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Looming Cabinet reshuffle a test for South African President Cyril Ramaphosa

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Picture: African News Agency (ANA) – President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks at the Union Buildings during his previous announcement of a cabinet reshuffle

By Bheki Mngomezulu

Following the conclusion of the first part of the ANC’s elective conference between 16 and 20 December 2022 where the party’s top seven members and the 80 National Executive Committee (NEC) members were elected, it was a foregone conclusion that a Cabinet reshuffle is imminent.

This was necessitated in part by the fact that traditionally, anyone occupying the position of Secretary General of the ANC operates from Luthuli House and is not deployed in Parliament. If this tradition is maintained, Fikile Mbalula will relinquish his Cabinet position as Minister of Transport and relocate to Luthuli House. His place in Cabinet will have to be taken by someone else. In making this change, President Ramaphosa might consider making other changes too.

Constitutionally, the sitting President has the right to hire and fire Ministers. Specifically, Section 84 of the Constitution of South Africa spells out the powers and functions of the President. Section 84(e) states that the President is responsible for “making any appointments that the Constitution or legislation requires the President to make, other than as head of the national executives”.

While this looks like a straightforward and uncomplicated process, previous experiences cast doubt about the simplicity of this process. For example, Former President Zuma was instructed by a court of law to explain why he made certain changes in his Cabinet by replacing some of the Cabinet members with new ones. This sent shock waves because it was unprecedented. Although Zuma’s successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa appealed this judgement, the fact that it was made in the first place meant that it is not a given that an incumbent President can reshuffle Cabinet willy-nilly.

Given this broad context, it is fair to argue that the looming Cabinet reshuffle will be a test to President Ramaphosa’s leadership prowess. There are two challenges in this regard. Firstly, the President needs to operate within the confines of the law when making new appointments. Secondly, a lot of things happened before and during the ANC’s December elective conference. Each of these points is expounded below.

Regarding the first one, Section 84 of the Constitution will remain the guiding document. Also, the judgement against former President Zuma will have to be taken into consideration when deciding on who to appoint into Cabinet and who to release. Any reckless action could result in another litigation as was the case under President Zuma’s administration. The only thing that could save Ramaphosa is if the media, the private sector, the judiciary, political parties/politicians, etc. take a decision to shield him like some of them have done on the Phala Phala matter.

The second challenge is even more compelling. During the build-up to the ANC’s 55th National Conference, some Cabinet Members and other Members of Parliament (MPs) openly challenged the President to resign following the Phala Phala saga. This did not go down well with those who are close to the President.

Given that they influenced him not to resign as the President of the ANC and the country on November 21, 2022, nothing would prevent them from influencing him to appoint certain people and not others. Should he use emotions in making a decision in this regard, the President would be committing political suicide which might see him being forced to resign before the 2024 general election.

Related to the above is what happened when the Section 89 Panel led by former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo presented its Report to the Speaker of the National Assembly, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to be debated in parliament. No less than five ANC MPs – including one Cabinet Minister, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, voted to accept the Panel Report. This was despite the fact that the NEC had instructed all ANC MPs to vote for the dismissal of the Panel Report. Such an incident could influence Ramaphosa when he carries out the looming Cabinet reshuffle.

What is clear from the synopsis above is that Ramaphosa will need leadership dexterity as he invokes Section 84 of the Constitution. Should he use his power to purge certain MPs and be vengeful, such a decision could lead to his downfall.

On the other hand, the President “owes” those who saved him from resigning. There will be expectations that he should reciprocate. The challenge is that should some of these beneficiaries be lacking in skills and knowledge, the President would be pressed between the rock and the hard place. On the one hand, he would be wanting to appease those who “saved” him. On the other hand, he would be determined to form a strong Cabinet. One is an antithesis of the other.

Put succinctly, the President needs to demonstrate that he is serious about renewing the ANC. One cannot renew a party through revenge and abuse of power.

Bheki Mngomezulu is Professor of Political Science and Deputy Dean of Research at the University of the Western Cape

This article is exclusive to The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.