From time to time, we are seized with questions about deputy ministers in government, such as: Should they even exist?
This issue arose again last week after Health Minister Zweli Mkhize was placed on “special leave”. To start with, we have to ask what placing a minister on special leave means.
What part of the Constitution empowers the president to put them on special leave and at what point is that minister cleared to return to their portfolio? Is it when they have been cleared in court of the charges they were facing? What if the court process drags on for years, as it often does?
If there was a good enough reason to put Mkhize on special leave, maybe he should have been fired instead.
Be that is it may, once he was out of the picture, many South Africans reacted with consternation that his deputy, Joe Phaahla – a medical doctor with experience in this area, who has been working closely with Mkhize – was not appointed as acting health minister. Instead, the president chose to appoint Tourism Minister Mmamoloko Kubaye-Ngubane to that post.
Most of those who asked why Phaahla was not made acting minister were unaware that in terms of the Constitution, deputy ministers are not part of Cabinet and therefore cannot replace a minister.
Section 85 of the Constitution states that executive authority is only exercised by the president and Cabinet. In terms of section 91, the Cabinet consists of the president, the deputy president and the ministers.
So what is the role of deputy ministers if they cannot step up when needed? It is a wholly legitimate question and cannot be brushed aside by merely telling those who ask that they are ignorant of the law.
Yet this was the typical response last week of both journalists and government itself, who sought to lecture an ignorant public.
Acting Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni said: “In this year, the 25th anniversary of the Constitution, people should take the time to become acquainted with the dictates of the Constitution.”
She added that section 93 of that manifesto dictated the role of deputy ministers, which was to “assist” ministers. When a vacancy arises at the level of a Cabinet minister, the president can only appoint another Cabinet member to act in his or her place until he or she is ready to appoint a permanent replacement.
So the response was to throw the law people and tell them to start reading up. When I was growing up, I was taught never to accept that “the law is the law and there is nothing you can do about it”. This principle has inspired revolutions throughout the world when people fight for change and equality.
The public was right to ask why Kubaye-Ngubane, who is responsible for one of the portfolios that has become even more crucial over the past year, following the collapse of tourism because of the pandemic, was saddled with the equally essential – and onerous – position of the head of health, in addition to her other duties.
First, she knows very little about this sector. Second, it would be naive to expect her to pay equal attention to both of these important portfolios; one of them is bound to suffer. And it also does not help to hide behind the law. President Cyril Ramaphosa could have fired Mkhize and replaced him with Phaahla permanently, rather than in an acting capacity, if he chose to do so.
If the president was sufficiently convinced that there was a cloud around Mkhize following corruption allegations, I do not see why he hesitated to fire him. I suspect that Ramaphosa felt duty-bound to uphold the ANC’s step-aside resolution, or that he was pretending to abide by fair labour practices – which he does not have to do, since Mkhize is not employed as an ordinary civil servant.
A key consideration is that we have no idea how long it will take for Mkhize to be cleared of the allegations made against him. Secondly, Cabinet positions are filled entirely the prerogative of the president, so even if Mkhize is cleared, he is not automatically entitled to return to the health portfolio. He can be deployed anywhere else if the president still values his input and judgement.
There should be no room for placing ministers on special leave; they should either be retained or fired outright. Placing Mkhize on special leave means that the president is not personally in favour of acting against him and is merely giving in to public pressure, or that he is afraid of the political ramifications of acting against a potential rival.
I feel that Ramaphosa failed to act decisively when he had an opportunity to get rid of these useless deputy positions after the 2019 elections, which is when he appointed his first proper Cabinet.
Prior to his election, he had agreed with public sentiment that our Cabinet was too big. Once he was elected president, he cut the Cabinet posts from 35 to 28, but then – strangely – increased the number of deputies.
The argument used to justify this was that since portfolios had been merged, some departments had become bigger – which perhaps made sense in a department as big as human settlements, water and sanitation.
But why do we need a deputy police minister? Do we even know who the deputy police minister is? Have we heard of him or her since they were appointed? How many of us have ever heard of Rosemary Capa or Boitumelo Moloi? For those who have not, they are deputy ministers, enjoying all the VIP perks and sizeable salaries that come with the job. They are apparently here to serve us, even if we did not know it.
The shocking truth is that the president is not constitutionally obliged to appoint even one deputy minister. Yet all 28 departments currently have deputies – and some have more than one. This is completely unnecessary.
In 1994, when the government of national unity was constituted, there were valid reasons to appoint deputies, as the National Party and the ANC shared power and had to accommodate each other.
When Thabo Mbeki appointed his full ANC Cabinet in 1999, not all portfolios had deputies. However, since then, it has become a matter of course for each department to have a deputy, even if no real reason exists for their presence.
I believe it is time MPs revisited the constitutional clause that empowers the appointment of these deputy ministers.
Section 93 (1) of the Constitution states: “The president may appoint…” Clearly, it also allows him to not appoint a deputy minister, should he so decide. However, an even less complicated solution than amending the Constitution would be for our presidents to cut down, and eventually do away with, these expensive positions that add no obvious value at a time when government is downsizing the number of civil servants to save money.
In South Africa, we accept that the president uses the deputy ministerial positions to appease his allies – a completely arbitrary consideration for which the taxpayer should not have to pay.