These days, there are two types of cabinet shakeups in South Africa: those that disappoint immediately and those that leave the disappointment for later.
The cause of disappointment is not the reorganizations themselves, but the expectations placed on them by the country’s media, politicians and citizen organizations. This fundamentally misunderstands the role ministers play in a democracy, so it is inevitable that reality will never live up to their hopes.
Thanks in large part to a media whose love of sensation dwarfs its interest in truth, President Cyril Ramaphosa early August shakeup It’s very much of the “post-disappointment” type.
Before announcing changes in his cabinet, a story of what was at stake was embedded in the media and business sectors.
He insisted that there were cabinet ministers whose incompetence had recent violence worsened who seized two provinces recently, or whose ineptitude obstructed economic growth. Everyone knew who they were and the only interesting question was whether Ramaphosa would do what “the national interest” required.
According to sections of the media, Ramaphosa did what he was supposed to do. Creepy headlines announced that there was “He wielded the ax”, replacing opponents with allies across the board. So, of course, there is no immediate disappointment. But subsequent disenchantment is inevitable, and not just because the claim that he used the shakeup to wipe out everything in his path and replace them with staunch allies is a fantasy.
The Ramaphosa reorganization replaced three ministers who were no longer available and whose posts needed to be filled. (One passed away, another was wrapped up in scandal and the third asked to resign.)
In each case, the political loyalties of the new minister are the same as those of his predecessor. He fired Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, which was not surprising since she had publicly contradicted him on the causes of violence in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July, it does not have a significant base of support and was not considered crucial to its portfolio. Before her removal, the minister was an ally of the president, so it is unclear why her dismissal meant she was purging enemies. Mapisa-Nqakula was the only minister fired, others who were the subject of overheated speculation before the announcement switched portfolios. And even she has lost nothing: She is slated to become president of the National Assembly, a position that, in theory at least, has a higher status than a cabinet job.
Switching ministers between ministries is a boon to spooky pundits everywhere as they can give them whatever twist they want. But about the only minister who has clearly been demoted is Lindiwe sisulu, which has gone from chancellor to human settlements and then to tourism, probably because it is said to be campaigning for the work of Ramaphosa.
But for the rest, who can say whether the shift from small business communications or public administration to water and sanitation is an up, down or sideways shift? What is clear is that Ramaphosa did not change the balance of power in his cabinet at all and that his main goal appears to have been to demonstrate that he had heard complaints about particular ministries without shaking any political ships.
The role of ministers
But this is only part of why subsequent disappointment is inevitable. A more important reason is that the standard story of what reorganizations mean is based on very unrealistic ideas about the purpose of cabinet ministers.
First, it confuses the opinions of a small group with the “truth.” Ministerial appointments are political: a minister is the political head of a department, not a technical adviser. Therefore, contrary to a widespread belief in South Africa, ministers do not need to have any qualifications in the area of interest of their ministry. South Africa’s Most Admired Finance Ministers after 1994 (on the market), Trevor manuel Y Pravin Gordhan, hold, respectively, a diploma in engineering and a degree in pharmacy.
It is also the reason why it is never “obvious” that a minister should be hired or fired – since people have different political views, they will not agree on who is a “good” or a “bad” minister. Outgoing Minister of Finance Titus Mboweni was valued in much of business because it was viewed as a markets champion. For the same reason, sections of the ruling alliance and anti-poverty activists were eager to see his back. Whose side was he speaking for the “national interest”?
The statement that a minister should stay or go is, and always should be, just an expression of opinion. A president who ignores that point of view is not rejecting “the national interest,” he simply has a different point of view than it is.
The belief that all happy outcomes – better surveillance and intelligence or economic growth – can be achieved simply by replacing one minister with another is also a sure recipe for disappointment. As the political head of a department, the minister is responsible for giving it political direction and supporting it politically. These may be important tasks, but they do not mean that the strength or weakness of a department depends on who its minister is.
Most of the “heavy lifting” in government departments is the work of public servants. Ministers can push things in particular directions and provide political support to officials whose work they value. But they can’t do much more. Two examples illustrate this.
Reality versus hype
Perhaps the most effective minister in the democratic life of South Africa was the late Zola skweyiya. As minister of social development, he was responsible for extend social grants to millions of people. But Skweyiya couldn’t have done any of this without the work of its top officials. His role was crucial, but it consisted mainly of supporting senior officials.
On the contrary, there was much enthusiasm before the reorganization of the removal of police minister Bheki Cele. The reason was obvious: the police performed abysmally during the recent violence. But regardless of Cele’s merits, replacing him wouldn’t make one iota of difference in police performance.
There are two reasons why policing violence was so inept. First, South Africa has never had a competent police service, not under minority rule, when the main task of the police was to prevent blacks from speaking out or policing racial laws, and not after that. The police too deeply divided into factions so it is never clear whether agents are failing because they don’t know how to act or because they choose not to.
None of this will change simply because a minister changes. The change will require a comprehensive strategy to alter the operational weapons of the police and eradicate factionalism. If that happened, the political support of a minister would help make a difference. Simply replacing one politician with another would not do it.
Therefore, cabinet changes are always far less important events than the publicity around them would suggest. If the national debate understood that, it could save itself from repeated disappointments.