Cabinet reshuffle in historic perspective

Zuma proves the more things change the more they stay the same

President Jacob Zuma’s big balancing act

Personalities at the helm of governments and political parties change, governments or even whole systems of government are replaced. But, as President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet reshuffle last week proved, political processes and strategies in essence mostly stay the same.

When a political leader manages to capture the top spot of a governing party, the compilation of his first cabinet is usually heavily influenced by what he inherits from his predecessor and the core of the cabinet most often remains the same. Then, over time, as the new leader attempts to consolidate his position and to accommodate ever changing political realities, reshuffles are used to change the face of the cabinet.

Cabinet reshuffles, and other top appointments, are the ultimate instrument for the leaders of governing parties to reward supporters, accommodate important constituencies and get rid of, or sideline, opponents. Above all they represents a balancing act by the leader of the government of the day.

The reasons and process leading up to the election of a new leader of a governing party and the political wounds, or not, inflicted by it can have quite a dramatic influence on the pace and scope of cabinet changes and on broader related political developments.

Apart from the fact that Mr. Zuma became leader of the governing African National Congress courtesy of a palace revolution led to the formation of the Congress of the People (Cope), last week’s reshuffle has been the fourth since he became president five years ago.

History however, including the history of Mr. Zuma’s own ascendance to the top spot, tells us that cabinet reshuffles do not always work out as intended.

Last week’s reshuffle was used by Mr. Zuma as an opportunity to get rid of one of his most prominent rivals when he fired Human Settlements Minister, Tokyo Sexwale.

Sexwale was one of Zuma’s strongest opponents in the run-up to last year’s ANC elective congress at Mangaung,

If this move will have, for Zuma, the desired effect only time will tell. He himself was fired as deputy president by his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, in June 2005 only to come back at the Polokwane elective congress in December 2007 and staged a successful take-over as leader of the ANC.

Amid tension between the ANC and its governing alliance partner, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) on a number of fronts, some on ideology and some on policy programmes (including the question of the introduction of e-tolling on roads), Dipuo Peters has been appointed as new minister of transport. She has a strong  Cosatu background, as well as a strong history with the ANC’s Youth League, another area in which Mr. Zuma is battling to fully assert his authority.

While Cosatu has immediately reacted positively, it also signalled that the strengthening of its perceived influence in the inner circle of cabinet is not enough to placate it. In a statement it expressed hope that the new transport minister will scrap the implementation of e-tolls, illustrating that the strategy of trying to bring an opponent close to you to make the “throwing of stones” more difficult, does not always work.

Some six decades ago a young Dr. Albert Hertzog, son of a previous prime minister of South Africa, was making good progress within the ranks of the then ruling National Party (NP). His big “claim to fame” was his influence with the then exclusively white trade unions.

Hertzog was however, as an Afrikaner radical also strongly opposed to the overtures to English-speaking voters and by then prime minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, was in the run-up to and post-establishment of South Africa as a republic. At the time Verwoerd appointed Frank Waring, a one time Springbok rugby player, as the first English-speaking minister in a NP cabinet as part of a campaign to woe English speaking support for the party.

When John Vorster became prime minister, Hertzog and his supporters added to their “grievances” issues like “permission” for Maori rugby players and spectators to join an All Black touring team and the admission of a black diplomat from Malawi.

To placate Hertzog and his followers and in an attempt to establish some control over him, he was appointed to the cabinet. The strategy did not work and in late 1969 he and other ultra-conservative members of parliament broke away from the NP to form the Herstigte Nasionale Party (Reformed National Party), which unsuccessfully contested the 1970 general elections.

Although the HNP did not win a single seat, the splitting of the vote allowed the then United Party to make its first gains in parliament since 1948, increasing its number of seats from 39 to 47.

A similar drama played itself out during the late 1970s around the predecessor of the present Freedom Front Plus political party and its then leader Dr. Andries Treurnicht, who has the administration and statistics in 1979 by then prime minister P. W. Botha.

Bitterly opposed to the Botha administration’s first attempts to reform the apartheid system to one of “power sharing”, Treurnicht and 22 other members of parliament broke away from the NP to establish the Conservative Party.

As was the case with the NP heads of government and the then four provinces, the Zuma-cabinet also as a balancing act reflects the relative strengths of the provinces in the country.

No less than four, or 50%, of his latest appointments hail from KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). This is not only reflective of the fact that KZN is Mr. Zuma’s home province, but also of the voting weight, come election time, of that province. Not only is KZN the second most populous province after Gauteng, it also delivers the most ANC votes.

Another example of how the cabinet reshuffle represents a balancing act is to be seen in the fact that Dina Pule, departing minister of communication, was left out while controversial minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga, was spared the axe.

Mr. Zuma could hardly avoid sending out a signal that, in the face of growing perceptions about rampant corruption in government, he is serious about cleaning up government on that front.

Pule has been embroiled in scandal and investigations for some time since media reports first surfaced that accused her of giving preferential treatment to a company run by her one-time boyfriend.

Motshekga on the other hand, though at the centre of, among others, the scandal of non-delivery of school textbooks, probably survived the axe for delivering the ANC’s Women’s League support to Zuma at Mangaung. 

Several more examples of how the latest cabinet reshuffle represents an attempt at balancing competing interests and considerations or to placate/influence some constituencies can probably be read into it. Most important for the country and its future economic wellbeing as a whole however is the onslaught from the left on the National Development Plan (NDP) and its implementation.

It is notable that apart from the sacking of Sexwale, no less than three of the new appointments are members of the South African Communist Party (SACP) central committee. They will be joining some other SACP heavyweights already in government like Blade Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin, its secretary and deputy secretary general.

The parties, personalities and the issues have changed over time but the game has remained the same.

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