Unsteady as She Goes: South Africa under Cyril Ramaphosa

A new cabinet with internal rifts faces major challenges in the coming parliamentary term.

President Cyril Ramaphosa

President Ramaphosa's new cabinet faces significant challenges. Image credit: GovernmentZA, Flickr.

A new cabinet with internal rifts faces major challenges in the coming parliamentary term.

Cattle breeder, millionaire, and former trade unionist Cyril Ramaphosa won last month’s national elections in South Africa for his divided party, the African National Congress.

On June 20, he will set out the program for the Sixth Parliament in a State of the Nation address.

Nearly a year and half after Ramaphosa took office as president, it is clear that the ANC’s divisions are limiting his ability to govern effectively. He announced a lean cabinet three weeks ago, designed to cut back on the political patronage and improve on the dismal performance associated with his predecessor, but he then surrounded this smaller set of ministers with a bloated second tier of deputy ministers in order to placate party factions and manage the usual political balancing act that presidents must attend to in heterogeneous and unequal societies.

During the last years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency, civil society activists, independent judges, investigative journalists, and a slowly growing band of ANC party dissidents used the constitution to fight against corruption, malfeasance, and mismanagement. The party elected Ramaphosa by a thin majority, but produced a broader leadership that was tightly balanced between those who want a rollback of the damage caused by the previous administration and those who see little wrong in Zuma’s commitment to “radical economic transformation”—a legitimate aim that hid theft and waste of state resources in practice.

Already, D. D. Mabuza, Ramaphosa’s party deputy, has stared down an internal ANC integrity process, making his reappointment as deputy president and parliamentary leader of government business an awkward but necessary imperative. The ANC secretary general, elected by the membership and therefore not easily dislodged, played fast and loose with a National Executive Committee communique, contradicting Ramaphosa on the status of the South Africa Reserve Bank and in the process starting a run on the currency and forcing time to be wasted on political and economic firefighting. These may be rearguard actions by a faction on the back foot, but they suggest a governing party that is still not in sync with President Ramaphosa, despite him being the party leader.

Important advantages offset by major liabilities

The victory of the constitution, and the subsequent attempts by Ramaphosa’s presidency to repair the state and expose “state capture,” confirm the high degree of political freedom and ample civil liberties that South Africans continue to enjoy. Despite the depredations of former president Zuma, South Africa is still considered Free, with the Freedom in the World report placing it in the same neighborhood as the United States, India, Senegal, and Namibia, among others.

That level of freedom—illustrated by regular street protests, an independent and assertive press, and a no-holds-barred social media environment—is backed by an impressive private sector and booming urban centers. However, this does not tell the whole story. Exceptionally high levels of income inequality leave the majority of citizens at the mercy of neglected and neglectful public services. The extensive social grants system, providing a mix of grants to just over 11 million beneficiaries, barely compensates for poverty rates that are made worse by an economy presently in negative growth, extremely high levels of government debt and exposure to the debt of state-owned enterprises, and an official unemployment rate of 27 percent.

Human rights reports continue to point to poor treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, the increasing number of poverty-burdened tenants in urban and rural settings, the inhumane conditions in prisons and immigrant detention centers, and the impact of corruption on the quality and distribution of front-line state services. Violence and crime make poor areas insecure, and in some parts of the country, clean politicians and whistle-blowers are at risk of assassination.

Ramaphosa’s new cabinet has therefore inherited challenges that even a coherent and competent executive would find difficult to manage. But his government includes a mix of ideological views, and some members whose track records leave a great deal to be desired. Continuity in the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Public Enterprises has been welcomed; the business community has been more cautious about the appointment of a new minister of trade and industry. The Ministry of Higher Education is once again under a figure who presided, ineffectively, over massive student unrest during the #Feesmustfall campaign. A new minister of health has been appointed, but the previous minister now heads the Home Affairs Ministry, where his apparent prejudice against foreigners is likely to continue the institutionalized xenophobia of that department.

The speech is only the beginning

Commentators are divided on the extent to which Ramaphosa will be able to simultaneously please his party, expectant citizens, and nervous investors in his no-frills speech. But that speech is only the prologue to a term of office that is going to feature steep hurdles. Very soon thereafter, it will be the turn of his cabinet to face scrutiny as they report on their plans and budgets to portfolio committees that still don’t have appointed chairs because of internal wrangling in the ANC.

Civil society groups will be watching to assess the extent to which the president and his ministers attend to the damage caused in the various state departments by corruption and take seriously their constitutional mandate to “protect and promote the rights of all South Africans.”