Zuma: Governing through chaos - IRR

Gareth van Onselen examines the churn in DGs and ministers from 2009 to 2017


An analysis of the turnover rates for directors-general and ministers in Jacob Zuma’s national administration, May 2009 – July 2017

Gareth van Onselen


The purpose of this analysis is to demonstrate the extent to which turnover among national ministers and directors-general has negatively impacted on continuity and stability in the national administration under President Jacob Zuma for the period May 2009 through July 2017.

In any national government department leadership resides in two parallel authorities: the national minister (the political head of any given ministry, responsible for policy direction, oversight and communication); and the director-general (the administrative head of a department, responsible for the implementation of a policy programme, procurement, the performance of staff and the financial management of that department, as prescribed by the Public Finance Management Act). Each of these roles must work closely with the other in order to deliver on a mandate.

Together, in any given department, these two people sit at the apex of the administration and delivery rests primarily upon their shoulders. Although supplemented by a range of other key positions, ultimate responsibility for that department’s performance lies with them, individually and collectively.

Ideally, then, the greater the competence of each individual, the closer the two are aligned in terms of policy. And the longer they are together, the more effective they will be at delivering; for continuity tends to bring with it clarity, certainty and efficiency.

If, however, an administration is subject to constant change and upheaval, either politically or administratively, it will inevitably have a detrimental effect on delivery; for disproportional disruption tends to bring with it confusion, uncertainty and conflict. They are the enemies of delivery.

President Zuma is directly and personally responsible for the selection of ministers. Directors-general are appointed by the cabinet but, as head of cabinet, the President’s prerogative is defining. Thus, the composition of both the political and administrative leadership of the national administration is ultimately his to design and manage. It is he who must weigh up the merits or demerits of any particular individual, and the nature of the potential relationship between those who might occupy these two positions and exercise his judgment in determining what works best, for the sake of service delivery. Continuity is at his discretion to maintain or disrupt.

As of the end of July 2017, President Jacob Zuma has been in charge of the national government administration for exactly 100 months.

Much has been made publicly of the many and various changes he has made to his national executive and the cabinet in particular. The fact that these sorts of adjustments are, by their nature, more politically intriguing, means they enjoy far more attention than those changes wrought to the parallel administrative structure that complements them.

In part, this is no doubt due to the fact that changes to the position of director-general are done piecemeal, as opposed to the vast and very high profile all-in-one decision-making process to define any cabinet reshuffle. Nevertheless, there exists far less analysis of the extent to which directors-general have been changed under President Zuma and none of the impact these changes have had on the relationships between ministers and directors-general; and in turn, on continuity in the national government.

Structure & Methodology

This analysis comprises four core sections. The first sets out the extent of those changes made to ministers in the national cabinet. The second, the extent of those changes made to directors-general of national government departments; and the third, the combined effect of these changes on the relationship between the two.

Essentially, this analysis seeks to determine how long, on average a national minister and director-general work together.

These first three sections are primarily quantitative in nature. The final section, the conclusion, aims to draw from them some brief insight into the cause and implications of the findings.

There are a few methodological considerations to take into account.

Identifying changes to the national cabinet is a straightforward exercise. They are publicly announced and well documented. The first section stands alone in this regard.

Identifying changes to the position of director-general is a more complex affair. There are two primary obstacles.

First, while permanent directors-general are announced in cabinet statements, thus well documented, should a director-general resign, be suspended or fired, the position does not stand vacant. An acting director-general, usually a senior bureaucrat in the relevant department, is immediately appointed in their stead, such is the importance of the position, and the law on the matter. These are far harder to track. They are rarely publicly announced and, if an acting director-general gives way to a second acting director-general for whatever reason, this is exceedingly difficult to identify, even more so going back in time. Thus, on the odd occasion, the designation “unknown” in the appendices stands for whoever held the position in an acting capacity at that time. There are, however, only a handful of such instances.

Second, not every ministry corresponds directly to a national department. There are more departments than ministries. The minister of defence and military veterans, for example, is the political head of two departments – Defence and Military veterans – each with their respective administrative head. As far as possible, this analysis attempts only to track those departments that mirror their ministerial counterparts. A few more obscure national departments – the Civilian Secretariat of Police, for example – are not included.

One final methodological point with regards directors-general is worth mentioning. The basic unit of analysis used is a month. Thus, if a director-general or minister was appointed at any point in a month, that whole month is coded as part of their term in office. The final numbers therefore, although never out by any significant amount, will never be absolutely correct to the day.

