Ramaphosa’s cabinet reshuffle is factional, lacks vision and is based on anti-Sisulu phobia

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By: Paul Ngobeni

In our democracy, the President’s appointment of cabinet members is a constitutional function which requires utmost care. Our Constitution states the Cabinet consists of the President, as head, and the President appoints the Deputy President, ministers and deputy ministers, assigns their powers and functions, and may dismiss them. That the President seemingly possesses untrammeled powers in the selection, appointment and dismissal of Cabinet members is unsurprising.

But the exercise of all public power, including discretionary executive action taken by the President, is constrained by the limits of the Constitution. Even when the President is exercising completely discretionary powers under the Constitution such as cabinet reshuffle, his actions must be “rationally related to the purpose for which the power was given” or, put differently, “rationally related to the objective sought to be achieved” (the rationality test). This is an objective test. From this vantage point, a Presidential reshuffle of Cabinet in total disregard of be excellence and competence demonstrated by successful experience of ministers like Sisulu fails this test. The reshuffle fails the rationality test in numerous ways and appears to be a political ploy influenced by the forthcoming ANC electoral contest.

The reshuffle comes at a time when the ANCWL has sounded a warning that it is high time to elect a woman President of the party and the country. This means that gender is a firmly established criterion for selecting Presidential candidates for the ANC and country in the forthcoming elections. Faced with the reality that this representational criteria is firmly one of the grounds for selection of a future president, Ramaphosa appears to have launched a pre-emptive strike to put viable women candidates such as Minister Lindiwe Sisulu at a disadvantage. He targeted certain potential rivals who are women for invidious marginalization, demotion and devaluing of their political and policy experience gained over many decades of struggle. Ramaphosa’s ambition for second term as ANC and South African President puts him squarely at loggerheads with the women potential challengers whose political experience, policy experience and education he simply cannot match. The reshuffle has become a trojan horse for him to decapitate the careers of women candidates he fears. Sisulu was carefully selected as a target.

Undeniably, the effective leadership or stewardship of the State can never be undertaken by a paranoid, weakened or lame duck President. The magnitude of presidential responsibilities demands that the incumbent be scrupulously honest, be clothed with sufficient governance-enabling authority to be the critical difference-maker and transformation-agent and above all else, be surrounded by Cabinet members appointed on the basis of demonstrated excellence and competence, preferably demonstrated by successful experience in fields at least related to those portfolios over which they assume responsibility. Minister Sisulu has held responsible Cabinet positions since the dawn of our democracy and has demonstrated excellence in critical fields such as national security, defence, human settlements, international relations, public service and administration, amongst others. But that is not acceptable to Ramaphosa. Sisulu’s only sin appears to be her willingness to listen to communities and citizens who have pleaded with her to be available for a presidential run when the time is right. Accordingly, she is viewed as a potential challenger to Ramaphosa and all her demonstrated excellence and competence were devalued and disregarded by Ramaphosa the reshuffle. The demotion to a tourism portfolio at the time when tourism has practically halted and when we are under lockdown appears to be a gratuitous humiliation.

One hallmark of a true leader is a willingness to pick, and effectively utilize, outstandingly able subordinates. Ramaphosa fails this test – his obsessive fear of being overshadowed by capable Ministers like Sisulu is a tell-tale indicator of inner weakness and insecurity. The incomprehensible Cabinet reshuffle and centralization of security within the presidency are indicative of a President who has an eye on the massive resources within the Department of Defence and the Security – they come in handy for Ramaphosa’s 2022 ANC presidential campaign. The role of Thandi Modise must be seen in this context.

In terms of our Constitution, Thandi Modise as the Speaker of Parliament, was the third most powerful person in our government. Her perquisites and salary were above those of ordinary Ministers. Inexplicably, she accepted Ramaphosa’s enticement to relinquish the Speaker’s role and to be appointed Defence Minister. But there is something sinister in that arrangement. Constitutionally, it sets a bad precedent about the role of the Speaker, that is her independence in dealing with the executive and impartiality in dealing with all elected members of Parliament. She leads an institution that is supposed to hold the executive accountable. Simultaneously she gives the appearance that she is open to enticement by the executive which dangles the carrot of cabinet appointment before her eyes. Certainly the “Modise reshuffle” shall forever have deleterious effects on the independence of the Speaker and separation of powers in our Constitution.

In advanced democracies, once elected as a Speaker, the incumbent must detach themselves from political membership and government activity in order to guarantee political neutrality and to run the House impartially. For example, in order to guarantee absolute impartiality, in London and Quebec, as soon as Speakers are elected they break all ties with their political party. That makes sense as the Speaker who is elected by majority members of Parliament has to interpret the rules impartially, maintain order, and defend the rights and privileges of the members of the house, including the right to freedom of expression in accordance with ethical principles. A President’s dangling the carrot of Cabinet appointment to an elected Speaker undermines good governance and brings into doubt parliament’s ability to hold the executive accountable. Ramaphosa knew this and simply could not countenance appointing Sisulu, his potential rival with enormous experience and expertise in security and military matters, to the Defence Minister position.

