Don't bet your shirt on Team Cyril

William Saunderson-Meyer assesses the President's cabinet choices


It is a reflection of the sad state of the nation that much of South Africa sat up on a chilly winter’s night, glued to the television to watch the announcement of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first team. That’s an honour historically more readily accorded the team announcement of the Springbok rugby coach.

It’s an even sadder reflection of the already dismal state of what CR likes to refer to as the “Sixth Administration” — complete with the imaginary verbal capital letters that the flowery French use when talking about their “Fifth Republic” — that the cabinet announcement was substantially delayed.

Ministerial appointments are, as Jacob Zuma liked to remind a hostage nation, entirely a presidential prerogative. Why, sometimes, No 1 would appoint someone on a Friday and would have entirely used them up and be rid of them by Monday. Such was the fate of poor Des “Weekender” Van Rooyen, the world’s briefest finance minister.

Such delays are indicative that, behind the scenes, the new broom was struggling to be rid of the ingrained dirt of the Fifth Maladministration. 

CR had on May 8 spearheaded an emphatic African National Congress victory and under the normal circumstances of executive muscle-flexing, the new class would have been in place within a couple of days. Instead, the birthing took three laborious weeks, going to the wire of the legislated five-day limit that follows the swearing-in of the new MPs. 

On the great day, even the televised announcement was delayed for an hour, as CR supposedly made light conversation with his appointees behind the scenes. Or perhaps he was trying to trade his narrowly defeated and dangerous rival for the presidency, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma — whom he relegated to Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs — for three cows and a goat.

The biggest problem for Ramaphosa has been David Mabuza, that toxic one-time champion of the Zuma axis who at the ANC leadership conference 18-months ago engineered his elevation to the deputy-presidency by a last-minute switch of support to the then-flailing Ramaphosa. It saved CR’s bacon but also left him in a dangerously compromised position of having to sup with the Devil.

Mabuza, when he was premier of Mpumalanga, presided over perhaps SA's most corrupt and dangerous province, in terms of political assassinations, according to an expose by The New York Times last year. Tellingly, Mabuza never sued the NYT, nor any of those mostly ANC politicians whose accusations were aired in that damning article. 

His response then, when challenged to defend himself, was, “There’s nothing to set straight.”

That was not initially the view of the ANC’s integrity commission. Mabuza was one of 23 people whom the body wanted to scrapped from the electoral list because of “corruption, mismanagement and other acts of misconduct”.

That proved to be no more than an irritation to Mabuza. And after being elected in May — number two on the national list after CR — he cheekily delayed taking the oath of office as MP, so as to set straight the integrity commission on the allegations against him. 

It took Mabuza, it appears, no more than a couple of hours to sort out the commissioners, thus clearing the way to him taking the oath of office. He is consequently now just heartbeat away from the presidency and SA is potentially just a failed heartbeat away from yet another decade of state capture.

One can scrutinise the entrails of CR’s cabinet as much as one likes, but its composition does not matter that much, given that the real power sits in the hands of the ANC national executive, which operates beyond public scrutiny. In any case, it is only after the passage of time that we will know whether there is indeed a new sense of purpose in the cabinet and whether they are fit for purpose. But what does matter is that the “new dawn” ANC and its risibly named “integrity” commission, put up no visible resistance to Mabuza, a Zuma surrogate, strolling into the position that, by ANC tradition, will automatically make him Ramaphosa’s successor.

The motley crew chosen is the best that CR could do, given the divided nature of his party. There are a few patently good people (Naledi Pandor at International Relations, Tito Mboweni at Finance, Pravin Gordhan at Public Enterprises, and Barbara Creecy at Environment), some uninspiring retreads (Fikile Mbalula at Transport, Ebrahim Patel at Trade and Industry, Blade Nzimande at Higher Education, Trade and Technology, and Angie Motshekga at Basic Education) and some potentially loose cannons (Patricia De Lille at Public Works and Infrastructure, Bheki Cele at Police, and Gwede Mantashe at Mineral Resources and Energy).

When making the announcement, the obviously tired Ramaphosa — he inadvertently skipped the International Relations appointment — said that the new cabinet had integrity, was capable and would be hardworking. He made much of having signed “performance contracts” with each person, an unnecessary bit of showmanship, since presidential hirings and firings are not affected by employment legislation.

Another bit of flimflam was his assertion that the shrunk cabinet was the ANC’s response to public criticism over the size of its bloated predecessor. In reality, the downsizing was modest, from 35 ministers and 37 deputy-ministers under Zuma, to 28 ministers and 34 deputies. In comparison, as the Democratic Alliance loves pointing out, the United States manages with 15 cabinet posts, Kenya with 18 and the United Kingdom with 21.

In fact, in a House of Commons containing 316 Conservative Party MPs, any single one, perhaps fortunately, statistically has a mere 6% chance of a post in Theresa May’s cabinet. In comparison, any one of 230 ANC MPs in the House of Assembly of the Sixth Administration, has a 27% chance of being upgraded to the front carriage of the gravy train.

They should enjoy, while they can, the fine fittings, the lavish perks and privileges. Ramaphosa also made a point of saying that this cabinet was just a first blueprint for a long journey. With a bit of luck, maybe we’ll see some of the less salubrious characters being ejected at the next stop.

Personally, however, I think it would be a much safer bet to place R1,000 on the Springboks to win the Rugby World Cup, at 8:1 odds, than wager on that happening.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye