RON DERBY: Ministers must not be meddlers

18 May 2019 - 05:11 By RON DERBY

There's a joke going around about just how much the country is missing our famed former first family, the Guptas, because we'd more or less know by now who our incoming ministers are. The New Age would have long ago profiled some unknown politician from some far-off province, preaching of their virtues in whatever portfolio they've decided to place them, unbeknown to the ANC itself.
Well, the family is no longer the voice of the highest office in the land and the leaks that were a theme of the previous administration seemingly are no more, especially with regard to the cabinet. For now, we can take comfort from knowing that it is going to be much smaller, so there'll be a whole lot less of the faction-pleasing antics of years past.
In ushering in new energy to a government that has been stuck in a state of paralysis for perhaps the past five years, the president's most important job is choosing the people to run the country and protecting those who will be unpopular among certain segments of his party. He wouldn't be doing his job if this wasn't an eventuality.
That supposed "sage" of ANC internal politics, Julius Malema, mouthed off this week about a plot being hatched to overthrow the pied piper of the New Dawn. But it's a rather obvious observation - in the ANC and, in fact, in most parties that aren't based on any one individual, the terrain is highly contested, especially when some of your biggest critics have the threat of criminal sanction hanging over their heads.
In trying to shy away from making anyone unhappy in his first round as president, Jacob Zuma opened the floor to all factions in the party to make recommendations, and, for the most part, he accommodated them. For that reason, like a CEO without any real strategy, there were too many cooks appointed and that cabinet expanded to a size impossible to manage.
In the nine years that Zuma governed this country there were some 11 cabinet reshuffles, and, with those changes, there was that "uncertainty" bug that fed into the South African story.
This game of musical chairs infected government departments - technocrats and some of the best we had quite simply had to play the dirty politics of the ANC to either defend the integrity of these institutions or, selfishly, to keep a job. Procurement officers in state-owned enterprises all had at some point to pander to the whims of their political masters.
The other option was to leave silently and move into the private sector. Some chose to become whistle-blowers at great risk to themselves and their families, or dig in for a fight that would muddy their name and certainly damage any chances of a better life in the private sector.
This has been the damage caused by the cabinet choices of the former president. We know that the chaos provided an opening for the plunder of the state by all and sundry, including international agencies such as McKinsey and Bain. Sadly, the weakening of the state happened in a period when the global economy was, and still is, changing in ways in which, sitting here in Johannesburg, we can't imagine.
To set the marker in his presidency, one that he has to run as a one-term gig, the cabinet Cyril Ramaphosa chooses is going to have to inspire confidence in the departments they are ultimately responsible for. These people shouldn't be tasked as mere corruption-busters - that should be left to a functioning National Prosecutions Authority. And if I hear any one of his appointments primarily speak of cleaning out corruption in his department, to me it would just be another replay of the Zuma years. The meddling of ministers past was all explained away as an attempt to clean house - but evidence has suggested otherwise.
Given how much top talent has left the state and is loath to return, Ramaphosa's choices are going to have to adhere to governance values and understand the separation of roles in departments, in particular that between minister and director-general. It's a line that has long been blurred, rendering the state defenceless against those intending to capture it.
It's the only way the good men and women that have remained within the public service can emerge, and those that have long left consider a return to public service. SA is a country still in transition - there's no autopilot here such as some Scandinavian countries can claim. Its public servants should be left to do the job at hand and not focus on who is set to become the next branch leader of the party.
Over to you, Mr President.
• Derby, a former Business Times editor, hosts Power Business on Power FM

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