Keeping politicians on their toes

2010-11-09 00:00

PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma sprang a major surprise recently by announcing the axing of several ministers, the deployment of some and the appointment of new deputy ministers in a first in-term major cabinet reshuffle since 1994.

The public commentary on the subject has focused on the fact that Zuma has shown his not-so-well-known firm hand by axing Siphiwe Nyanda, who is thought to be close to him. It is feared that this will provoke another campaign to unseat Zuma.

There’s been comment as to whether the reshuffle is an attempt to manage the balance of power among factions in the ANC in its elective conference in Bloemfontein in 2012. Analysts have pointed out that the ANC Youth League and the SA Communist Party have benefited so that they will back Zuma in 2012.

What is not being considered seriously by commentators is the extent to which the mid-term re-organisation of the executive team signals that our young democracy has entered an advanced phase of its consolidation and stability. The answer to this question will inform our understanding of the long-term impact of this bold move on our body politic and economy.

Firstly, cabinet reshuffles are a common feature of politics in democracies older than ours. This year alone there were reshuffles in countries like Indonesia, and Japan, and a rumoured reshuffle in India.

The general sense is that peaceful and even uneventful reshuffles indicate the institutionalisation of democracy. This suggests that a democracy does not need a team of able personalities to stay in power long for it to remain stable. Rather it requires a certain level of fluidity to constituencies to effect changes needed from time to time.

Secondly, the redeployment of ministers is often designed to prevent empire building on the part of politicians or alternatively the capture of the politicians by the bureaucracy, which happens when bureaucrats subtly influence politicians, weaning them away from their political parties.

The loss of institutional memory and the likely disruption of administrative systems is considered the price to pay for substantive uncertainty caused by reshuffles. Of course, the assumption here is that the movement of politicians does not spill over to the bureaucracy itself.

But care is taken to ensure that there is no spillover of uncertainty from political to administrative levels of government.

These truths apply to South Africa’s 16-year-old democracy too. The fact that the cabinet re-organisation happened without any obvious political troubles signals the maturity of our democracy. The country’s response to the recall of Thabo Mbeki in 2008 had already demonstrated the tenacity of our political system.

Zuma promised to do things differently. He also promised to prioritise the provision of services to the people over political loyalty. He is even reported to have promised to act decisively against laziness and poor performance even if it means he loses friends. The reshuffle suggests that he is doing things differently from his predecessors. He is willing to fire non-performers.

The axing of long-standing members of cabinet like Membathisi Mdladlana and Makhenkesi Stofile should be considered good for them as they needed change, but also good for the government as leadership change may introduce new ideas. In this way, empire building was prevented.

The removal of Nyanda may have been occasioned by the controversies that followed him, but also, as with Barbara Hogan’s independence, a sense that he was building an empire. This is common the world over.

The appointment of two former presidents of the ANC Youth League is consistent with the attempt to bring younger leaders in, but it is also about putting them on the spot so that they can ascend to top leadership positions on the basis of their record in government rather than their skill in mobilising support in ANC structures.

The reshuffle affected those who were not moved as well because it sent a warning to all that they are dispensable unless they perform. This substantive uncertainty militates against complacency and is thus good for democratic consolidation.

If Zuma continues to act with consistency, then the practice will be entrenched. But if he does not, it would seen as a flop, driven by selfish motives.


• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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