economic policies. 

“It can be very frustrating when the key principal doesn’t enjoy respect or does not command what you are supposed to oversee,” one insider said. 

“Who do you go to when Gwede [Mantashe] refuses to speak to you on energy policy or Thoko Didiza doesn’t want to talk to you on land reform and agriculture? Who do you go to because, clearly, they don’t even listen to your boss as well. 

“I think it all stems from there and I suppose she is not the only person who is frustrated as she is.”

They said there was a push from the presidency for Makhaya to stay but she chose not to renew her contract, which ended on 30 April. 

Magwenya said the president was grateful for Makhaya’s contribution over the past five years. 

“Her steady counsel contributed to the evolution of economic policy-making since 2018 as the government steered the economy through the daunting economic headwinds while building the case for investment and growth.”

He added that Ramaphosa — who has been criticised for dragging his feet in filling key advisory posts in his office — was working on appointing a new economic adviser, “which should be finalised reasonably soon”.

Ramaphosa has lost four key advisers of late. Daniel Mminele, who played a vital role in securing climate finance for South Africa, stepped down as head of the presidential climate finance task team in February.  

He also lost Chauke, a political adviser said to have been the brains behind the  CR17 campaign. 

By appointing Kgosientsho Ramokgopa as electricity minister, Ramaphosa lost his infrastructure czar. He had been head of infrastructure in the presidency since 2019 and moving him has apparently left the team rudderless. 

Ramaphosa appointed Maropene Ramokgopa as his minister of monitoring and evaluation, leaving him without a foreign relations adviser. 

Magwenya told the M&G: “The president has discretion on the appointment of advisers, based on the disciplines that are relevant to the policy and reform programme. 

“Therefore, your question on filling vacancies and timelines is not applicable in this regard.”