The biggest political story of the past week was President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet announcement. Aside from scrutinizing the corruption records of the particular individuals that Ramaphosa appointed to the cabinet, most subsequent analyses focused on the size of the cabinet to see if the president would trim the number of ministers and deputy ministers, whose lavish lifestyles are funded by taxpayers.
In the end, media commentators and even Ramaphosa supporters had to admit that the outcome was decidedly underwhelming. While the president modestly reduced the number of ministers from 36 to 28, he appointed two deputies to multiple ministries, leaving the number of deputy ministers virtually unchanged at 34. While down from 72, South Africa today still has 64 members in its executive (including the president and deputy president) – which means we still have one of the most bloated executives in the entire world. Claiming this as a victory is like bragging about how much your fiddling has improved while Rome burns.
Of course, the frantic discussion about the size of the cabinet reflects how tired South Africans are of living under a government that uses their hard-earned money to fund ANC politicians’ corrupt enterprises and luxurious lifestyles. For many, the size of Ramaphosa’s cabinet has come to be seen as a proxy for his willingness to tackle the wasteful excesses of the ANC elite. Even under that logic, the underwhelming reduction in the size of the executive can be read as an indication that the president remains far too concerned with appeasing the ANC’s patronage networks to create the lean and fit-for-purpose 15-member cabinet that the DA has long argued for.
But the near-exclusive focus on the size of the cabinet obscures a more important point. Throughout the election campaign, the president cleverly committed himself to cutting his cabinet – while speaking little about reforming the public sector as a whole. By limiting the discussion about rightsizing to the cabinet rather than to the entire public service – and as underwhelming as last week’s announcement was – Ramaphosa can now claim that he technically complied with his promise to reduce the size of the cabinet.
However, it’s ultimately not merely the number of ministers that matters. What matters far more is the number and scope of government departments contained within each ministry. On this front, Ramaphosa’s announcement yielded no change at all. Even while he marginally reduced the number of ministers, the president introduced no new steps to rightsize and reform government departments. Instead, he simply lumped different departments together under one minister and then pretended that this represented significant change.
As a result, South Africa today has eight fewer ministers and two fewer deputy ministers – but exactly the same number of government departments. Pretending that merely reducing the size of cabinet without restructuring departments amounts to meaningful reform was an effective slight-of-hand that allowed Ramaphosa to claim an easy victory. But look below the surface, and you’ll see that it was an empty gesture.