Will the new Cabinet deliver on reform? - Saturday Star

1 June 2019 - Under this cabinet the worst excesses of the Zuma years will not be repeated, but expect economic growth to continue to stagnate, with unemployment and poverty grinding on.

Terence Corrigan and Marius Roodt

The announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa of his cabinet was eagerly awaited and suspensefully watched as a major indicator of where the country is likely to head. What transpired was interesting, but underwhelming.

For the IRR, what counts is less the personalities taking up their cabinet posts, or their biographies – even where these might be noteworthy for one reason or another – than whether the cabinet is likely to be a reformist one.

Concerns have long existed that South Africa’s cabinet reflected a mechanism to reward supporters and to balance competing interests in the ruling party, rather than to facilitate the work of government. And for this reason, cutting down the number of ministries and the mind-boggling array of ministers and their deputies was keenly watched.

In the event, the new cabinet represented something of a reduction, but hardly a significant one. Amalgamations of ministries brought the total from 36 to 28. A smaller number of ministers, though, was compensated in part by a generous allocation of deputies: the previous cabinet stood at 72, and this has come down to 64. Smaller certainly, but hardly game-changing.

That being said, some of the amalgamations make sense. Functional linkages make, for example, Higher Education, Science and Technology a close enough fit to combine them together.

On the other hand, Human Settlements and Water and Sanitation might better merit separate ministries, given the considerable challenges that water supply in particular poses for the country.

The reconstitution of the Ministry of Labour as Employment and Labour (note which comes first) is a nod to the most serious problem confronting the country. However, there is no indication that the government under President Ramaphosa has any intention at all of considering changes to the labour regulatory regime. Indeed, his intention seems to be in favour of greater intrusion. Employment is likely to remain a name on a ministry – unemployment the daily reality.

It is doubtful that there ever was a justification for a Ministry of Economic Development alongside Trade and Industry. This strange division is now gone, with the constitution of the Ministry of Trade and Industry and Economic Development. It remains to be seen what it is able to deliver in terms of, well, trade, industry or economic development. With growth in the country not expected to reach a paltry 2% this year, it has its work cut out for it – though with Minister Ebrahim Patel’s statist bent, market-friendly reform does not seem to be on top of the agenda.

The combination of Agriculture with Rural Development and Land Reform was expected, although it locates the land reform agenda firmly within a rural and agrarian context. This continues the largely ideological narrative that has dogged the policy ‘debate’ over the past eighteen months, although the most pressing land needs are urban. There is surely a case, here, for cooperation with Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation.

Thoko Didiza will probably make a better interlocutor for the farming community than the ministers who have occupied the space for well over a decade. She brings at least some experience of the portfolio, having held it under former President Thabo Mbeki between 1999 and 2006.

Pravin Gordhan, publicly perceived as one of the most competent ministers, continues at Public Enterprises. He will have his work cut out for him, not only in trying to somehow keep South Africa’s state-owned enterprises as going concerns, but also staving off attacks from both the Public Protector and the Economic Freedom Fighters.

Tito Mboweni’s fairly steady hand remains on the finance tiller, although his deputy, David Masondo, a member of the South African Communist Party, remains something of an unknown quantity.

At Health, one doctor replaces another, with Aaron Motsoaledi (now at Home Affairs) making way for Zweli Mkhize. Unless Mkhize changes tack, and ditches plans for the disastrous National Health Insurance scheme, and sees the private sector as partners rather than opponents, expect public healthcare to remain dismal (especially for poorer South Africans).

Meanwhile, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane has – after a less than stellar stint as Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, and before that a controversial tenure as Minister of International Relations and Cooperation – been shifted into the Presidency to oversee Women, Youth & Persons with Disabilities. A soft landing, perhaps? She displaces Bathabile Dlamini, a figure widely criticised for her lax stewardship of the country’s social grant system. The latter’s departure is unlikely to be widely lamented.

Cabinet veteran – since 2004 anyway – Naledi Pandor meanwhile ascends to the helm of the country’s foreign affairs machine. Using South Africa’s considerable diplomatic presence abroad to advance investment and developmental goals has never quite been realised. The National Development Plan was certainly quite critical of this. Arguably, South Africa has conducted its foreign policy with rather more ideology than pragmatism. And on at least one hot-button issue, whether South Africa should cut diplomatic relations with Israel, she seems unambiguously in favour of doing so.

David Mabuza, after a brief pit stop at the party’s integrity commission, is now the deputy president. For many people concerned about South Africa’s future – probity in governance and a rejection of ‘capture’ – this will be difficult news. ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe is reported to have said that ‘all issues have been clarified’ and ‘It is all systems go.’ This may prove darkly prescient in the years ahead.

Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising appointment was Patricia De Lille’s. The full story of this remains to be told, but suffice to say that reports of her political death are always likely to be exaggerated, given her cat-like instincts and chameleon-like adaptability. She commands a hard-core, albeit limited, constituency, and a degree of respect (some of it grudging) for her pugilistic political style. Public Works being a not-insignificant portfolio, it is likely to offer her plentiful opportunities for exposure. Intriguingly, she will oversee the portfolio responsible for expropriation (with or without compensation). Expect to see a LOT of her.

Although President Ramaphosa has excised some of the more blatantly incompetent ministers who served in the Zuma years, expect more of the same. The total number of ministers and deputy ministers is only slightly reduced, and individuals in charge of important posts (such as Employment and Labour) are not reformers. Under this cabinet the worst excesses of the Zuma years will not be repeated, but expect economic growth to continue to stagnate, with unemployment and poverty grinding on.

Terence Corrigan is a project manager and Marius Roodt head of campaigns at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes economic and political freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).