The new Zuma cabinet: a mixed bag

South African President Jacob Zuma's recently announced cabinet is a 'mixed bag' of the old, the new and the scandal prone.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is a North American historian who has written prolifically about presidents of the United States. Her tome, Team of rivals: the political genius of Abraham Lincoln, deals with the disagreement and feuds that marked the Republican party in the 1860s.

They were somewhat of a hotchpotch of a coalition, with various parts of the party pulling in different directions. Kearns Goodwin makes the case for Lincoln’s ‘genius’ in herding the political cats and driving the party to victory in the end. Lincoln was not only attuned to public opinion, but also able to bring together arguing politicians for a greater purpose despite their personal and often petty rivalries.

Those were the 1860s in America, but Lincoln’s ability to stay the course and see the bigger picture remain rare ingredients in modern-day politics. President Barack Obama has a deep affinity for the Lincoln style of leadership, yet with very different results. Modern politics probably requires a very different type of pragmatism.

Since President Jacob Zuma took office, his has been a ‘coalition government’ of sorts as he sought to accommodate the tripartite alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) on economic policy – as well as accommodating a deeply divided and fractious party.

Zuma, after all, still has many political debts to pay…

In Zuma’s first term, the unions got ‘their man’ Ebrahim Patel into the newly created position of Minister of Economic Development, while SACP leaders Blade Nzimande and Rob Davies secured their positions as Minister of Higher Education and Minister of Trade and Industry. Pravin Gordhan, another SACP member, got the plum Minister of Finance position. And so the many constituencies that had ensured Zuma’s rise to power against all odds were rewarded. Zuma by no means possesses the integrity or the ability to place the country’s interests ahead of his own, as Lincoln did. But, he has put together his own ‘team of rivals’ – even while he himself lacked the leadership skill to harness the team’s potential. So the Lincoln comparison was short lived.

Zuma’s first term was a mixed bag, filled with scandal. In addition, the global financial crisis and its lingering effects did nothing to improve South Africa’s economic performance – and there seemed to have been too many turf wars between economic ministries, which Zuma, the ever-absent leader, was unable or unwilling to resolve. The National Development Plan was shepherded through, but with little buy-in from trade unions and little direction on how the choices it presented could be implemented in the future.

The results of the 2014 election mark another five-year term for Zuma and more changes to his cabinet. Firstly, it is bigger – with a myriad of deputy ministers, some which are purely patronage-driven appointments. Zuma, after all, still has many political debts to pay.

The announcement of Zuma’s cabinet took place nearly four hours after it was initially scheduled to happen. This was probably already a reliable sign of the intense horse-trading going on behind the scenes.

The new cabinet sees eight structural changes – some of which make sense, and others that are somewhat befuddling.

Nhleko will hopefully bring a sorely missing culture of openness and integrity to police leadership

One of the most significant changes comes at the heart of the presidency with former justice minister, Jeff Radebe, taking the reins as Minister in the Presidency. This makes him responsible for the National Planning Commission, as well as monitoring and evaluation given the affable Collins Chabane’s move to the Ministry of Public Service and Administration. Predictably, Cyril Rampahosa is Deputy President – however, he has no new responsibilities assigned to him. It begs the question as to whether he will play a prime ministerial role or whether, like Kgalema Motlanthe, he will be relegated to the ceremonial. Yet, can one imagine a situation in which Ramaphosa voluntarily comes out of political hibernation simply to cut ribbons?

The ‘radical socio-economic change’ that Zuma talks about must happen within the economic cluster first and foremost. Lindiwe Zulu’s appointment as Minister of Small Business Development is welcome given the myriad complaints about small business and red tape. Zulu will have to deal with Rob Davies at Trade and Industry and Ebrahim Patel at Economic Development – who are both inherently skeptical of capital. Zulu brings boldness and pragmatism – which might be helpful, but it will be an uphill battle starting a new ministry with resources as yet unknown.

In the meantime, the decent, hard-working communist, Yunus Carrim, has been removed from the Ministry of Communications. It’s quite difficult to understand when a minister as divisive as Tina Joemat-Pettersson seems to have the proverbial ‘nine lives’ – even despite her rather shambolic reign in Agriculture and Fisheries, and several Public Protector findings against her.

Carrim brought energy, intelligence and integrity to the position, which gained him the respect of stakeholders in this portfolio. Splitting the communications portfolio is therefore rather curious. Placing the new Ministry of Telecommunications and Postal Services in the hands of the former security minister, Siyabonga Cwele, may be a way of distancing him from the Nkandla and Protection of State Information Bill public relations disasters – but is he able to deal effectively with our dismal broadband situation? Faith Muthambi takes on what is probably euphemistically called the Ministry of Communications, responsible for the beleaguered South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), and then also for the powerful Government Communication and Information System (GCIS), as well as Brand SA. Is this a real drive towards better information for citizens, or the creation of a propaganda machine? Time will most certainly tell.

Mike Masutha is left with the unenviable task of commandeering the new ‘super’ Ministry of Justice and Correctional Services. Should we be concerned that ‘constitutional development’ has dropped off the nomenclature for this ministry? Masutha is an able individual with a legal background that will stand him in good stead for the tough task ahead, which will include the administration of justice and the Judicial Services Commission.

There was palpable relief when Nathi Mthethwa was moved out of the Ministry of Police to make way for the Nathi Nhleko, former African National Congress (ANC) chief whip and Director General in the Department of Labour. A reasonable individual known for his open-door policy towards civil society when he was in Parliament, he will hopefully bring a sorely missing culture of openness and integrity to police leadership.

Can we expect this cabinet to follow through with the theme of Zuma’s inauguration speech of ‘radical’ social change and transformation? As president, Zuma finds himself in a tricky position: not yet the lame-duck president, but getting there fast. His ability to provide leadership to this cabinet may dissipate rapidly given what might very well be a decline in the ANC’s performance in the 2016 local government elections.

Pravin Gordhan has been moved to the co-operative governance portfolio, no doubt to bring his considerable heft and technical capability to the vexed area of poor service delivery, Yet, the issues in local government are complex, and Gordhan will have to take on the vested interests and corrupt patronage networks that often drive local politics. Ironically it was Yunus Carrim, as former deputy minister in this portfolio, who worked very hard at exposing the weaknesses in local government.

For Zuma though, the local government elections will be important given the threat that the Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters pose to the ANC – specifically in Gauteng. After that, Zuma will have to navigate the ANC elective conference in 2017, which could result in a bruising battle for power. Whether he survives a full term as South Africa’s president after the ANC conference remains to be seen. One thing is certain, the next few years will be interesting.

Judith February, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria

Media coverage of this ISS Today:

Die Burger (Afrikaans)

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