Cabinet reshuffles are more about perception than policy


Regular calls and expectations about a Cabinet reshuffle are a storm in a teacup or, as Shakespeare put it in Macbeth, “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” Such is the fate of the spectacle of cabinet reshuffles in South Africa; and dare I say in the rest of Africa too.

As usual, the President’s Cabinet reshuffle announcement on Thursday night was widely and wildly anticipated. By the thickness of tension in the air and the usual noisy republican character of South Africans, a Martian could be fooled to think that Cabinet reshuffles were a serious act of reform, statecraft or even patriotism. Worse still, some among us think that reshuffles are a normal thing in a democratic society. Nothing can be further from the truth.

In fact, Cabinet reshuffles are a recent phenomenon in South Africa, if one considers that under former President Nelson Mandela, they were a rarity and under former President Thabo Mbeki, they were few and far in between. Reshuffles increased in the last decade under former President Jacob Zuma, thereby signifying a highly unstable internal party environment. Because, stripped to the bare bones, Cabinet reshuffles are more about the shifting sands of intra-party factional loyalties, the next party conference, and public relations.

As it is the norm, the next few days will see the public discourse filled with “expert opinion” that praises and showcases the bravado of the president and the ascendancy of his perceived faction. Finally, he acted; some will say. Criticism too is expected.

Elsewhere in the world, changes to the composition of Cabinet – the national executive – is often occasioned by the reality of unstable coalition politics, simply because by their very nature, coalition politics are unpredictable. Otherwise, it is sometimes thrust into the political space due to the incidents of death or big scandal. Even then, the focus is mainly on replacement in the affected portfolios and not a wholesale reshuffle – an important distinction to make. Well, I guess others can argue that factions too are coalitions.

A Cabinet reshuffle is more like rearranging chairs on the Titanic. It does not signal shifts in policy and sometimes does not lead to improvement of performance. This is even truer in a one-party dominant system, which is often reluctant to change policy midstream. Policies are only reviewed every five years – a debate for another day.

Across the Atlantic, the experience is rather different and shows more stability than in our case. For instance, the United States’ (US) executive system and appointment process, having matured over time, has built some safeguards to avoid political frivolity and PR stunts. In a two-party system, it often requires bi-partisan support and senate confirmation to reshuffle a Cabinet in front of fellow lawmakers and the full glare of the public.

With such an elaborate process in the US, it is often possible to avoid the two extremes: incompetent or frivolous appointments. Although a presidential system with enormous powers, the prerogative of the US president to appoint and dismiss Cabinet colleagues is not taken lightly or arbitrarily. Of course, the outlier, Donald Trump, pushed the envelope a little further. Otherwise, arbitrariness and senselessness are contained within reasonable bounds.

In our case, only the president is confirmed by parliament through a vote. And so far, it has been a mere formality because the ANC has held majority seats since 1994.

The Chinese system is arguably more ideal for developing countries because it emphasises meritocracy, education (including political training), and science. The election of ministers is often linked to policy and long-term planning.
In China, there is often a 50- to 100-year plan that is divided into 10-year milestones. Cabinet ministers go in to pursue a pre-determined party programme and the expectation is that each cadre must account for his or her given 10 years. Besides, state bureaucracy is equally strong and insulated to the extent that changes at Cabinet level do not easily upset policy implementation or policy itself. This does not mean that the Chinese are unscientific and do not consider changing realities mid-term.

In South Africa, a new ANC minister can be mistaken to be a minister from the opposition, especially in the first six months. Interpretation and application of policy often takes different emphases, delays in implementation occurs regularly and reviews – if any at all – take longer than expected. Such behaviour induces cries of “policy uncertainty”, particularly from the private sector.

Cabinet reshuffles are often not informed by scientific performance reviews either. Although since the Zuma years, Cabinet ministers are obliged to sign performance contracts. This is yet another prove that Cabinet reshuffles are a tactical and a PR game that has nothing to do with policy action. Anyway, if you understand the African National Congress policy cycle and its gradualism, you will understand the frivolity of reshuffles.

The disjuncture between policy and Cabinet reshuffles was brought into sharp relief in the so-called major Cabinet shake-up back in 2009. What happened then was astounding to observant public policy specialists and progressive economists alike. The Trade and Industry portfolio was separated from Economic Development. It is well-established in theory and practice that industrialisation leads to economic development. The experience of the Four Asian Tigers proves the point and so does our own economic history here at home. How on earth, then, do you separate the two policy domains institutionally? The answer simple. Because of the need to balance factions.

Today, the Economic Development Department is reunited with Trade and Industry – a divorce that was unwarranted in the first place. What had happened after Polokwane was that Zuma had to consider an array of forces that delivered him, and he had to undertake an appeasement holy grail to balance factional interests. As a consequence of balancing factions, the problems of incoherence, poor policy coordination and silos were perpetuated in government. Is Ramaphosa balancing factions too?

In the end, Cabinet reshuffles have nothing to do with policy, government performance or the people. They have everything to do with internal party dynamics and, to some extent, the prying interests from the private sector. And by the way, the same goes for the Democratic Alliance (DA) or any party governing in a particular sphere of government.

What really excites the South African public about Cabinet reshuffles? Is it the spectacle of a beauty contest of twilights?

David Maimela is executive director of The Polisee Space, a progressive pan-African think-tank.

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