Johannesburg - As newly elected President Cyril Ramaphosa was putting the final touches on his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Friday, a frantic jockeying for ministerial posts was hotting up among some of his loyalists.
This, as a host of ministers and deputy ministers implicated in state capture and other corrupt activities, as well as those seen as incompetent, were expected to be shown the door.
Ramaphosa, who was sworn in as the president on Thursday, is under pressure to axe errant ministers.
In his maiden SONA on Friday, the president hinted at merging some departments to reduce the size of the cabinet, which has been criticised for being bloated and stacked with former president Jacob Zuma’s loyalists.
“It is critical that the structure and size of the state is optimally suited to meet the needs of the people…
“We will therefore initiate a process to review the configuration, number and size of national government departments,” he said.
Ramaphosa also hinted at firing the likes of Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, telling Parliament his government would “urgently take decisive steps to comply with all the directions of the Constitutional Court” on the payment of social grants.
“I want to personally allay fears of any disruption to the efficient delivery of this critical service, and will take action to ensure no person in government is undermining implementation deadlines set by the court,” said Ramaphosa.
He showed a clear intent to rein in corrupt officials in government and state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
“We will intervene decisively to stabilise and revitalise state-owned enterprises,” he said, citing the recent overhaul of the Eskom board.
“We will change the way that boards are appointed so that only people with expertise, experience and integrity serve in these pivotal positions…
"We will remove board members from any role in procurement and work with the auditor-general to strengthen external audit processes.”
He also stressed the need to strengthen law enforcement institutions and to “shield them from external interference or manipulation”.
The president said all of this was part of “putting behind diminishing trust” in these entities.
“We are determined to build a society defined by decency and integrity that does not tolerate the plunder of public resources, nor the theft by corporate criminals of the hard-earned savings of ordinary people.”
Amid the intermittent cheering from the House as Ramaphosa delivered a speech emphasising change and renewal after years of criticism against his predecessor Zuma – whose presidency was dogged by allegations of state capture and other scandals – some ministers appeared downcast, visibly nervous.
While Ramaphosa has yet to indicate when he will reshuffle the cabinet, speculation is rife that he could do this before the Budget speech on Wednesday, or as early as this weekend. And as he prepares to wield the axe, a frenzied behind-the-scenes jostling for positions has ensued.
ANC insiders say Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu is being widely touted as Ramaphosa’s choice for deputy president.
“Lindiwe is the president's obvious choice. She is an astute politician who is vastly experienced in government,” said an ANC insider.
“Also the ANC understands the importance of gender parity and, for the government to be seen as serious about this, it has to start in the top level.”
This was backed by another source. “Obviously gender parity is the consideration, but Lindiwe has all the attributes to serve as the deputy president and future president.
“If Cyril appoints David Mabuza (ANC deputy president), it will send the wrong message that the ANC is not serious about a woman eventually taking over as president.”
With speculation rife that Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba is due to be redeployed to another portfolio, possibly for a second stint at Home Affairs, former ANC treasurer Zweli Mkhize is said to be lobbying senior ANC members to take over at the Treasury.
Mkhize is on the list of prospective newcomers to the cabinet that has been circulating on social media with a parliamentary letterheads.
Also on the list is ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu, former ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa and fellow national executive committee (NEC) members Senzo Mchunu, David Masondo and Ronald Lamola as well as Cosatu’s second vice-president, Zingiswa Losi.
“Zweli is openly campaigning. He’s going around lobbying people to get Ramaphosa to appoint him. But I doubt if his wish will be granted,” said an insider close to Ramaphosa.
Mkhize had not responded to a text message left on his cellphone by the time of publication.
A source close to Gigaba said the minister had resigned himself to the fate that he would be redeployed, saying: “He is absolutely not worried. I think he’s aware of the imminent changes.”
Gigaba sounded unfazed when contacted for comment on Friday. “It doesn’t concern me. I have work to do and no time for distractions,” he said.
He reiterated this later on eNCA. “I serve at the pleasure of the president. The president appoints and dis-appoints. I will see you somewhere,” Gigaba said, echoing Zuma’s parting words following his resignation on Wednesday night.
Mthembu, Kodwa and Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams are said to be vying for the communications portfolio, which has switched hands between Faith Muthambi, Ayanda Dlodlo and Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, respectively, in less than 12 months.
“Zizi, Jackson and Stella want communications. They are jostling,” said an ANC insider.
Another source said Mthembu was widely tipped as the frontrunner.
Also up for grabs could be the Police Ministry, with Fikile Mbalula’s future in cabinet uncertain.
Sources close to Mbalula said moves were afoot to redeploy him to Luthuli House on a full-time basis.
“The ANC Top Six did not appoint Mbalula to lead any sub-committee of the NEC.
"They did not put him in the national working committee,” said a source closer to the minister.
“This is a sign that President Ramaphosa has bigger ideas for Mbalula in government,” adding that removing Mbalula from the Police Ministry “could be destabilising to the police at this crucial time”.
Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Bheki Cele is said to have revived his campaign to return to the Police Ministry.
“Cele wants Mbaks (Mbalula’s) job. But he was unlikely to succeed because he was found to be unfit to be the police general. Why would Cyril ignore that?” said an insider.
Mathole Motshekga, the parliamentary portfolio committee chairperson on justice and correctional services, is said to be eyeing the justice portfolio, currently held by Michael Masutha.
A source close to Motshekga said he would be a suitable candidate for the position.
“Dr Motshekga was among the people who were first to work in the department, along with the likes of Pius Langa, Dr Zola Skweyiya and Albie Sachs in 2006, working in the Department of Legal and Constitutional Affairs. He is vastly experienced in the area.”
Motshekga was cagey when contacted for comment, only saying: “I cannot deploy myself.”
Speculation is also rife that Faith Muthambi (Public Service and Administration), Mosebenzi Zwane (Mineral Resources), Des Van Rooyen (Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs), Nomvula Mokonyane (Water and Sanitation) are among those facing the axe. – Additional reporting by Siyabonga Mkhwanazi and Quinton Mtyala
Saturday Star and Political Bureau