Cabinet appointments are always about politics

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Trying to keep politics out of government makes little sense — particularly in a democracy.

Last week’s Cabinet reshuffle sparked debate on whether Tokyo Sexwale lost his Cabinet post because he was a “bad minister” or because of politics. There was also wider discussion on whether the reshuffle was about appointing “the best ministers” or about politics. But Cabinet appointments are always about politics — in every country, whoever is in power.

They are never about appointing the “best” person on purely technical considerations.

Ministers are not meant to be technical experts — it is their officials who are meant to know how to do the required work: neither Pravin Gordhan nor Trevor Manuel is an economist. Ministers are the political heads of department — their job is to give its work political direction. They need to be effective politicians and to enjoy political influence.

This is why politicians become ministers by enjoying support — among the public and within their parties. And so every cabinet is also about the internal politics of the governing party. This is not a problem if we remember that ministers need political will and influence. Those with the most support should have the most clout.

“Good” and “bad” are the most subjective words in any language: there is no clear standard for deciding whether a minister is “good”. Whether Sexwale was “good” at his job depends on whether you like his politics, or what you think a housing ministry should do. Angie Motshekga does not impress education activists but is not short of loud supporters: whether you approve of Gordhan or Manuel depends on what you think should be done about the economy.

Because there are no right or wrong answers to these questions, the only way to decide them fairly is through democratic politics. Democracy’s core principle is that every citizen’s view is equally important and so the only test of whether ministers are “good” is whether most citizens think they are. Between elections, that is tested by whether organised citizens approve of what the minister is doing. Good ministers are those who convince citizens’ groups to support them rather than campaign against them. Because cabinet appointments are political, reshuffles send political messages.

They tell politicians and the society who has influence and who does not. Where ministers have faced public pressure, they signal how seriously governments take their critics. And they may tell us what the governing party’s priorities are. What signals did last week’s reshuffle send?

Sexwale’s removal is a clear response to his challenge to the winning slate at Mangaung. Citizens were pushing for the removal of other ministers. Why was he removed when no citizens’ groups were pressing for this? Those who claim it was because he did not perform ask us to believe that the president, in an apolitical search for nonperformers, picked a minister who opposed him at Mangaung rather than those who have been on the wrong end of public campaigns but are his allies. This is like asking us to believe in the tooth mouse.

A signal is also being sent to Sexwale’s Mangaung allies. It is not clear why he went and they didn’t — perhaps because he has independent means and is more likely to return to business than form a new party. But it is now even less likely that the Mangaung losers will be in the government after the next election and more possible that the African National Congress (ANC) will split. And so this move could strengthen the leadership in the short term but weaken it later.

The reshuffle also tried to send a message to citizens. The government seemed to signal that it does not care what campaigners think of its ministers: Motshekga, Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson and Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi are still there, despite pressure. But it did send a subtle message that it is more worried about the public’s view than it lets on.

Whatever the abilities of the new appointments, all have a reputation for public service rather than selfservice. Yunus Carrim, Lechesa Tsenoli and Connie September are all associated with principle rather than personal profit. The appointment as deputy ministers of disabilityrights activist Michael Masutha and Pamela Tshwete strengthens the trend.

Why this attempt to show that people who are interested in serving the public have a role in the government? Surely because the ANC realises that many of its supporters believe it has lost its moral compass and it hopes this may persuade them to remain loyal in next year’s election. It may not work for the ANC, but the intention seems clear.

The reshuffle is not a management exercise. It is designed to signal within the ANC that the new leadership is in charge and to persuade voters that it wants to return to its moral moorings. If we reduce Cabinet appointments to a technical exercise, we miss the point.

By Steven Friedman

Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

Article Source: Business Day