Leaving tainted ministers in cabinet may have voters thinking Cyril is soft on graft

S'thembiso Msomi Without the Gang
President Cril Ramaphosa watches Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams being sworn in as the new minister of communications at the Union Buildings in Pretoria yesterday. /Alaister Russell
President Cril Ramaphosa watches Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams being sworn in as the new minister of communications at the Union Buildings in Pretoria yesterday. /Alaister Russell

You know things have changed somewhat when you no longer have to wait until quarter-to-midnight for a president's announcement of a cabinet reshuffle.

You also know that the change has not been that great when the press conference to announce the changes gets delayed by almost an hour. But to be fair to President Cyril Ramaphosa, an hour's delay is nothing compared to what South Africans used to endure during his predecessor's tenure.

Besides, the president had a genuine excuse for being late - he had earlier attended a lengthy sitting of the National Council of Provinces in Ekurhuleni earlier yesterday.

However, he should not make it a habit. After all, he did promise when he started that the dawn of the Thuma Mina era also meant government engagements starting on time and the nation not being made to wait long for the president to address it.

But what are we to make of the changes Ramaphosa made during yesterday's announcement? Are they an indication, in any way, of how he would run government were he - as is most likely - to re-emerge as president after next year's elections?

With probably less than five months to go before the polls, it does make sense for the president not to announce wholesale changes to the executive.

This is especially because one of his key concerns as he marshals the ANC machinery towards the election campaign is that he does not upset any of the party's influential factions.

He needs all hands on deck for the polls to ensure victory. Once that victory is secured, he would then have a free hand to choose the cabinet he wants.

But this approach, however, has its downside. It may send a message to some voters that contradicts and undermines Ramaphosa's campaign ticket as a leader who is committed to cleaning out corruption in the government.

Some voters may view his decision to leave some of the most controversial cabinet ministers, some of whom stand accused of having nearly collapsed government agencies in a bid to enrich their connections, as a sign that he is soft on graft.

From this perspective, by leaving tainted ministers in the cabinet the president lost out on an opportunity to show that he means what he says.

The major appointment yesterday was that of new communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, an up-and-coming and ambitious young politician.

She was one of Ramaphosa's most outspoken backers in the run-up to the ANC conference in Nasrec last December and is one of those who can be credited for winning the strategic Eastern Cape ANC structures for him.

Her appointment to the post of minister can be read as a reward by the president for her loyalty, but it also indicates his drive to have more young and women politicians in the executive.

The reunification of the communications and the telecommunications departments - which were split into two by former president Jacob Zuma a few years ago in a bid to satisfy various business interests within the ANC - is also indicative of Ramaphosa's determination to reduce the size of the cabinet.

However, the real test will come after the elections when Ramaphosa would have to decide whether to merge ministries such as small business, economic development, and trade and industry into one super-economic ministry.

The current structure clearly does not work, but will he have the appetite to disappoint some of his allies by leaving them out of cabinet?

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