South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa announced his new cabinet on Wednesday night (29 May 2019) – an hour later than promised and almost four days after his inauguration as the country’s fifth president at Loftus Versfeld rugby stadium the Saturday before.
The inauguration has been rightly lauded as a PR coup, reminiscent of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as South Africa’s first democratically elected president 25 years and 16 days before – but the unprecedented delays in announcing his cabinet, running very tight against the constitutional deadline, speak yet again of the untold low intensity civil war being fought at ANC party headquarters Luthuli House down the road in Johannesburg.
Ramaphosa had promised to cut the size of his cabinet from the bloated patronage-inspired excess of his predecessor. He did, from 36 to 28 ministers, but hedged his bets appointing more than one deputy minister to several key departments, leaving the country with a smaller cabinet than before but one that is still much bigger than international norms. He managed too to retain his own key ministers, ensuring continuity in reform in the key areas of finance, economic policy and public enterprises – the ravaged cash cow of state capture – while appeasing the warring factions in the party and rewarding the ANC’s tripartite alliance partners; the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) for their support with judicious appointments – if not as ministers, then at least as deputies.
His insistence both on retaining former reserve bank governor Tito Mboweni as finance minister and Pravin Gordhan – currently victim of an openly vicious and vexatious personal and political battle on several fronts both within and without the ANC – as public enterprise minister were rewarded by an immediate firming of the Rand in the international currency market.
Ramaphosa was able to radically increase gender representation in cabinet (now 50:50), another of his pre-selection expectations, as well as give more than a nod to cabinet’s generational composition, which at one stage seemed precariously poised to follow the continental trend of gerontification. His naming of the former youth leader and young lawyer, Ronald Lamola (37), to Head Justice has been widely seen as a key step in further strengthening the legal agencies who will be used to bring the culprits behind state capture to book – a list which includes his predecessor Jacob Zuma and the current secretary general of the ANC Ace Magashule, among others.
His cabinet is, in the end, yet another example of the realpolitik in 21st century South Africa that has come to characterise his 18-month administration; late-night horse trading, reflecting the still very tenuous grip he has on the party leadership and seen in the re-appointment of king-maker DD Mabuza as deputy president, who in an act of one-upmanship refused to be sworn in as an MP this week until he had managed to get the ANC’s much-criticised integrity committee to ostensibly clear him of allegations – allegations that are worse than state capture and include murder.
Ramaphosa though appears to have won the day. He has managed to dispense with the most egregious ministers – and those deeply implicated in state capture – while keeping to Sun Tzu’s ancient adage of keeping at least some of his enemies very close at hand. And, in a wonderful act of political showmanship, he managed to disrupt and defang the official opposition in its Western Cape heartland, by appointing an opposition MP, Patricia de Lille, as his minister of public works – a move which could have massive ramifications not just in redressing the spatial apartheid legacy of Cape Town, but also revitalising the ANC’s flagging electoral fortunes in the province.