Following on from all of this, with regard to the third section and an attempt to quantify the extent of the relationship between directors-general and ministers, there were likewise a few limitations. Among these, the fact that some departments have been disbanded, others created, some moved to new ministries and a few reconstituted. Only those departments that have existed for the full one hundred months and for which a direct relationship between director-general and minister can be drawn were used for this section.

By way of conclusion, accompanying this analysis are a number of base documents, relevant to each section. The main findings and conclusions drawn from them are presented here. They are attached primarily to serve as reference points for the reader, should they wish to investigate any particular aspect of the analysis in more detail.

1. The Cabinet [See Appendix A]


- There are currently 35 ministries.

- The cabinet (president, deputy president and ministers) has 37 people.

- The current national executive (the cabinet and deputy ministers), last restructured on March 30 2017, stands at 74 people. It includes the president, the deputy president, 35 ministers and 37 deputy ministers.

- By comparison, Zuma’s first national executive, in 2009, consisted of 64 people — the president, deputy president, 33 ministers and 29 deputy ministers.

Key findings

- In total, since 10 May 2009, Zuma has made 126 changes to the national executive: 62 changes to ministerial positions, 63 changes to deputy ministerial positions and one change to the deputy presidency. Although not directly relevant to the final analysis, deputies are included here as they speak to the nature and extent of the changes made.

- President Jacob Zuma is currently overseeing his 11th different cabinet and national executive.

The number of changes for each reshuffle is as follows:

– Second Executive: 26 changes

– Third Executive: 9 changes

– Fourth Executive: 8 changes

– Fifth Executive: 2 changes

– Sixth Executive: 9 changes

– Seventh Executive: 47 changes

– Eighth Executive: 2 changes

– Ninth Executive: 1 change

– Tenth Executive: 2 changes

– Eleventh Executive: 20 changes

- The period each of the 10 cabinets lasted before being reshuffled is as follows:

– 13 months

– 12 months

– 8 months

– 5 months

– 10 months

– 11 months

– 18 months

– 2 months

– 5 days

– 16 months

- Thus, the average length of a cabinet under Zuma, before it is reshuffled, is just under 8.6 months, not including the current cabinet, which has now been in place for four months.

- The longest a cabinet has remained unchanged was the seventh, just after the 2014 elections, which lasted 18 months. The shortest was just five days, when the decision to remove Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene caused massive volatility and damage to local markets.

- Of Zuma’s first national executive, only 11 people have retained the position they occupied in 2009, including the president, without any change over that period.

- Seven of those 11 are ministers. They are Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande, International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Rural Development and Land Reform Minister Gugile Nkwinti, and Trade and industry Minister Rob Davies.

- Using the original total of 33 ministers in the national executive, that is a retention rate of 21% for ministers. If one uses the current number of ministers (35), the retention rate drops to 20%.

- By comparison, 11 of the 28 ministers former president Thabo Mbeki appointed at the beginning of his first administration were in the same position at the end of his second administration. That is a retention rate for ministers of just under 40%.

- Those 11 do not include Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, who is in the same position today she occupied in 2009, but who was reshuffled in the interim.

- Of the 64 people in Zuma’s original national executive, 53 (or 83%) have been reshuffled.

- Of those 53 people reshuffled, 39 (or 74%) are no longer part of the current national executive. Thirteen people who were part of the original national executive currently still serve on it, only in different positions.

- Only one department, Basic Education, has retained the same minister and deputy minister since 2009.

- Two departments, Public Service and Administration, and Communications, have each had six different ministers since 2009.

- The Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs has been home to five different ministers.

- During Zuma’s first five-year term, up to but not including his new national executive after the 2014 elections, he oversaw six different executives and made 54 changes. Since 2014, he has made an additional 72 changes but the vast majority of those (47) were in establishing an executive for his second term, after the 2014 elections.

2. Directors-General [See Appendix B]


- 38 national departments were analysed, generally over a 100-month period (although two were only constituted in 2014).

- Those 38 are: The Presidency; Agriculture; Arts and Culture; Basic Education; Communications (reconstituted in May 2014); Cooperative Government; Traditional Affairs; Correctional Services; Justice; Defence; Military Veterans; Economic Development; Energy; Environment; Finance; Health; Higher Education Training; Home Affairs; Human Settlements; International Relations; Labour; Mineral Resources; Police; Public Enterprises; Public Service and Administration; Public Works; Rural Development and Land Reform; Science and Technology; Small Business Development; Social Development; Sport and Recreation; State Security; Telecommunications and Postal Service; Tourism; Trade and Industry; Transport; Water and Sanition; Women.

