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A holding cabinet

After South Africa's post-Zuma euphoria, it was inevitable that a measure of realpolitik would intrude at some stage. Last night’s cabinet reshuffle might well have been such a moment, and probably the first of many, writes the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office's (CPLO) Mike Pothier. 

While not a complete overhaul, the reshuffled cabinet appears to be a case of “getting rid of the worst and bringing back the best, with a fair number of questionable performers left alone or shifted sideways,” said Mike Pothier, Programme Manager of the CPLO. There were high hopes for a full clean-up of cabinet,however Pothier believes that President Cyril Ramaphosa was not able, and perhaps not willing, to move so far or so fast.

Some of former President Zuma’s closest allies are out: Mosebenzi Zwane, David Mahlobo, Des van Rooyen, Faith Muthambi, Bongani Bongo. Conversely, people with a track record for diligence and hard work are in, significantly strengthening the executive: Pravin Gordhan, Nhlanhla Nene, Zweli Mkhize, Derek Hanekom, Gwede Mantashe.

However, there are a number of surprises including the retention of Bathabile Dlamini, who had a dismal record as Social Development minister. She moves to the Women's portfolio within the presidency. “This signals Mr Ramaphosa’s enforced sensitivity to ‘constituencies’ within the ANC; in this case the Women’s League, of which Ms Dlamini is president,” said Pothier in his response.

Similarly, the survival of Nomvula Mokonyane, could have been a done in the same vein. Her tenure as Water and Sanitation Minister was so bad that the Standing Committee on Public Accounts chairperson has described her department as having “totally collapsed”. Other questions include the retention of Malusi Gigaba who moves from Finance to Home Affairs – both senior posts.

“Perhaps Ms Dlamini, Ms Mokonyane and Mr Gigaba have simply been placed in what the airlines call a holding pattern,” said Pothier, suggesting that the cabinet as a whole is not in its final stage.

The new-look cabinet also includes some foes. Dlamini-Zuma takes over from Jeff Radebe in charge of monitoring and evaluation in the presidency, but is balanced with “reliable allies” such as Naledi Pandor, who takes over Higher Education, and will have to deal with the free tertiary education headache.

“Lindiwe Sisulu goes to International Relations, a post that will require a more diplomatic approach than we are used to from her; and Mr Radebe gets Energy, where hopefully he will put a firm end to speculation about nuclear power deals.”

 Pothier believes the reshuffle may indicate that some ministers might well go when the restructuring of portfolios and departments happens. “Indeed, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that, as the NPA does its work and the Hawks continue their investigations, the president might be given grounds for firing others.”

“All in all, and despite the questionable retentions, this is a much stronger, much more competent and – above all – much more dependable executive than the one that Mr Zuma cobbled together.”

Pothier said that a possible positive of the new cabinet is that the country may now be spared the embarrassment of “ministers lying to us, to the Courts, and to Parliament in pursuit of their not-so-hidden agendas”.

However, the biggest concern with the shuffle is the inclusion of David Mabuza as deputy president – something that might negatively impact Ramaphosa's vision of renewal and restoration.

Mabuza's reputation is “every bit as low as Jacob Zuma’s; some would say more so”, said Pothier, pointing to the allegations of the use of violence in pursuit of political ends. Mr Mabuza, he said, will not necessarily wield much direct power as second in command, but there is no reason to think that his political ambitions have now been exhausted. And he is known, like Mr Ramaphosa, to be willing to play a long game.

“Unless Mr Mabuza turns out to have reformed himself quite radically, we may find ourselves creeping towards the brink again in ten, or even five, years’ time.”

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.