Cynics would be justified in surmising that there is a much more sinister agenda underlying the unusual reshuffle of a Speaker to a Cabinet position. Modise’s appointment comes at a time when Ramaphosa is facing the prospect of a very steep competition from a credible woman candidate, Minister Sisulu in the ANC’s 2022 elective conference. Ramaphosa has calculated that this may appease the ANC women constituency and neutralize the Sisulu factor even if comes at the expense of undermining the traditional neutrality of the Speaker, in reality and in appearance. At another level, Modise who has excelled in fawning sycophancy when it comes to Ramaphosa will serve as a useful tool to unlock the massive resources of the Defence Department to finance Rampahosa’s CR22 campaign. At the time when the SANDF will be increasingly embroiled in fighting Islamist insurgency in Mozambique, the Defence and Security Departments will become ready-made cash cows to finance CR22 presidential campaign. Just like the 2017 campaign, money and lots of it will become the critical factor in ensuring a Ramaphosa victory in the titanic campaign against Sisulu.

In Sisulu’s case, the President’s recent cabinet reshuffle has all the hallmarks of a paranoid rudderless President whose preoccupation seems to be political survival and side-lining of potential rivals. Unnerved by the growing voices for the election of women leaders in the ANC, the President seems to have targeted one potential rival Minister Sisulu and singled her out for marginalization. Most critical, Ramaphosa blithely ignored the wealth of experience Sisulu has in the national security and defence environment where Sisulu pioneered long-lasting reforms and strengthened legislation to fulfil the constitutional mandate.

The Constitution proclaims that “national security must reflect the resolve of South Africans, as individuals and as a nation, to live as equals, to live in peace and harmony, to be free from fear and want and to seek a better life”. Sisulu has always understood that national security should thus not be conceived as separate from, and potentially in conflict with, human security and human rights. It encompasses the security of the country, its people, the state and the constitutional order. The Constitution states that “national security is subject to the authority of Parliament and the national executive”. The Constitution further states that the President must either assume political responsibility for the control and direction of the civilian intelligence services or designate a member of Cabinet to assume that responsibility. The President has removed a Minister for Intelligence Services and assumed these functions himself. Undeniably, this is an area in which the President is clueless as he was fumbling around and confused as whether the recent violent riots were an insurrection, ethnic mobilization or a “counter-revolution.”

Sisulu was an Intelligence Minister at a moment of earth-shaking events such as the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. She pioneered and passed legislation such as the Financial Intelligence Centre Act (38 of 2001) (the FIC Act) which was introduced to fight financial crime, such as money laundering, tax evasion, and terrorist financing activities. The FIC Act brought South Africa in line with similar legislation in other countries designed to reveal the movement of monies derived from unlawful activities and thereby curbing money laundering and other criminal activities. Sisulu’s track record would terrify a paranoid President entangled in money laundering allegations surrounding the CR17 fund-raising activities.

As Intelligence Minister, Sisulu also carved out a new dispensation for the Intelligence Services. She correctly envisaged that a new breed of intelligence officers was required in dealing with a myriad of complex threats – cybercrime, money laundering, weapons smuggling, nuclear proliferation, etc, . She drastically restructured the Intelligence Academy for training and equipping such officers with the skills required to confront threats from sophisticated quarters. She reviewed the conditions of services of intelligence officers and totally overhauled the applicable human resources regulations with the result that intelligence officers were not subject to the Labour Relations Act and the Public Service Act.

Sisulu brought similar leadership and innovation when she served as Minister of Defence and Military Veterans where she introduced major reforms such as Defence Force Service Commission and appointment of military ombudsperson. Needless to mention that in every portfolio she has handled Sisulu has made enormous contributions and has introduced legislation and policy innovations designed to build a competent developmental state.

If the President was truly committed to building a democratic competent developmental instead of being on an ego trip, he would have utilized Sisulu’s unique talents and experience in the filed of national security and defence.

Ramaphosa removed Sisulu from the vital Human Settlement, Water and Sanitation Departments at the time when she was intensifying her crack-down on corruption and had achieved a historic clean audit in the latter Department which has historically been riddled with corruption and malfeasance.

I agree that a cabinet reshuffle involves statecraft and constitutes the President essential instrument for the translation of his vision into concrete goals and policies in the executive branch. It is untrammeled power but how well, consistently and effectively the executive branch functions under any President invariably depends on how wisely its president chooses, and uses, his Cabinet. The basic criteria of selection should be excellence and competence on the part of Cabinet appointees. An effective leader is willing to pick, and effectively use, outstandingly able subordinates. A President who lacks vision, is obsessed with CR22 election contest and paralysed by fear of highly competent ministers is guaranteed to fail. Ramaphosa’s fear of being overshadowed is an almost certain indicator of inner weakness and insecurity inimical to our democracy.