Key findings

- 172 people have held the position of director-general in these 38 departments, either in a permanent or acting capacity, since 10 May 2009. (There is some small overlap in a handful of instances, where an acting director-general was subsequently appointed permanently. Nevertheless, it is fair to argue that this is not certain at the time of their appointment, and thus they are recorded as separate entries).

- That represents an average of 4.5 directors-general per department or an average of 22 months per director-general, before a change occurs.

- In turn, it means a total of 134 changes have been made between the 38 departments.

- 81 of those 172 positions were held in an acting capacity. Therefore, 91 were permanent appointments.

- Of the approximately 3,680 months of governance (two departments were only established 60 months into Zuma’s tenure) across all 38 departments, roughly 741 months (20%) have been occupied by directors-general serving in an acting capacity.

- That is an average of 20 months per department occupied by directors-general serving in an acting capacity.

- Those departments with the more directors-general in any capacity than the average (4.6) are:

– Communications (10)

– Agriculture; Basic Education; Cooperative Governance; Water and Sanitation (8)

– Public Service and Administration; Social Development (7)

– Correctional Services; Labour; Police; Public Works; Women (6)

– Arts and Culture; Defence; Economic Development; Human Settlements; International Relations and Cooperation; Public Enterprises; Rural Development and Land Reform; Transport (5)

- Four departments – Home Affairs, Environmental Affairs, Traditional Affairs, and Science and Technology – have only had one director-general since 10 May 2009.

- Those departments with significantly more time occupied by directors-general in an acting capacity than the average (20 months) are:

– 56 months: Water and Sanitation

– 55 months: Communications

– 44 months: International Relations

– 40 months: Arts and Culture

– 36 months: Public Works

– 33 months: Social Development; Cooperative Governance

- Six departments have not had an acting director-general since May 2009 – Home Affairs, Environmental Affairs, Traditional Affairs, Science and Technology, Justice and Constitutional Development, and the Presidency.

3. The Relationship between Ministers and Directors-General [See Appendix C]


- 32 corresponding national departments and ministries were analysed, over a 100-month period.

- Those 32 are: The Presidency; Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; Arts and Culture; Basic Education; Communications; Cooperative Governance; Correctional Services/Justice; Defence; Economic Development; Energy; Finance; Health; Higher Education and Training; Home Affairs; Human Settlements; International Relations and Cooperation; Labour; Mineral Resources; Police; Public Enterprises; Public Service and Administration; Public Works; Rural Development and Land Reform; Science and Technology; Social Development; Sport and Recreation; State Security; Tourism; Trade and Industry; Transport; Water and Sanitation; Women.

3.1. Case Study: The Department and Ministry of Communications

- The Ministry of Communications (six different ministers since May 2009) and the Department of Communications (ten directors-general since May 2009) have been particularly affected by changes to their political and administrative leadership. They thus serve as a good illustration of how those changes play out when amalgamated.

- By way of context, the department was reconstituted in 2014, and so some of its functions moved elsewhere while others were expanded. Nevertheless, in terms of leadership, it is fair to treat it as a consolidated entity.

- Over a period of 100-months, it has to date been host to 14 different relationships between the respective minister and director-general (acting or permanent).

- Of these 14, two have lasted longer than one year (14 months and 21 months), 12 have lasted less than 12 months and nine only six months or less.

- The average amount of time a minister and director-general stay together in the department/ministry is seven months.

3.2. The Big Picture

- Between all 32 national departments and ministries, there were 215 different relationships between ministers and directors-general.

- That is an average of 6.7 relationships per department/ministry over a 100-month period.

- The average period of any given relationship is 14 months.

- Of the 215 different relationships:

– 19 lasted 37 months or more (8.8%)

– 17 lasted between 36 and 25 months (7.9%)

– 51 lasted between 24 and 13 months (23.7%)

– 127 lasted 12 months or less (59.1%)

– 79 lasted six months or less (36.7%)

– 35 lasted three months or less (16.3%)

- 89 of the 215 relationships (41.4%) involved a minister and acting director-general.

- All told, these relationships lasted a total of 696 months or 22% of the total time governing.

- The departments/ministries with significantly more relationships than the average (6.7) were:

– Communications (14)

– Public Service and Administration; Cooperative Governance (12)

– Water and Sanitation; Public Works; Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (9)

– Transport; Social Development; Police; Correctional Services/Justice; Basic Education (8)

- The Presidency has had two relationships. The departments/ministries of Science and Technology and Health have each had three.

