Anybody who watched President Cyril Ramaphosa announce his first Cabinet after successfully slaying the Zuma dragon in February last year, will recall how exhausted he looked when he took to the podium.
As the minutes ticked by past the appointed time of the announcement, social media lit up with speculation about the battles he must be waging to make much needed changes, while pandering to the Zuma faction, in an attempt to avoid an outright revolt, and fatal destabilising of the ANC.
An hour-and-a-half late, he stepped up to the podium, grey, drawn, exhausted, yet, at the same time, quietly triumphant, and announced his Cabinet.
Reactions were predictable: that he had squandered an opportunity to commence the clean-up process which he had alluded to in a number of public addresses, that it was “the same bus with a different driver”, that nothing had changed, that the Zuma faction still held sway within the decision-making structures of the party.
Yet, he had made the key strategic adjustments that he could, removing Des “Just for a weekend” van Rooyen, Mosebenzi Zwane, Faith Muthambe, Lynne Brown, David Mahlobo, and Sfiso Buthelezi, all lead actors in the unfolding tragedy of state capture, while sidelining others, like Bathabile Dlamini, Nomvula Mokonyane, Malusi Gigaba, and Bongani Bongo.
In early November, Mr Ramaphosa reaped one of the rewards of his long-game strategy, when he announced a replacement at Home Affairs for Malusi Gigaba who had just fallen on his sword – perhaps with a gentle nudge of encouragement from Mr Ramaphosa – without any backlash from the then still powerful anti-reform faction in the party.
He also commenced the slimming down of his cabinet, combining communications, telecommunications and postal services in a single ministry under newcomer, Stella Ndabeni Abrahams, mollifying at the same time, the populous and therefore strategic Kwa-Zulu Natal, which had an out-of-joint nose after not securing a seat at the powerful ANC’s Top Six table during the December 2017 Nasrec elective conference.
With a relatively successful election under his belt – he managed to reverse the trend whereby the ANC polled less nationally than in the preceding election, by bringing home 57% of the vote against the 54% of 2016 – Mr Ramaphosa announced his new slimmed down Cabinet last week Wednesday, and once again, he was late starting, and by his own admission, because of the wide consultation – read deal-cutting – in which he had to engage, to arrive at what amounts to a compromise between the reformist and the populist factions in the ANC.
In the lead up to the announcement, there was intense speculation about how the ANC integrity commission’s inquiry into 23 ANC MPs might play out, all of whom had been implicated in state capture or some other extent of wrong-doing.
The demand that these 23 people be removed from the ANC’s election list – and therefore from the parliamentary benches – quite naturally fell on deaf ears, and as the various luminaries appeared at Luthuli House and emerged victorious, the integrity of the inquiry process came into question.
What are the chances that the multiple allegations of perfidy levelled against Deputy President David Mabuza could simply evaporate once he had met with the integrity commission, after voluntarily – and cleverly – “postponing” his swearing in as a member of the House?
Similar questions could be asked about the allegations levelled against Gwede Mantashe, who was also on the carpet before the integrity commission, only to emerge seemingly unscathed. As an aside, the proceedings of the integrity commission are not for public consumption, and shall, we must presume, unto eternity so remain.
The carping of opposition parties that the ANC under Mr Ramaphosa is the same bus with a different driver, now rings hollow when one contemplates what the new executive looks like. Gone are the malignant likes of Bathabile Dlamini and her ilk, and the likes of Ronald Lamola and Patricia de Lille are in.
The significance of these appoitments deserves elaboration.
Mr Lamola has impeccable credentials. A former ANC Youth League deputy president, he nailed his colours to the mast, when he led a march to Luthuli House during the #ZumaMustFall campaign. He is a qualified attorney, and although young his appointment ticks an important box: that the grey-beards who have dominated our politics for the last quarter century begin to give way to younger people with fresh vision and fresh ideas.
Ms De Lille’s appointment took pretty much everyone by surprise, apparently also Ms De Lille herself. But it shows Mr Ramaphosa is confident that he holds the balance of power within the party. With the African Peoples Convention’s Themba Godi no longer in the key position of chair of the standing committee on public accounts, the tradition of appointing a member of a smaller party to a key position is satisfied. It is also undoubtedly a finger in the eye of the DA for the manner in which it handled the De Lille Matter.
Mr Ramaphosa has slimmed his cabinet from 34 to 28 ministers, and although he has kept the deputy minister tally relatively high by comparison, it demonstrates his political nous.
The beleaguered and waning populist faction must be satisfied with a number of compromised people in deputy ministerial portfolios, where they are not part of the Cabinet, and therefore have no say in the decision-making process.
The nay-sayers are, predictably, in opposition benches, insisting that he did not do enough, but Mr Ramaphosa, like the leader of any other political party, is constrained in what he can and cannot do, if he plans to see out his first term, and emerge victorious once more in 2022.