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Why cabinet reshuffles in South Africa are bound to disappoint

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These days, there are two types of cabinet reshuffles in South Africa – those which disappoint immediately and those which keep the disappointment for later.

The cause of the disappointment is not the reshuffles themselves but the expectations which the country’s media, politicians and citizens’ organisations place on them. This fundamentally misunderstands the roles which ministers play in a democracy, making it inevitable that reality will never match their hopes.

Thanks largely to a media whose love of sensation dwarfs its interest in truth, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s early August reshuffle is very much the “disappointment later” kind.

Before he announced changes to his cabinet, a story of what was at stake embedded itself in the media and sections of business.

It insisted that there were cabinet ministers whose incompetence had worsened the recent violence which gripped two provinces recently, or whose ineptitude was obstructing 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 meant to do. Lurid headlines announced that he had “wielded the axe”, replacing opponents with allies across the board. This, of course, is why there is no immediate disappointment. But later disenchantment is inevitable – and not only because the claim that he used the reshuffle to remove all in his path and replace them with firm allies is a fantasy.

The reshuffle

Ramaphosa’s reshuffle replaced three ministers who were no longer available and whose positions had to be filled. (One passed away, another was embroiled in scandal and the third asked to step down.)

In each case, the political loyalties of the new minister are the same as their predecessor’s. He fired the defence minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, which was hardly surprising since she had contradicted him publicly on the causes of the violence in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July, has no significant support base and was not considered crucial to her portfolio. Before her dismissal, the minister was an ally of the president, so it not clear why her sacking meant he was purging enemies. Mapisa-Nqakula was the only minister sacked – others who were subjects of overheated speculation before the announcement were shifted between portfolios. And even she has not arguably lost anything – she is scheduled to become Speaker of the National Assembly, a post which, at least in theory, is higher in status than a cabinet job.

Shifting ministers between ministries is a boon to lurid pundits everywhere since they can place whatever spin they like on them. But about the only minister who has clearly been demoted is Lindiwe Sisulu, who has moved from foreign minister to human settlements to tourism, probably because she is said to be campaigning for Ramaphosa’s job.

But, for the rest, who is to say whether a move from communications to small business or public administration to water and sanitation is a shift upwards, downwards or sideways? What is clear is that Ramaphosa did not shift the balance of power in his cabinet at all and that his chief goal seems to have been to show he had heard complaints about particular ministries without rocking any political boats.

The role of ministers

But this is only part of why later disappointment is inevitable. A more important reason is that the standard story of what reshuffles mean is based on very unrealistic ideas of the purpose of cabinet ministers.

Firstly, 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 advisor. This is why, contrary to a widely held belief in South Africa, ministers need not hold any qualifications in their ministry’s area of interest. Post-1994 South Africa’s most widely admired finance ministers (in the market place), Trevor Manuel and Pravin Gordhan, hold, respectively, a diploma in engineering and a pharmacy degree.

It is also why it is never “self-evident” that a minster should be hired or fired – since people hold differing political opinions, they will not agree on who is a “good” or “bad” minister. Outgoing finance minister Tito Mboweni was valued in much of business because he was seen as a champion of markets. For the same reason, sections of the governing alliance and anti-poverty campaigners could not wait to see the back of him. Which side was speaking for the “national interest”?

The claim that a minister must stay or go is, and must always be, an expression of opinion only. A president who ignores that view is not rejecting “the national interest” – they simply have a different view of what that is.

The belief that all happy outcomes – better policing 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 can 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 job of public servants. Ministers can nudge things in particular directions and give political support to officials whose work they value. But they cannot do much more. Two examples illustrate this.

Reality versus hype

Perhaps the most effective minister in South Africa’s democratic life was the late Zola Skweyiya. As social development minister, he was responsible for extending social grants to millions of people. But Skweyiya could have done none of this without the work of his senior civil servants. His role was crucial but it consisted largely of supporting senior officials.

By contrast, there was much enthusiasm before the reshuffle for the removal of police minister Bheki Cele. The reason was obvious – the police performed abysmally during the recent violence. But, whatever Cele’s merits, replacing him would make not an iota of difference to the police’s performance.

There are two reasons why policing the violence was so inept. First, South Africa has never had a competent police service – not under minority rule, when the police’s chief task was preventing black people from expressing themselves or policing racial laws, and not after it. The police are also deeply factionalised and so it is never clear whether officers 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. Change will need a thorough strategy to alter the operational arms of the police and root out factionalism. If that did happen, political support from a minister would help to make a difference. Simply replacing one politician with another would not.

So, cabinet reshuffles are always much less important events than the hype which surrounds them would suggest. If the national debate understood that, it might save itself repeated disappointments.