- The ten departments/ministries with the longest relationships (all with permanent director-generals) are:

4. Conclusion

Organised Chaos

Here is the take away from all this: Under President Zuma the average national department will be subject to a cabinet reshuffle every nine months, a new director-general every 22 months and, as a result, the time any given minister and director-general will work together will be no more than 14 months. It will experience seven such relationships over an eight year period and 47% of them will involve an acting director-general.

It is not supposed to work like that. Any national government wins a five year term. Likewise, any director- general can be awarded a contract of no more than five years. Ideally, the two are supposed to mirror each other. And for good reason. Together they constitute the political hand and administrative glove designed to guide and deliver services to the public. In reality, however, they rarely seem to fit before one or the other is wrenched away.

On a grand scale the numbers are astounding. The majority of relationships between ministers and directors- general, around 60%, will last 12 months or less and more than 40% of all of them will involve an acting director- general.

This is not how you manage a national government, it is how to sew chaos, uncertainty and disorder and, it would seem, Jacob Zuma has perfected that particular art.

There are caveats to all of this. Many changes are born of necessity, both politically and administratively. In turn, a small number of acting directors-general go on to be permanently appointed. But, for the most part, the picture painted by the numbers is one of mass instability, poor planning, constant conflict and perpetual turmoil.

The total failure of national governance is now a permanent feature of almost all public commentary. From the inability of the Department of Social Development to efficiently and timeously ensure its most basic deliverable, welfare grants, to the state of public enterprises which, like their national department counterparts, are defined by a slew of acting CEOs.

There are many contributing factors to all of this: a dearth of skills, the lack of a clear policy programme of action, poor leadership and internal politics, supplemented by rampant corruption and maladministration all play their part. But underpinning it all, if you are able to look past the symptoms of mismanagement, there lies a problem as simple as it is profound: The president is incapable of allowing anyone to actually govern for any meaningful period of time.

Fourteen months is just enough time to agree, if you are lucky, to an annual budget. 37% of relationships between a minister and their director-general don’t even allow for that and last a mere six months or less. Each principle depends fundamentally on their counterpart, change one or the other and either your political focus shifts or your ability to implement a programme is compromised. National government is based on five year cycles. The long term consequence of this permanent short term instability can be profound.

With regard to directors-general the inclination, on looking at the numbers, is to apply to them the same analysis generally used to explain Zuma’s relationship with his executive – that changes are wrought for politically expedient reasons. There is much evidence, however, to suggest that much of it is brought about by nothing more than poor selection.

Consider the following. Below is a small sample of some of those directors-general whose term came to an end for reasons other than the expiration of a contract. The explanation next to each might not be the final outcome in each case but they were the reasons cited in the press at the time:

- Njabulo Nduli (Agriculture): Placed on special leave. Paid out. Golden Handshake. R1.1-million.

- Langa Zita (Agriculture): Suspended. Later, paid out. Golden handshake. R1.6-million.

- Mzamo Michael Mlengana (Agriculture): Suspended over "governance related issues".

- Sibusiso Samuel Xaba (Arts and Culture): Suspended. Paid out. Golden handshake.

- Parmosivea Bobby Soobrayan (Basic Education): Placed on Special Leave. Later redeployed after being cleared.

- Mamodupi Mohlala (Communications): "Released" for contract after trust broke down with minister "irrevocably".

- Maboko Rosey Sekese (Communications): Placed on Special Leave after providing misleading evidence to committee.

- Lindiwe Msengana-Ndlela (Cooperative Governance): A bitter falling out with Minister Sicelo Shiceka.

- Xoliswa Sibeko (Correctional Services): Precautionary suspension in relation to allegations of misconduct. Cleared but later fired.

- Tom Moyane (Correctional Services): Artificially "retired" despite contract running to 2015.

- Mpumi Mpofu (Defence): Resigned abruptly without reason.

- Jerry Matthews Matjila (International Relations): Placed on special leave following allegations of irregular expenditure of over R500-million in taxes.

- Bheki Cele (Police): Fired.

- Riah Phiyega (Police): Suspended.

- Siviwe Dongwana (Public Works): Suspended for insubordination.

- Thozi Gwanya (Rural Development): Resigned after report by auditor general.

- Mduduzi Shabane (Rural Development): Suspended after an audit report into departmental finances.

- Gladys Sonto Kudjoe (State Security): Terminated by mutual agreement.

- Pam Yako (Water and Sanitation): Suspended, guilty of irregularly extending contract.

- Maxwell Sirenya (Water and Sanitation): Suspended, labour dispute.

There are many other extraneous explanations besides. Often, although typically denied by the relevant minister, it is reported that there was a breakdown in the relationship between the two. The culpability of each person in each case above may or may not be proven later. In a great many cases it is. But either way, the person does not return.

