Newly elected premier Sihle Zikalala shortly after taking the oath of office and 
being declared the new leader of the provincial government in Pietermaritzburg this week. File photo: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA).
There has been a discernible shift in the character of KwaZulu-Natal politics. With all eyes focused on the executives appointed at national and provincial level this past week, a good description of the KwaZulu-Natal cabinet is politically pragmatic.

Incoming premier, Sihle Zikalala very much like President Cyril Ramaphosa, played his cards close to his chest. While wish lists did their rounds on social media, the final announcement had the new premier’s definitive imprint of reconciling divergent forces into a broadly representative executive. 

It does not appear to be a case of just ticking the boxes to appease allies, factions, leagues or to ensure race, gender or generational representivily.

If he has erred in his choices, then he has erred on the side of caution and the political imperative of holding the centre together. The fact that Zikalala is in overall command is more than apparent. 

The signals at his inauguration on Monday were important to watch. He took his cue from Ramaphosa to host a less than ostentatious inauguration but he resisted the temptation of a stadium. 

The choice of the sprawling grounds of the premier’s official residence at Parkside in Pietermaritzburg was a carefully thought out one. 

It simultaneously brought political and business grandees along with citizens into the walls of a tragically underutilised state facility and sent a signal of prudent use of scarce resources.

Zikalala himself lays considerable stress on accountability and the inauguration expenses will be the ideal foot from which to kick his new administration into step by step accountability. 

Another signal of the shifting sands in the province came from the profile and reception of the guests. 

Although quite evidently loaded with people aligned to the governing ANC, one would have expected former president Jacob Zuma to receive a rousing welcome in one of the heartlands of his influence. There was hardly a whimper let alone a round of applause.

A few days earlier, his court appearance in the same city could only muster those supporters who the dwindling benefactors could afford to bring in by bus. These shifting sands likely indicate a fatigue with contrarian posturing.

Ramaphosa’s conscious efforts at reconciling the ANC with itself are beginning to show results. 

Earlier this year he took a massive gamble in coming to KZN to present the organisation’s January 8 statement. 

On the election trail he again gave disproportionate attention to the province as he ventured into every remote part. It was a good way to gauge those who were decampaigning the ANC as well as other risks the organisations faced.

It was also noteworthy that other heavyweights closely aligned to Ramaphosa’s vision of renewal like Bheki Cele, Pravin Gordhan and Nocawe Mafu were frequently assigned to the province.

Zikalala, in keeping with the organisation’s discipline, aligned himself with the vision of the elected senior leadership. 

That posture must also have held him in good stead in the president’s eventual choice of premier as that matter was not a cut and dried one. Nomusa Dube-Ncube, now assigned to Economic Development in the province, made a very credible claim to the premiership. 

By bringing in several youthful newcomers, Zikalala has simultaneously held any potential disquiet from the ranks of the youth and women’s leagues at bay.

This is the first time that there is a larger proportion of women in the executive if one adds provincial speaker Nontembeko Boyce into the equation.

In spite of pot-shots from the opposition about inexperience, it is evident that Zikalala has given very careful thought to his choices. 

Kwazi Mshengu at Education has earned his stripes both via the youth league, the provincial executive of the ANC and as a senior government official.

There cannot be any doubt that he has been ably schooled in the business of government. Education is a tough assignment littered with minefields.

His energy will need to be matched with resolve to pull especially the unions into line. 

Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu at Health has also risen through the ranks with her last stint as official spokesperson of the organisation. 

Her portfolio is also a tall order and her main challenge will be earning the respect of a medical fraternity who justifiably demand deference. 

Workhorse Ravi Pillay’s returns to the executive in the Finance portfolio. That places the Treasury in a safe pair of hands.

The Public Works and Human Settlements assignments previously held by Pillay are now with Peggy Nkonyeni who resigned three years ago when the provincial cabinet was reshuffled by then premier Willies Mchunu. 

Those departments have made tremendous headway in recent years and will need to sustain their record.

A major cultural challenge among the MECs awaits a youthful Sipho Hlomuka at the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) as amakosi might not be too keen on being managed by a youngster. 

More pressing challenges will be with the errant mayors in eThekwini and Msunduzi in particular.

Mxolisi Kaunda in Transport returns to his large department building on the work of formidable predecessors.

The other portfolios in arts and culture, social development and agriculture are very much the minor placings as there are larger national programmes into which they fall.

* Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation. 

Buccus promotes #Reading Revolution via [email protected] at Antique Café in Morningside

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Sunday Tribune