What Ramaphosa's Cabinet choices say about how he plans to lead SA

President Cyril Ramaphosa announces his Cabinet on Wednesday, 29 May 2019. (AFP/Phillip Magakoe)
President Cyril Ramaphosa announces his Cabinet on Wednesday, 29 May 2019. (AFP/Phillip Magakoe)

President Ramaphosa knows the importance of setting the tone. Reducing the size of Cabinet by eight portfolios was the latest indicator of his austerity tone in light of deteriorating public finances, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

If the appointment of a Cabinet is the expression of the president's leadership style, what kind of leadership can South Africa expect from President Cyril Ramaphosa?

A few observations are worth noting that might help us to envision his leadership of government. 

First, he is likely to be a consensus president. The lengthy consultation processes within the ANC and its alliance partners – Cosatu and the SACP – ahead of the Cabinet announcement suggests that he is a consensus builder. 

Shortly after the announcement, ANC secretary general Ace Magashule, the SACP deputy secretary Solly Mapaila and Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi, stopped short of giving details about how the consultation process was conducted. But they clearly owned the outcome.

As a result, Ramaphosa's Cabinet is likely to have more supporters than detractors within the ANC and the alliance. That is good for political stability. For now.

Whether he can maintain this is another matter. President Jacob Zuma started as a consensus leader. While in office, he increasingly became unilateral, divisive and arrogant. The highest office and the Guptas transformed him into something other than the humble listener it was hoped he would become. In the end, he hollowed out the Presidency.

It's hard to be a consensus leader because you can easily appear weak and indecisive. There is also a risk that too much consultation can waste time at the expense of implementation. As a person with a reputation as a skilled negotiator, Ramaphosa should know better.

Second, Ramaphosa has rejected the idea that he is a strong leader who can mount a complete break with the past. He lives with an unavoidable past while trying to chart a new path. 

Had he succumbed to some of the public calls to mount a decisive break as if he was leading a new party, he would have excluded people like David Mahlobo and S'dumo Dlamini, die-hard Zuma supporters who are deputy ministers. It would have robbed him of the real possibility of being a persuasive unifier. 

He tried to blend the old with the new, thus assuring himself new loyalties. It's partly a function of making do with what's at his disposal in terms of list of MPs and drawing from the ANC national executive committee (NEC). 

An opposition MP in Cabinet

Third, he is not prepared to discard the tradition of having an opposition MP in Cabinet. Over the years, and long after the constitutionally sanctioned government of national unity of President Nelson Mandela, successive presidents would appoint a minister or deputy from among opposition benches. The NNP, IFP, Azapo, NFP, FF+ have had some of their MPs and leaders given positions. (The DA's Tony Leon declined Mandela's Cabinet offer but took Zuma's diplomatic posting after he retired as leader of the official opposition).

This time around, one of the ANC's strongest critics and anti-corruption crusader, Patricia de Lille, got the call to lead the strategic multibillion-rand portfolio of public works and infrastructure development. If she could navigate the thorny politics and bring her anti-corruption stance to her task she can, ironically, help Ramaphosa clinch a bigger election victory in the next election. 

READ: Social media abuzz over Aunty Pat Cabinet plot twist

Economy and criminal justice non-negotiable

Fourth, Ramaphosa has shown that consultation does not mean losing focus of national crises that have to be attended to. There are clearly two clusters where no one would have convinced him otherwise: economy and criminal justice.

On the economy, he clearly believes in the independent minded Tito Mboweni to look after state finances while possibly grooming David Masondo in the process.

Mboweni has a huge appetite for economic reforms and is trusted by investors. He also comes across as impatient. He is keen on playing a key role in the restructuring of ailing state-owned enterprises and to get the deficit-stuck budget to balance again. Pravin Gordhan is another trusted figure in the economic cluster and has been among the loudest spokespersons of eradicating state capture in state companies.

Ramaphosa is well aware of the policy certainty that Gwede Mantashe brought to the mineral resources portfolio. Mantashe's powers now extend to the crucial energy sector.

Having Ronald Lamola, a man with no corruption baggage and who can't be blackmailed, as minister of justice, demonstrates that Ramaphosa respects independent institutions that fall under the portfolio. These include the National Prosecuting Authority and courts. 

READ: Order! Meet SA's new Justice Minister Ronald Lamola

Lamola is expected to oversee the proposed amendments to the Constitution to allow for expropriation of land without compensation. His understanding of the amendments that need to be made are much more sober than the reckless Zimbabwe version espoused by some in the ANC and the EFF at a time when even Zanu-PF has reversed course. Working with an equally sober Thoko Didiza who leads the land reform ministry should surely produce a sober rather than a populist outcome. That would be good for the economy.

Not beholden to any known interests, Lamola can also break the back of corruption and capture at correctional services. The criminal justice cluster, which includes Bheki Cele as minister of police, will be crucial to ensuring that some high-ranking ANC figures implicated in state capture wear orange overalls.

Fifth, Ramaphosa knows the importance of setting the tone. Reducing the size of Cabinet by eight portfolios was the latest indicator of his austerity tone in light of deteriorating public finances. This, in addition to reduced expenses on his inauguration and freezing of salary increases for ministers, are key tone-setters. Whether the new Cabinet will understand the message and avoid bling is another matter.

How Ramaphosa gets the Cabinet down to work will be crucial. You can assemble a capable team but run it down by failing to provide leadership. Ramaphosa has given the impression he will be hands-on. 

He wants to sign performance agreements with ministers and take action against those who fail to meet targets. Zuma promised the same but then hid from the public one crucial key performance indicator: regular visits to Saxonwold. 

Ramaphosa's performance agreements should be made public. He and Parliament should also regularly publish performance reports –at least twice a year. Ministers must not be judged on performing tasks outside their constitutional jurisdiction such as making the president's friends – whoever they are – happy.

It would of course be great if the new Cabinet members, with Ramaphosa as the chair, were to spend some time discussing how, individually and collectively, they aim to advance the Constitution. We can't afford to return to the era of "constitutional delinquency", to borrow a phrase. 

- Mkhabela is a regular columnist for News24.

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