Unpacking the shuffle
The Big Read: Predident Jacob Zuma has sought for a second time to balance requirements of politics and of government in the construction of his cabinet, but those who just vote and pay taxes could fairly have hoped that his bias would be towards capacity rather than debt.
Sunday's announcement of the most sweeping changes to a sitting cabinet since 1994 included overdue corrections and an act of gross political expedience, leaving his team weighted towards political interests rather than good governance.
Zuma came to power in May last year with no precedent for correcting presidential errors of judgment. Thabo Mbeki clung to his appointments way beyond any measure of doubt about the wrongness of some, such as Stella Sigcau and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.
So it is commendable that Zuma was willing after less than two years in power to sack someone as politically influential as former defence chief Siphiwe Nyanda before he totally destroyed the department of communications and someone as patently incompetent as Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya, the former minister for women, children and people with disabilities.
The appearance of courage is somewhat undermined, however, by Zuma's decision to leave others in places where they can continue to wreak havoc in departments essential to the delivery of the better life for all that the ANC has promised for the past 16 years. One such, and there are others, is the minister of correctional services, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who has blundered through every government job she has had.
Promoting former ANC Youth League presidents Fikile Mbalula and Malusi Gigaba was patently political. Both were languishing in deputy ministerial portfolios, which do not include a full-time seat at the cabinet table, and were hungry for more.
Mbalula showed organisational skill in his management of the ANC's last election campaign and would be hard-pressed to under-perform outgoing sports minister Makhenkesi Stofile. But Zuma was under pressure to give Mbalula a real job and the influence that goes with a cabinet position if he did not want to see him swept into the post of ANC secretary general at the party's 2012 conference.
Gigaba's elevation from second chair at home affairs to control of public enterprises is a different proposition. He tried in his previous job to make a name as a crusader against child porn, but managed mainly to make a fool of himself. He promoted poorly drafted legislation and clung to patently illogical positions even when offered easy and honourable outs.
Now, as shareholder on behalf of the public of giant corporations including Eskom and Transnet, he is curator of some of the state's most strategic and valuable assets. Stubborn adherence to untenable positions won't help anyone.
The job will also require him to be a bulwark against both the corrupt and inappropriate business practices that the scale of the department's cheque book attracts.
Barbara Hogan, outgoing minister of public enterprises, may have been sacked for speaking her mind on matters beyond her portfolio. There are ministers and senior officials who believe, however, that her sin was to refuse to put political expedience ahead of her shareholder duty when questions came up at state-owned entities she oversaw.
Public enterprises is a small department with a shopping list worth R600-billion over the next three years and R1-trillion over the next decade. With the arms deal done and World Cup facilities built, this is where those who Cosatu boss Zwelinzima Vavi labelled "hyenas" will gather to collect the facilitation fees that could massively enrich another generation whose only skill is networking.
Keeping the influential Lulu Xingwana in the cabinet is a political necessity various presidents have recognised as they've shifted her from one portfolio to another. She could hardly be worse than the self-serving Mayende-Sibiya in the ministry of women, children and people with disabilities, but her record on gender politics raises doubt about her suitability for this fairly sensitive role.
Though Bathabile Dlamini may have repented her role in the Travelgate saga and her abuse of parliamentary funds, Zuma should explain his decision to appoint her minister of social development with responsibility for the huge welfare budget if he is to avoid undermining the credibility of the government's escalating anti-corruption rhetoric.
Membathisi Mdladlana's removal as labour minister was overdue. He was a hard-working shop steward for the formally employed working class, but an obstacle to inventive initiatives to break the barriers to entry for millions of unskilled, unemployed young people. Without his defensive presence, his replacement, Mildred Oliphant, could work within the cluster of economic ministries to break the logjam without surrendering hard won-rights.
Roy Padayachie's highly technical position as minister of communications will allow him to start unlocking the digital highways so long promised without attracting too much political attention, but stabilising the SABC could prove to be a poisoned chalice.
The department of public works, where the civil service mindset remains embedded, has defied many ministers. What possessed Zuma to pass the challenge to Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde is not clear, but she could hardly make it worse.
The ANC's elective conference in Bloemfontein is two years away and on the minds of many in Zuma's team. If his political decisions have stabilised his vast executive enough to allow the doers to get on with doing, the changes probably are for the better - but not by the margin one might have hoped for.