President Cyril Ramaphosa is under increasing public pressure to make major changes to his government, even though he has stated that we must ‘watch this space.’ It is obvious that if he does not act, he will face political consequences.
The way President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet acted in the run-up to and during the unprecedented violence that washed up on South Africa’s shores in July has received harsh public criticism in recent days. The Police Minister, Bheki Cele, has publicly disagreed with the State Security Minister, Ayanda Dlodlo, and the Defence Minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, initially disagreed with Ramaphosa on the definition and nature of violence before reluctantly changing her tune under apparent pressure to step back into line. Other ministers, including acting Presidency Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, appeared to have failed to provide the public with accurate information.
In normal circumstances, all predictions of a Cabinet reshuffle should be viewed with scepticism. While many people believe that a change is required, or that certain ministers should be relocated or replaced; in the end the only political analysis that matters is that of the president himself.
There are always many factors to consider: the ministers’ perceived performance, the constituencies they represent within the ANC, the views of the National Executive Committee, the fact that firing someone automatically turns them into an enemy… As a result, many national and provincial reshuffles involve shifting ministers and MECs around but not completely removing them from power. It is also why certain positions, such as arts and culture minister or their deputy, are used as an apparent demotion, while politicians exiled to the ANC’s Siberia can still be kept on a short leash.
However, this time things are different. So many different boiling pressures have built up that keeping the lid on is becoming increasingly untenable – a reshuffle dynamic appears unstoppable now, even if only because Ramaphosa will appear weak should he continue to keep his firing powder dry at this turbulent moment.
Currently, there is no permanent presidency minister (after the death of Jackson Mthembu), Zweli Mkhize is on special leave as health minister and there is a wave of strong criticism demanding the heads of ministers Cele, Mapisa-Nqakula and Dlodlo from the security cluster.
Perhaps the final impetus for a reshuffle may come from the Special Investigating Unit’s (SIU’s) report into Mkhize. The court papers filed by the SIU have revealed exactly how Mkhize and his family allegedly benefited from the Digital Vibes scandal, as first broken by Daily Maverick Scorpio.
The court documents describe how money was moved around in boxes and parcels, how Mkhize repeatedly SMSed the director-general of the health department to sign the Digital Vibes contract, and much, much more.
There are far too many damning details to list here, but recall the earlier reporting by Daily Maverick Scorpio, which detailed how prices were inflated, including an invoice for more than R3-million to arrange an interview with the SABC, to the benefit of those running the company and, presumably, Mkhize himself.
All of this makes it nearly impossible for Mkhize to be re-elected. All he accomplishes by remaining there is to continue receiving a government salary.
Then there is the public statement by Ramaphosa himself.
As quoted by News24 last week, when asked at a vaccination site about a possible reshuffle he said, “I know that everyone… is talking about this thing called a reshuffle… what I can say is, watch this space.”
This appears to be a deliberate hint, from a man known for speaking deliberately, of a plan to take action.
However, the pressure on Ramaphosa to do something has been building for several months.
Mthembu died more than six months ago, and Ramaphosa has taken no action in that time. The dynamics within the ANC have also moved after Ramaphosa was able to ensure the suspension of Ace Magashule as secretary-general, and the implementation of the “step aside” Nasrec conference resolution.
But the biggest dynamic has been the shift from the prospect that Ramaphosa might be removed at a National General Council to the appearance that he will not face much opposition at all at next year’s ANC conference, a massive shift in the president’s political standing
This would appear to have given him more freedom in which to move. And yet still there has been no action.
One of the main reasons: it is not that simple.
A reshuffle is not just about removing people from Cabinet, it is also about appointing competent people to Cabinet. And with just two exceptions these have to be MPs. Magashule controlled the list process during the 2019 elections and thus largely determined who would go on to become an MP, and this fact weakens Ramaphosa’s options considerably.
As a result, he may simply not have many people whom he can trust enough to promote to some of the big jobs.
Considering the difficult political situation at the moment, it may even be that some people don’t want to be in Cabinet. Business Day suggested on Friday that Ramaphosa had been looking outside Parliament for a new finance minister but that a source had indicated “no one wants the job”.
In the meantime, the DA leader, John Steenhuisen, appears to be suggesting that his party is ready to join the Cabinet to help deal with the current situation. He appears to be trying to put pressure on Ramaphosa to consider a government of national unity.
There are some arguments in favour of this course of action. It could be argued that this is exactly what is required after the violence, because of the pandemic, and to relegitimize the state. It could be viewed as a turning point in which the entire country comes together to solve our problems.
It could also be argued that if such offers were made to other parties, many of them would accept them. The DA has indicated that it will, the Good Party is already in Cabinet, the IFP and the Freedom Front Plus have previously served in such governments, and other parties may be persuaded to join.
However, the EFF is unlikely to agree to such a move. Which would create the fascinating perception that the government could be “everyone but the EFF”.
However, this would necessitate the ANC ceding too much power. This is one of the reasons (among others) why this solution does not appear likely at the moment.
Meanwhile, the longer Ramaphosa waits, the weaker he will appear, and his government will be weaker and less legitimate. In the worst-case scenario, taking no action will only embolden his opponents to continue pushing back.
And, while Ramaphosa is now the ANC’s political leader, he cannot afford to pause indefinitely. With no action taken against security cluster ministers who fight in public, those involved in the violence are free to instigate it again.