/ 9 March 2023

Reshuffle: Ramaphosa forced to play a game of thrones

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Truth to power: The M&G’s columnist has strong words for Police Minister Bheki Cele who he says is visible but ineffective. Photo: Morapedi Mashashe/Gallo Images & Darren Stewart/Gallo Image

Those who call for cabinet reshuffles are often left the most disappointed. This is because presidents have different considerations to the rest of the public when composing or changing cabinets. Cyril Ramaphosa is no different. 

Although necessitated by vacancies, this reshuffle was about more than replacements. Preceding events betrayed an emerging power struggle. Just as Ramaphosa finally established a firm grip on the ANC, time may work against him. 

The communication of the impending reshuffle, for starters, was handled poorly. Fikile Mbalula, within days of his election as secretary general last December, raised expectations that a cabinet reshuffle would follow soon. That was not realistic. 

Much had to happen before Ramaphosa made the announcement. Fresh from re-election at the party’s 55th national conference, he had to take stock of the new balance of power in the top seven and in the party’s national executive committee. 

Next was the party’s birthday celebration on 8 January, where the ANC traditionally issues a message about its intentions for the year. The State of the Nation address the following month was made even more important this year by the electricity crisis. 

Ramaphosa was eager to communicate his plans to an increasingly unhappy citizenry. Both messages, to the party and nation, get maximum media attention. Announcing the reshuffle before the state of the nation address would have been an unnecessary distraction.

Of course, the public had no such considerations. They were impatient, fuelled by hope that new faces would improve a dire situation. The frequency of load-shedding last year had more than doubled from what it was in 2021, municipalities are deteriorating, and recent statistics indicate that crime is on the rise. 

The reshuffle doesn’t offer much guarantee that these three problems will be solved by the end of the year. 

Parks Tau is a much better fit for local government and traditional affairs than Thembisile Simelane-Nkadimeng. Tau rates higher on merit, especially in local government. He will be one of two deputies instead. It’s a recipe for tension. Some ministers are insecure, especially when they’re not deserving, and others don’t deputise easily for individuals they consider junior. Tau may be wasted in that ministry.  

Similarly, Bheki Cele’s retention as minister of police has little to do with merit. Cele is the most visible of all ministers. (Sihle Zikalala used to be the most televised premier, but Cele now holds the title for most TV appearances.) He seems to be present at every crime scene. But crime keeps on rising and criminals are even more daring. Visibility is a nice gesture. The bereaved appreciate it. But crime is solved by good old detective work, guided by good intelligence. One finds it impossible to believe that police stations, with all the money crime intelligence receives, cannot set up intelligence networks throughout townships. Surely, the swathe of the unemployed youth would appreciate the regular stipend in exchange for information that keeps their neighbourhoods safe. 

A rise in unresolved crimes is a clear indication of incompetent and dirty cops. Is there a plan to change things around? The last time one heard of action taken against dirty cops was when Robert McBride was director of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, where he got universal applause for his work, even from those who haven’t forgiven him for his previous insurgent activities. 

But Cele didn’t want his contract renewed and convinced ANC MPs not to. Today we still wait to hear if the cops that bought the grabber, for millions of rand, in order to eavesdrop into the conversations of delegates at the ANC’s 2017 conference will be held accountable. This is one of the cases McBride was pursuing. Now it has gone quiet.   

Cele’s is not a merit appointment. It’s a reward for loyalty. He’s gone to battle for Ramaphosa in his own hostile territory of KwaZulu-Natal. Ramaphosa needs Cele to shore up his power base in the party. 

Nor is there a competency argument in favour of retaining Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. She used to be a star performer, but the local government found her tired, without passion. Instead of removing her, Ramaphosa decided to send her to the Siberia of the government, the ministry for women, youth and disabled people. This where individuals are sent to be forgotten. One was reminded that Maite Nkoana-Mashabane was still in cabinet only when Ramaphosa mentioned that he was firing her. 

Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s deployment to the ministry of women, youth and people with disabilities a political Siberia. Photo: Morapedi Mashashe/Gallo Images & Darren Stewart/Gallo Images

There’s no reason to believe that Dlamini Zuma will do any better in that ministry. She’s probably resentful, and already disinterested.

Ramaphosa probably keeps her around to dispel the notion he’s purging rivals. He doesn’t want to make KwaZulu-Natal, Dlamini Zuma’s home province, any more resentful against him. 

He’s unlikely to have any backlash in the case of Lindiwe Sisulu and Phumulo Masualle. Neither has any constituency of note, so he found it easy to fire them. 

A cabinet reshuffle is about self-preservation, even if it means doing the absurd. The appointment of the minister of electricity is one example of absurdity in pursuit of self-preservation, adding to fragmentation in handling electricity generation. 

The new minister, Sputla Ramokgopa, is the third responsible for energy. The other two, Gwede Mantashe and Pravin Gordhan, disagree on the route to energy security. Mantashe is not keen on commercialising Eskom and is still fond of coal. Gordhan doesn’t see the sense in keeping the utility in its current form when it’s clearly not coping and requires massive cash injections. 

Ramaphosa doesn’t want to side with either. Both men have been an asset to him, Mantashe in the ANC and Gordhan in the financial market and business. Ramaphosa can’t force them to agree and they’re too strong-headed to work together. Ramokgopa’s job is to try and get Mantashe and Gordhan together. 

An astute and eloquent man, Ramokgopa will be the coordinator of what has effectively become a cluster on energy. To be effective, he will first need to earn the respect of the two ministers, and they’ll need some convincing why they should take guidance from someone junior, who didn’t contribute towards Ramaphosa’s rise and defence.  

Ego is a primary driver of how politicians behave. This explains why David Mabuza has gone home to Mpumalanga instead of seeing through his term as deputy president. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t have completed it. He wouldn’t have been the first to serve as deputy president without holding the equivalent position in the ANC.

Kgalema Motlanthe served as Jacob Zuma’s deputy from 2012 to 2014, even though he was no longer an office bearer at Luthuli House. Motlanthe had lost against Zuma at the Mangaung conference, and Ramaphosa was elected into his old position uncontested. Motlanthe completed his term as deputy and Ramaphosa was appointed deputy after the 2014 election.

Zuma didn’t tell Motlanthe to leave, nor did Ramaphosa show impatience for Motlanthe’s position. 

Paul Mashatile, the new deputy president of the party, seemed impatient to see Mabuza gone. He was not included in the preparations for the ANC’s birthday celebrations. Mabuza not only resigned, but announced it himself, instead of allowing Ramaphosa the courtesy to do so, which would have enabled him to buy time. Mabuza was gatvol.

Ramaphosa didn’t want Mabuza to resign. He wasn’t appointed into the cabinet immediately after his own election as deputy in 2012, so he didn’t see why Mashatile should be. ANC chief whip Pam Majodina even said Mashatile’s swearing-in as an MP was no guarantee that he would be appointed deputy in cabinet.

That was a clear indication of discomfort, from the presidency, with Mashatile’s immediate appointment. Mashatile’s obvious impatience for the presidency unsettles Ramaphosa. Even more unsettling is Mashatile’s courage and cunning to strike deals with anybody. Mashatile has no care for principles or impressions. 

In 2017, when everybody else in Ramaphosa’s camp was shunning Mabuza because of his notoriety as premier of Mpumalanga, Mashatile won him away from the Dlamini Zuma camp, impressing upon him that a Dlamini Zuma victory was a guaranteed loss for the ANC in the 2019 elections. With the ANC out of power, the police may start snooping around, looking at what Mabuza had been up to as premier. 

Since 2017, Mashatile not only stood against his former ally, but also turned against him. If Mashatile can turn against his former ally, what can possibly stop him from challenging Ramaphosa? Ramaphosa re-election doesn’t come with stability. 

Nor can Ramaphosa’s allies be trusted to stick with him. In the second term of the presidency, allies have a tendency of getting closer to the possible successor in order to secure their future. This cabinet reshuffle was not about improving the efficiency of government. It was simply a “game of thrones”.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.