/ 19 June 2024

Ramaphosa’s cabinet deliberations will not be quick or painless

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President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images)

There is little hope that the country will know by the week’s end who will sit in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new cabinet, given the inner tensions in the nascent coalition.

The president’s office said Ramaphosa, who is being sworn in for another term on Wednesday, did not want to waste time, but nor would he rush what is a complex exercise.

“The president is going to be consulting within the governing party and the alliance, as well as among the GNU [government of national unity] partners on the formulation of cabinet,” said his spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya. 

“Once the consultations are completed, he will announce. Indeed, he doesn’t want the consultation process to delay the appointment and announcement of the cabinet. However, he fully appreciates the complexity of the exercise he has to manage.”

Consultations with the ANC’s alliance partners are already under way and more fraught than usual, given the stated aversion of the South African Communist Party (SACP) to entering into a pact with the Democratic Alliance (DA).

It is a given that Ramaphosa will accommodate the SACP in his executive, and he has a few options in this regard, notably deputy finance minister David Masondo.

Labour federation Cosatu, the other third of the tripartite alliance, said on Tuesday it was important that the composition of the cabinet delivered on the promise in the statement of intent inked by future coalition partners to respect not only the Constitution and the rule of law but “worker’s rights and the transformation agenda”. 

“There are portfolios of great importance to workers that Cosatu always raises with the president to ensure the government is biased towards the needs of working class communities,” said Matthew Parks, Cosatu’s parliamentary organiser and acting spokesperson.

“Economic cluster portfolios are always important for workers. Very important.” 

But it remains to be seen however whether all portfolios in this cluster will in the end go to the ANC. 

While the party has made it clear to its new coalition partners that all positions in the security cluster are reserved for the ANC, there have been suggestions that the DA may be offered the deputy finance ministry, and possibly trade and industry.

It is understood that basic education is on the table but that the DA is lukewarm on taking up this portfolio.

Apart from the resistance from alliance partners, there is a grouping within Ramaphosa’s camp that favoured a coalition with the DA, rather than the alternative route of aligning with the Economic Freedom Fighters, but argued against taking the party into cabinet.  

Instead, they proposed an agreement whereby the ANC would control the executive and the DA be given key positions in parliament. The argument was that this would allow each to preserve its distinct identity and ideology. 

But the parties’ chief negotiators decided differently and, by this week, the concerns about party identity had more openly turned to personal interest in securing positions, of which there will now be fewer for ANC members. Ramaphosa, always a stickler for experience and continuity, is also under pressure from his core supporters in the party to appoint younger ministers.

How the cake will be cut was one of what Helen Zille, the chairperson of the DA’s federal executive, on Friday termed “important sticking points” in agreeing the broad terms for forming a coalition.

Zille and ANC secretary general Fikile Mbalula signed this pact more than an hour after the start of the first sitting of the National Assembly on Friday, meaning the parties could then proceed to elect consensus candidates for the positions of speaker and deputy speaker. 

Clause 16 of the document states that the government “shall be constituted in a manner that reflects genuine inclusiveness of political parties” included in the pact and represented in parliament, “broadly taking into account the number of seats parties have in the National Assembly and the need to advance the national interest”. 

It continues: “The president shall in constituting the executive, take into account the electoral outcomes.”

Zille has confirmed that in the hours leading up to the assembly sitting the ANC had tried to strike out words in clause 16. 

The result would have been to remove the requirement that the allocation of cabinet seats broadly reflect the division of seats in the assembly and leave the president room to put his imperatives in the ANC front and centre when he decides who to name.

But the DA prevailed and the wording was restored.

A senior DA negotiator said on Tuesday the DA would not be satisfied with just a few cabinet seats. 

The party, which holds 87 seats in the assembly, would not put a precise number on its cabinet expectations, saying this depended on the eventual size of the executive, although it planned to keep the president to the terms of Friday’s agreement.

“In the parties that founded the GNU, we have about 30%. We work from there.”

The question is who in the DA’s caucus and shadow cabinet is suitable, and amenable. One of the party’s most senior MPs has ruled out accepting a cabinet position. DA leader John Steenhuisen is considered a certain choice and so is the party’s chief whip Siviwe Gwarube, given she was not fielded as deputy speaker. That post went to Annelie Lotriet. As for Steenhuisen, it is now openly said that Ramaphosa may name him as minister in the presidency.

Ramaphosa’s calculations will also depend on the number of new alliance partners he ultimately has to accommodate. 

By Tuesday evening there were five. The Inkatha Freedom Party signed the statement of intent on Friday evening, and Gayton Mckenzie’s Patriotic Alliance and Patricia de Lille’s Good party have followed suit. The last to sign up was the Pan Africanist Congress.

The ANC is officially holding out hope of persuading others, but has not continued courting Rise Mzansi, which now holds two seats in the National Assembly but has resisted overtures to join a coalition it doubts will survive the 2026 local government elections.

Mckenzie has been clear that he wants to be in the cabinet, not the backbenches. Good has made no demands, and accepts that its poor showing in last month’s elections — it now holds just one seat in the National Assembly compared to the PA’s nine — meant it did not automatically qualify for a seat in the cabinet.

Good secretary general Brett Heron said the party agreed to be part of the coalition because “the basic minimum programme of priorities” in the statement of intent aligned with its fundamental policies.

It was important that it included a commitment to tackling poverty and spatial inequality, he said.

“We entered into this on the basis of principles, not in search for positions,” he said, adding that De Lille, a two-time minister, was prepared to serve in the executive if called upon but did not see being asked as a given.

In terms of the law, there is no deadline for Ramaphosa to name his cabinet.

The Constitution, which in section 87 allows a window of no more than five days between the president’s election by the National Assembly and his inauguration, is silent on the length of time for which he can consult and deliberate before appointing new ministers.

In the interim, government departments continue functioning under the leadership of their directors general. But ministers cease to be ministers the moment Ramaphosa takes the oath.

Parliament has issued a draft programme for its first term, according to which portfolio committee chairs will be elected on 5 July. But whereas in the past almost all these positions would go to ANC members — the watchdog Standing Committee on Public Accounts being a notable exception — it is understood that they are now part of the coalition negotiations.

Should a coalition government not be announced before then, this item on the legislature’s agenda can be postponed.

In the meanwhile, Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe party, which boycotted Friday’s sitting of the assembly, at the weekend indicated that its 58 MPs would belatedly present themselves to the legislature for swearing in, even though the party has mounted a legal challenge to the elections results.

But there has been no word to parliament yet as to when they wanted to take the oath. The party said it would boycott the president’s swearing in at the Union Buildings on Wednesday.