/ 7 March 2023

Ramaphosa’s cabinet reshuffle: Few surprises amid missed opportunity and mediocrity

President Cyril Ramaphosa and Deputy President Paul Mashatile.

Making predictions ahead of a cabinet reshuffle is a fool’s errand. Invariably you only ever get it wrong, which is why I gave up doing so long ago, after one hubristic forecast too many. 

Sources “close to the president” are not much help either because, when it comes to this kind of high-level decision-making, only one soul knows — and that’s the president. 

Even heads of government with more self-assurance and courage than this increasingly insipid occupant of the Union Buildings are liable to change their minds at the last moment. 

There was a bit of that going on last night, too, even though after several weeks of dither and delay, and consultation, and further dither and delay, followed by further consultation, one might have been forgiven for thinking the chap might actually have made up his mind in good time for the announcement — which was then delayed twice as those last minute adjustments were made. 

I did break my own rule this time — or at least partially. In one radio interview in which I was asked to project the new cabinet, I said: “Prepare to be sorely underwhelmed.” 

I was on thick ice; there was little chance that President Cyril Ramaphosa was going to take any chances or make any big, dramatic moves. It’s not his style. 

And besides, he had little room to manoeuvre, given the constraints on his choices — although even in this respect he failed to make the most of the human resources available to him.

Remember: the Constitution requires the president to appoint all but two of his cabinet from among the members of the National Assembly. Ramaphosa boxed himself in on this front in the run-up to the 2019 election when he failed to grasp the longer-term importance of the ANC candidate list and was blind-sided by then ANC secretary general Ace Magashule, who protected the Zumarite “radical economic transformers” on the list. 

While most are too beholden to whoever is in power to dare vote against the ANC whip on, say, an impeachment vote (as in December, on the Phala Phala report), few, if any, have the integrity and the talent to serve in cabinet. 

The president can draw from opposition benches, but again that would require standing up to his own party’s presumptions about the benefits of power — not Ramaphosa’s forte — and it would reduce his options for patronage. Having one opposition MP in the cabinet — Good party leader, Patricia de Lille — is more than many ANC members can suffer. 

So what about the two “wildcard” (non-MP) options? This is where Ramaphosa did most of his shuffling of the pack. Enoch Godongwana (finance) and Ebrahim Patel (trade, industry and competition) were hurriedly sworn in as MPs in recent days, creating space for Kgosientsho Ramokgopa to be appointed into the Monty Pythonesque position of minister for silly walks — I mean, electricity — in the presidency. 

Ramokgopa is an experienced political operator, having served as executive mayor of Tshwane for six years, although his nickname, “Sputla”, sounds more James Bond than his steady-Eddie reputation really deserves. 

More recently, Ramokgopa has headed up the infrastructure office in the presidency, in some respects a training ground for the management assignment he has now been set. His job will be to herd cats across the government, to “focus” and speed up the state’s response to the electricity crisis. 

Why you need a full, new cabinet position to do this, is beyond me. Any president worth his salt would appoint a capable bureaucrat with expertise in the energy sector to advise him on what needs to be done, by whom and by when, across his government, and would then instruct those people to get on with it and to do what they’re jolly well told. 

But, again, that’s not Ramaphosa’s style or forte. It would require confrontations, plenty of them, and some of them rather awkward. Which takes courage. Oh, and leadership. 

Amid this modest re-arranging of the deckchairs on the Titanic, Ramaphosa managed to miss the obvious opportunities to bring real new talents into the cabinet, even though given how few and far between they are, they are impossible not to see. David Masondo, for example — young, intellectual, energetic, and one of the few ANC politicians around who still care about policy debate and ideas — remains a deputy minister, albeit at least in an important portfolio, finance. 

Or Parks Tau, for five years mayor of a major city (Johannesburg) and later MEC for economic development in a province (Gauteng) that would be the seventh biggest economy in Africa were it a country, who was sworn in as an MP on 6 February. He had every reason to think that the purpose was to enable him to join the cabinet, instead of which he was appointed as a deputy minister, albeit of an important and relatively stretched department (co-operative governance and traditional affairs). 

If intrigue is to be found amid the fog of missed opportunity and mediocrity, it is the new minister for public works and infrastructure. De Lille had set her heart on completing her clean-up of a department (public works) that was riddled with Zuma-era corruption, and to which had been added the important responsibility of coordinating infrastructure development across the government. 

There are vast sums of money at stake here, not least arising from the international climate finance investment in the just energy transition. All eyes should be on the new incumbent, Sihle Zikalala — the former premier of KwaZulu-Natal, who topped the ANC’s national executive committee(NEC) poll at the party’s conference in December — to see if he can sustain the nascent anti-corruption systems that De Lille has initiated. 

This was a last minute adjustment of the reshuffle plan that took the main protagonists by surprise, and is indicative of the need for a big nod to the ANC in  KwaZulu-Natal with national and provincial elections just more than a year away.  

There was one other curiosity. Dipuo Peters was appointed as a deputy minister. What is curious is that this is a politician whose career is apparently happening in reverse sequence. Premier of the Northern Cape for a full term from 2004 to 2009, she then served in both of Jacob Zuma’s cabinets, first as minister of energy and then as minister of transport, before resigning as an MP shortly before the state capture ocean-liner hit the icebergs of public protector Thuli Madonsela and judicial independence.  

Peters is not even in the new NEC. Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding. Perhaps Peters wants to relive her career in government again, only less blandly and cravenly. Or maybe she really is a freak of political gravity and travelling backwards in time, with her next stop being ANC branch secretary.   

Without a hint of irony, Ramaphosa cut and paste his 2018 commitment to reduce the size of the cabinet, with the announcement of yet another task force to advise him on what to do — merely, the 718th such process of his time as president (a slight exaggeration). 

In the end only the lazy and the deluded were fired from the cabinet. Three hapless souls. Not so much the night of the long-knives as the soiree of the soggy paper bags. 

As I said: only the uninitiated or the hopelessly optimistic would have been merely disappointed by last night’s long and needlessly delayed cabinet reshuffle. For the rest of us, it was predictably underwhelming.