Ramaphosa's balancing act begins now

President Cyril Ramaphosa.
President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Image: Esa Alexander

South Africans recently went to the polls in a national election which the African National Congress (ANC) won by a wide margin. The incumbent president Cyril Ramaphosa will shortly appoint a cabinet after parliament officially declared him president.

Thabo Leshilo asked Mzukisi Qobo, Cheryl Hendricks and Seán Muller what Cyril should focus on.

Given that Ramaphosa probably has less than five years in the job, what cabinet posts should be his top priority?

Cheryl Hendricks: He needs to leave a legacy and live up to his promise of a new dawn. He therefore needs to concentrate on, among other, changing the conditions that generate high levels of inequality, as well as those that have made South Africa's state institutions dysfunctional and have tarnished its international image.

So, his top priority in cabinet posts should be: basic education and higher education, economic development, finance, trade and industry, rural development and land reform, public enterprises, international relations and science and technology.

Seán Muller: There are four main dimensions that could be considered: strategic institutions, policy direction, effectiveness of the state and institutions for delivery. Ideally, Ramaphosa needs to pursue major improvements on each of the four dimensions in parallel.

What will be crucial in the context of rolling back the influence of state capture on strategic institutions will be who he appoints to justice and correctional services, police, state security, as well as the economics cluster.

To the extent that prioritisation is necessary, Ramaphosa has to ensure that reform of critical institutions is placed first - for the simple reason that everything else will be compromised if this fails.

Mzukisi Qobo: There are limits to Ramaphosa's reform agenda. For him to succeed, he will need to rely on highly competent technocrats to drive change within government, take bold and decisive action in reforming institutions early on even if that may make him unpopular. For this to happen he will have to stare his party down and be his own man.

But it will be hard for him to find capable ministers. This is true even in the economic cluster, apart from Tito Mboweni in the finance ministry and Pravin Gordhan in the department of public enterprises.

Yet the economy is an area that will likely define the next five years. With unemployment at 27.6%, economic performance and job creation in particular will be yardsticks against which his success will be measured.

What attributes should he be looking for in these key positions?

Cheryl Hendricks: People with integrity, people who have leadership skills and a vision for the positions they will be stepping into. People with fresh ideas to deal with old challenges and who are willing to do the hard work it will take to rebuild the country. He needs a cabinet with a healthy mix of experience and youthfulness and gender balance.

Seán Muller: What matters is a general level of competence, commitment to their mandate and the public interest, and respect for the separation between political and bureaucratic competence. A minister's core functions are arguably to ensure that the officials leading the department are the best - technically and ethically - and that they are allowed and enabled to do their job.

Mzukisi Qobo: The cabinet is a reflection of the quality and depth of the governing party's leadership bench, which has been in decline over the years. Even the best of its parliamentarians will struggle to bring renewed energy to the job.

Under such circumstances, Ramaphosa may find himself relying a lot on informal networks, especially business links, outside of government. But this could undercut his credibility among constituencies within the governing tripartite alliance.

Success requires a combination of experience, competence, integrity, and fresh ideas. This is particularly true in ministries such as the National Treasury, and those that interface with critical sectors of the economy such as agriculture, telecommunications, mineral resources, energy, and transport.

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