South Africans recently went to the polls in a national election which the African National Congress (ANC) won by a wide margin. The incumbent president Cyril Ramaphosa will shortly appoint a cabinet after parliament officially declares him president. Thabo Leshilo asked Mzukisi Qobo, Cheryl Hendricks and Seán Muller what he should focus on.
Given that Ramaphosa probably has less than five years in the job, what cabinet posts should be his top priority?
Cheryl Hendricks: He needs to leave a legacy and live up to his promise of a new dawn. He therefore needs to concentrate on a few things that will make maximum impact. These include changing the conditions that generate high levels of inequality, as well as those that have made South Africa’s state institutions dysfunctional and have reduced its international standing.
So his top priority cabinet posts should be: basic education and higher education, economic development, finance, trade and industry, rural development and land reform, public enterprises, international relations and science and technology.
Finally, he needs to attend to the representation of women. South Africa has lost a lot of ground in the struggle to translate gender representation into gender equality and women’s peace and security.
Seán Muller: There are four main dimensions that could be considered: strategic institutions, policy direction, effectiveness of the state and institutions for delivery. Ideally, Ramaphosa needs to pursue major improvements on each of the four dimensions in parallel.
What will be crucial in the context of rolling back the influence of state capture on strategic institutions will be who he appoints to justice and correctional services, police, state security, as well as the economics cluster (notably finance and public enterprises).
Then there are the posts that will be important in determining policy and delivery of social services. These include social development, health, education, water and sanitation, transport, and human settlements. Many of these are also important for economic services, along with departments like energy, mineral resources, communications, telecommunications and postal services, tourism and agriculture, forestry and fisheries.
Finally, there are departments that should play a key role in the effectiveness of the state itself. These include the departments of public service and administration, and cooperative governance and traditional affairs. Within the presidency there’s performance monitoring and evaluation.
To the extent that prioritisation is necessary, Ramaphosa has to ensure that reform of critical institutions is placed first – for the simple reason that everything else will be compromised if this fails.
Mzukisi Qobo There are limits to Ramaphosa’s reform agenda in the next five years. For him to succeed, he will need to rely on highly competent technocrats to drive change within government, take bold and decisive action in reforming institutions early on, and take measures that may make him unpopular but have good results. For this to happen he will have to stare his party down and be his own man. The last time he put his cabinet together, his party constrained his options. The result was a watered down compromise. He can’t afford that this time.
But it will be hard for him to find capable ministers. This is true even in the economic cluster, apart from Tito Mboweni in the finance ministry and Pravin Gordhan in the department of public enterprises. Yet the economy is an area that will likely define the next five years of his term (if he completes it). With unemployment at 27.6%, economic performance and job creation in particular will be yardsticks against which his success will be measured.
What attributes should he be looking for in these key positions?
Cheryl Hendricks: People with integrity, people who have leadership skills and people who have a vision for the positions they will be stepping into. People with fresh ideas to deal with old challenges and who are willing to do the hard work it will take to rebuild the country. He needs a cabinet with a healthy mix of experience and youthfulness and gender balance.
Seán Muller: A common error is to think that ministerial positions should be filled on the basis of area-specific expertise. This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of ministers relative to senior officials (like the director general of a department). Ministers serve a political function and need not have any particular expertise in an area.
What matters is a general level of competence, commitment to their mandate and the public interest, and respect for the separation between political and bureaucratic competence. A minister’s core functions are arguably to ensure that the officials leading the department are the best – technically and ethically – and that they are allowed and enabled to do their job.
Public confidence in the integrity of members of Cabinet is an intangible factor that is also important. But there’s tension between this and the challenges Ramaphosa faces within his own party. It is these that are likely to lead to the greatest compromises in cabinet appointments. Ultimately, it will do the country little good if he appoints the best Cabinet possible without factoring in party political considerations, only to then be so weakened within his party that he and his appointees cannot pursue the public interest.
Mzukisi Qobo: The cabinet is a reflection of the quality and depth of the governing party’s leadership bench, whose heft has been in decline over the years. Even the best of its parliamentarians will struggle to bring renewed energy to the job. Many of them are recycled, as they were part of the political arrangements in the last nine years of corruption and institutional decay under former President Jacob Zuma.
And, there is no evidence that they did much to ameliorate its damage. Some, such as Jeff Radebe, have been in government for two decades. There is no evidence of innovative thinking in their approach to governance.
Under such circumstances, Ramaphosa may find himself relying a lot on informal networks, especially business links, outside of government. But this could undercut his credibility among constituencies within the governing tripartite alliance.
Success requires a combination of experience, competence, integrity, and fresh ideas. This is particularly true in ministries such as the National Treasury, and those that interface with critical sectors of the economy such as agriculture, telecommunications, mineral resources, energy, and transport.
Since early 2018 there have been strong indications that Ramaphosa will overhaul the current structure of cabinet as part of institutional reconfiguration of government. The low-hanging fruit will be to reduce the size of the cabinet. Even a country like China, 20 times larger than South Africa, has a cabinet with 24 ministers compared to South Africa’s 35. There is more emphasis on quality and meritocracy and less on viewing cabinet positions purely from the view of dispensing patronage.
Ramaphosa has a very difficult task ahead. Constitutionally, he can only appoint two individuals who are not members of parliament to his cabinet. That means he has to choose his cabinet from the list of MPs who are political fossils and were, by and large, part of the problem during Zuma’s administration.
The reality is that most MPs have a poor grasp of their oversight roles, are often out of depth on how government works, are under-prepared, and many see themselves as no more than deployees of the ruling party.