It would be a mistake to rule out politics. No doubt it plays a role in many of these cases, as the national administration plays out whatever factional agenda underpins its every move. But regardless, they speak to gross incompetence first and foremost. And they are remarkable too, for the mere fact that this sort of maladministration is identified in the first place.

Ministers have no such qualms. When Dina Pule went about further destroying the credibility of the Department of Communications, forcing even Zuma to dismiss her from her position as minister, he offered no explanation, as is his wont. Just a list, read out and then enacted. Directors-general, by comparison, almost always have an explanation attached to their departure.

Zuma’s personal politics are very real. Within his executive he has systematically ensured those ministries hard wired to control procurement – public enterprises, public works, the treasury – have been brought in line with his agenda. Likewise the security forces have long since been carefully manned by the president with those loyal to him above all else.

The Treasury comes with a special power in this regard. The Public Finance Management Act prescribes to it the power to appoint a director-general (accounting officer) under certain, particular conditions. It cites only “exceptional circumstances” as the reason. But that applies to so many departments these days and, in an age of administrative chaos, all the more reason to control the treasury.

Politically, within his executive, constant change and the uncertainty it engenders works to his advantage. If no one is secure in their position then not only are they likely to be deferential, but the broader pool – the ANC parliamentary caucus – will be all the more loyal in turn; for their potential turn at the top is always just one reshuffle away.

But outside of these key political levers of power, you can be just as sure rank incompetence plays a large part in many of the decisions Zuma makes. Certainly if directors-general are anything to go by, and these people are supposed to be the best and brightest the public service has to offer. This analysis lifts the veil, so to speak, on an administration that is as compromised ethically as it is with regard to expertise.

The consequence of the two, working together to undermine direction, purpose and accountability, is devastating: an administration ostensibly set to a five year cycle but, in reality, no more than a game of perpetual musical chairs. And the music stops every 14 months.

South African political analysis is generally focused on the politics of personality. It makes sense, then, that so much attention is afforded to members of the executive – who they are, which faction they are aligned to, their history and convictions. We scrutinize these choices with a singular intensity. But directors-general, equally important, escape with almost no rigorous interrogation.

Who these people are, what they do and the nature of the decisions they make is rarely reported on proactively. Instead, only when there is smoke is any meaningful attention paid. But they are at the helm of the bureaucratic machine that drives any national department, and the degree to which they are able to function in unison with their respective minister is critical to delivery.

The Department of Communications, used as a case study in this analysis, makes the case. It is a helpful example because it is not one of the key centres of political power, like the Treasury or Public Enterprises. It is important however. It has a budget of around R1.5bn a year. Some R4.6bn over the Medium Term Expenditure Framework. It is one of those middling departments that constitute the bulk of the national administration.

It is also one of the most compromised. Fourteen relationships (nine of which have lasted six months or less) between six different ministers and ten different directors-general have rendered that department effectively frozen. It is simply unable to deliver anything. In particular, its inability to deliver a solution to digital migration has been a problem plaguing the institution for years now, as deadline after deadline is missed.

But how can it possibly deliver anything when its core leadership is so profoundly compromised in this way? It cannot plan six months ahead with any certainty, never mind five or ten years. And it shows. The same problem is mirrored in numerous other departments. The Department of Water, caught out so profoundly by the recent drought, has been defined by the same kind of turmoil. And it, more than most departments, turns on long term planning.

It would seem then that there are three key characteristics to Jacob Zuma’s inability to maintain a unified, stable administration.

The first of these is politics, most evident in the changes he has made to his executive, and often driven, it would seem, by some agenda personal to him.

The second of these is necessity, the result of circumstances – death, resignation, the expiration of a contract – which demand a response.

The third, however, and possibly the most telling, is poor judgment, evident in his chosen executive and administrative leadership alike. He seems simply incapable of appointing people able to work together to deliver on a clearly understood, well-articulated and shared agenda.

These three forces have come together to create a perfect storm of organized chaos and an administration profoundly compromised on all fronts. It has seen fallouts and corruption, maladministration and incompetence all work in unison to create a grand machine that stops just as often as it starts.

The consequence is a collapse of service delivery. And more importantly, a collapse that is beginning to peak, as years of internal uncertainty and upheaval, which have worked to decimate the national government’s ability to plan into the future are beginning to catch up with it. At the heart of that failure is the one relationship that drives all others: the interaction between a minister and their director-general, reduced under Zuma to no more than a fleeting exchange of ideas in the dark.

Issued by the South African Institute of Race Relations, 6 August 2017. The full document, including annexures, can be found here – PDF.