Waiting for Godot? Saunderson-Meyer on why Cyril should wield axe on cabinet, compose ‘reform team’

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the state of South Africa as President Ramaphosa is surrounded by Cabinet ministers who continue to operate in their own ‘La LA Land’ – not fit for the purpose and responsibility bestowed upon them. The dire need for a Cabinet reshuffle has inspired Sanderson-Meyer to give insight into what, at the bare minimum, should change in order for stronger leadership, better decisions and a realignment with the nation’s critical priorities. Above all, the cabinet should exemplify competence and honesty – two rare virtues in today’s government. Find the article below.

Cabinet: Who should get the chop

By William Saunderson-Meyer  

By the time this is published, President Cyril Ramaphosa will surely have announced his new Cabinet. It is, after all, a full six weeks since he trounced his rivals in a leadership vote, and time is of the essence.

The situation is so bad that his government is contemplating declaring another National State of Disaster (NSD) to deal, ostensibly, with the power crisis. Maybe also the unemployment crisis? The no-growth crisis? The collapse of policing crisis?

And while all this dire stuff is happening, the poor president is surrounded by ministers who live in La La Land. A Sports, Arts & Culture minister who wants to spend a couple of dozen million to erect a 100-metre tall flag to celebrate South African pride and attract tourism. And a Tourism minister who wants to spend a billion on sponsoring the British football club Tottenham Hotspur.

So, it’s a given that our dynamic president is itching to get himself a new Cabinet. But despite the clear need to make swingeing changes and all the feverish speculation about the likely composition of Cyril’s “reform team”, it’s pointless to get too excited.

Despite most of Ramaphosa’s ministers being not fit for purpose, given the paucity of African National Congress talent, it’s less about who’s in the new line-up of gravy guzzlers than who’s out.

At the bare minimum, however, if the following don’t happen, alarm bells and lamentations are in order:

+ That Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, as well as Cooperative Governance and Tradition Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, are sacked. Not “redeployed” but permanently out on their ears. Both have actively undermined Ramaphosa and are anti-constitutionalist populists aligned with the Radical Economic Transformation faction;

+ That Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe is transferred to another portfolio where he cannot continue his sabotaging of alternative energy options, except for those that his relatives and assorted ANC cronies have the possibility of a rake-off from.

Ideally, Mantashe should, like Sisulu and Dlamini-Zuma, be dropped completely, but since he is Ramaphosa’s political comfort blanket and is powerful in the party, that’s not going to happen;

+ And that the Cabinet is slimmed down to fewer than 20 departments. At present, there are 28 ministers and 32 deputy ministers.

A real bonus would be the exits also of the Police and National Education ministers. Bheki Cele, who is not only flamboyantly incompetent but displays many of the personality characteristics of a sociopathic despot, is dangerous in that crucial portfolio.

And then there is Minister of National Education, Science and Technology Blade Nzimande — in reality, despite his name, about as keen-edged as a rolled-up newspaper — whose 25 consecutive years of ministerial mediocrity are unblemished by even a single notable achievement.

Dlamini Zuma, it was initially assumed, was a certainty for being fired. In 2017 she was the RET’s candidate against Ramaphosa for the presidency and she was the only minister to vote for a parliamentary impeachment inquiry into Ramaphosa, following his involvement in the Phala Phala foreign funds scandal. 

This week, however, there are now media murmurings to the contrary. In the light of the government being poised to declare an NSD to sort out the power supply problem once and for all — or at least for long enough to win the 2024 general election — Dlamini Zuma is apparently viewed as indispensable by some in the ANC leadership. 

It’s about her leadership style. The NSD means government by decree, rather than the tedious slog of parliamentary democracy. The Disaster Management Act, by a cursed stroke of fate, falls under the authoritarian Dlamini Zuma’s portfolio.

In South Africa’s first NSD, during the Covid pandemic, she became the de facto leader of the country, with Ramaphosa meekly taking the back seat on executive decisions. And what a success the NSD turned out to be. 

South Africans were forbidden, on pain of sjambokking or imprisonment, from buying tobacco and alcohol. Also, improbably but true, rotisserie chicken and open-toed sandals (but only when worn with leggings). 

Being by nature an innately law-abiding lot, South Africans responded well to this use of the whip and the goad. While water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas had to be used on occasion to disperse people queuing outside food shops, in the first year of lockdown the SA Police Service was forced to arrest a mere 411,309 citizens, assault 589, and had to kill only 12.

According to a briefing by the Hawks of the parliamentary Justice Committee, almost half of the R31 billion of Covid emergency relief funds used over eight months in 2020 was spent corruptly.

By the end of the 750-day-long NSD and despite spending around R25 billion, ultimately less than a third of South Africans were fully vaccinated. Provincial Covid-mortality rates were among the highest in the world and there had been more than 300,000 excess deaths, according to the Medical Research Council. 

Most astonishing, given this disturbing record, the opposition Democratic Alliance is in favour of the government’s new NSD, perhaps because it was their (bad) idea in the first place. It’s mind-boggling.

Like Dlamini Zuma, Sisulu, too, is also thought to be a cooked goose. She called the president a liar and, more offensively, the judges of the Constitutional Court bench “house niggers”. 

And, this week, Daily Maverick broke the story that Sisulu has been secretly spearheading a deal in which the government’s marketing arm, South African Tourism, will sponsor Tottenham Hotspur to the merry tune of almost a billion rand. 

Sisulu has been forced to admit, to disbelief from many marketing experts and most of the public, that a memorandum of understanding has been signed.

While Sisulu and SA Tourism say that the memorandum is “non-binding”, the official documents that Maverick has in its possession give a clear timeline, with upfront fees payable by 31 March 2023 and the deal being “100% activated on 1 July 2023”. 

The press has been filled with to and fro arguments about whether the deal is “worth” it. It’s a futile exercise. If the South African government had unlimited revenue, there’s undoubtedly value in pitching to one of our most loyal sources of tourism, the United Kingdom. 

But it’s a matter of priorities and cutting your cloth to suit your pocket. No one seems to have noticed that the billion rand that will be spent on the Spurs deal amounts to approximately four times as much as SA Tourism’s entire annual budget for marketing, which was R249 million in 2021.

It’s also about double the R538 million that the Department of Tourism has budgeted to spend on all “destination development” activities in the financial year 2022/23. 

There’s no strategic logic being displayed here. When those holding the purse string are suddenly willing to risk four years of revenue on a single roll of the dice, one should be deeply suspicious. 

Sisulu has denied that she has any personal interest or benefits from the deal, in the same way that Mantashe has rejected imputations of impropriety as regards the Karpowerships deal. They may be telling the truth but it doesn’t much matter. 

The majority of South Africans of all hues and political persuasions, including ANC voters, simply don’t believe them. According to a 2021 Afrobarometer survey, almost two-thirds (64%) of those polled believe that corruption has got worse under the Ramaphosa administration.  

This makes Ramaphosa’s Cabinet shuffle doubly difficult. Not only does he have to find able ministers of state but he has to find ones who are also honest. 

Were he in his selection to hew to such exacting requirements, the new Cabinet would be able to conduct its meetings in the Presidency’s broom cupboard. 

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

This article first appeared on Politicsweb, where William Saunderson Meyer’s column appears every week. Click here to sign up for Politicsweb’s free daily headline newsletter. 

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