Ramaphosa’s unity cabinet: Strategic moves for South Africa’s future

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has strategically appointed a multi-party cabinet to foster unity and ensure effective governance. Amid tense negotiations, his selections reflect a balance of pragmatic and calculated decisions aimed at enhancing policy coordination and maintaining internal cohesion. By allocating key portfolios to opposition parties, Ramaphosa seeks to leverage their strengths while safeguarding ANC control over crucial sectors. As the cabinet embarks on its mission, the real challenge will be to transform these appointments into a cohesive and productive government, testing Ramaphosa’s leadership and vision for South Africa’s future.

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By Vinothan Naidoo*

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa’s multi-party cabinet of national unity has been sworn in. Much of the attention leading up to the announcement of ministerial portfolios focused on the acrimonious negotiations between the Democratic Alliance and the African National Congress over the allocation of these positions.

This overshadowed the constitutional role that cabinet must play. It also forewarns of potential obstacles ahead for the president to create and sustain cohesion and cooperation between ministries.

Cabinet is central to the ability of the president to effectively implement a coherent policy agenda. He has to be able to maintain internal cohesion and collective responsibility to “co-ordinate the functions of state departments”. This is stipulated in section 85(2) of the constitution.

Co-ordinating the work of cabinet departments has been a perennial challenge in South Africa, even during the 30 years of ANC majority rule. Intra-party factionalism and frequent reshuffles have pushed the limits of cohesion.

Read more: De Beer: GNU – The rocky pillar is… the ANC

Ramaphosa’s new cabinet, which consists of members from seven ideologically disparate political parties, will intensify the challenge because the stakes are much higher. A parliamentary vote of no confidence in cabinet has never been triggered in South Africa’s democratic history, but now there’s a real risk.

Various motives could have informed Ramaphosa’s offers of ministerial portfolios to non-ANC members of the government.

Based on my research into the structure, policy coordination mechanisms and political-administrative relations in cabinet over the years, I believe his choices have been driven more (if not exclusively) by bona fides and pragmatism than by trying to neutralise the influence of opposition parties in cabinet.

I think this augurs well for his ability to maintain cohesion and control.

Possible motives

Firstly, the president could have allocated ministries to non-ANC parties in areas with the highest degree of policy convergence with the ANC, or with the least amount of conflict with the ANC’s policy direction.

The other three motives are more calculating, and would be designed to shore up the ANC’s continued grip on cabinet.

The president could have offered ministries in portfolios that operate within the Presidency. This would have been akin to the old adage of keeping your friends close but keeping your enemies closer.

He could have offered ministries overseeing departments that have traditionally been difficult to extract performance out of, which could make ANC ministers look comparatively good, or at least less bad.

Closely related to this, he could have offered ministries to opposition parties that were previously overseen by weak ANC ministers who failed to exert control over their departments. He could have done so because he believes opposition ministers will be more successful at cracking the whip. Or equally inept at doing so.

In my view Ramaphosa adopted a mix of mostly (but not exclusively) the first two motives in allocating ministerial portfolios to non-ANC members. This is unsurprising, given his astute but conciliatory nature.

He didn’t allocate any ministries that operate within the orbit of his office to other parties. This implies either that he trusts non-ANC ministers enough not to have them in his direct line of sight, or that he prefers to have fellow ANC colleagues in the inner sanctum.

Neither has he placed other parties in charge of recalcitrant departments that resisted control from weak ANC ministers. This motive would, however, be perverse for a generally risk-averse politician. A breakdown in relations between an opposition party minister and a department could be harder to repair.

The allocations

The Democratic Alliance has been allocated the largest share of portfolios outside the ANC. It will oversee Agriculture; Basic Education; Communications and Digital Technologies; Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment; Home Affairs; and Public Works and Infrastructure.

Most of these, with the exception of Home Affairs and Basic Education, are associated with ancillary economic sectors. These give the Democratic Alliance its economic fix, without sacrificing the ANC’s direct oversight of strategic economic ministries. But even here, Democratic Alliance members will deputise in ministries responsible for Trade and Industry, Small Business Development, Energy and Finance.

The Basic Education ministry oversees the crucial public education system. However, the department over which it presides performs a more limited policy planning, oversight and regulatory role. The biggest task for the incoming Democratic Alliance minister will be to forge constructive working relationships with the country’s nine provinces, where the bulk of delivery resides.

Home Affairs is the outlier, and carries out a broad and administratively complex service delivery mandate in areas such as immigration, border control and civic services. It is a department that is notoriously difficult to extract performance from, and it is hard to see what quick gains the DA can make in this portfolio.

Read more: Coalition struggles: ANC and DA’s significant challenges over ideological divides – Corrigan

The Inkatha Freedom Party will oversee Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, and Public Service and Administration. The party’s longstanding advocacy of provincial autonomy and traditional leadership structures is directly relevant to the work of the former ministry.

Nevertheless, Public Service and Administration is an unusual choice for the Inkatha Freedom Party given that it has historically paid little attention to the issue.

Land Reform and Rural Development has been allocated to the Pan Africanist Congress, an issue which is core to that party’s identity.

The Good party will run the ministry of Tourism. The Patriotic Alliance will oversee Sports, Arts and Culture, a relatively minor ministry.

Finally, putting the Freedom Front Plus in charge of Correctional Services is the only other example of a portfolio that is very difficult to extract performance out of, and is less visible than Home Affairs.

Real test lies ahead

As the new cabinet gets down to business, its immediate task will be to agree on a strategic programme of action for the next five years. This will be the first test to gauge whether Ramaphosa will be able to translate his pragmatic choices into constructive outcomes.

The road ahead will continue to call on the president’s tact to ensure that the centre can hold.

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*Vinothan Naidoo: Associate Professor of Public Policy and Administration, University of Cape Town

This article was first published by The Conversation and was republished with permission