For South Africa’s cabinet, bigger may not mean better

After South Africa’s president announced the largest Cabinet in the country’s democratic history on Sunday, some critics questioned whether the attempt to appease diverse political interests will undermine efforts to address the country’s myriad economic and social problems. would make it more difficult to tackle.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has promised for years to shrink the size of government, partly in response to demands from the public and political opponents. But after his party, the African National Congress, failed to win an outright majority in parliament in recent elections for the first time since the end of apartheid 30 years ago, he has had to incorporate a broad coalition of parties into his executive branch.

He increased the number of ministers from 30 to 32 and the number of deputy ministers from 36 to 43. The combined 75 ministers and deputy ministers is the highest number in a government since the first democratic elections in 1994. Now comes the challenge of bringing this diverse group of politicians together to shape a coherent policy agenda for a country struggling with high unemployment, persistent poverty and poor delivery of basic services.

“So every political party thoroughly criticized an unnecessarily bloated cabinet until the choice was between a bloated executive or their party member not receiving office,” Moshibudi Motimele, a political studies lecturer at the University of the Free State in South Africa, wrote on social media.

“I repeat,” she added, “the politics being played here is about power and positions and has absolutely nothing to do with people and policies.”

But Mr Ramaphosa and the leader of the second-largest party, the Democratic Alliance, have insisted that the executive branch, formed after about a month of negotiations after the May elections, will work together to put South Africa on the right path to make.

“Although the ministers and deputy ministers who form the national executive come from different parties, they are expected to serve the people as a whole,” Mr Ramaphosa wrote in his weekly letter to the nation on Monday. “They are expected to implement a shared mandate and a common programme of action.”

Ramaphosa’s cabinet was sealed after two weeks of tense negotiations between his party, the ANC, and the Democratic Alliance, during which there were times when their partnership seemed on the verge of collapse.

The ANC won 40 percent of the votes in the election, while the Democratic Alliance received 22 percent. But the two sides clashed over how many ministerial posts the Democratic Alliance should get, according to an agreement to work together the two sides signed in mid-June. That agreement formed what they call a national unity government, which now includes 11 of the 18 parties in parliament, participating in an ANC-led governing coalition.

While the ANC invited all parties in parliament to join the unity government, the third largest party, uMkhonto weSizwe, led by former president Jacob Zuma, refused. With more than 14 percent of the vote, Zuma’s party will lead an opposition coalition.

Ultimately, the Democratic Alliance got six ministers and six deputy ministers. The Inkatha Freedom Party, the third largest in the coalition, got two ministers, while the Patriotic Alliance, Freedom Front Plus, Azania Pan-African Congress and GOOD parties got one each.

“The prosecutor has never been concerned with holding positions for their own sake,” Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen said in a speech Monday. His party “refused to accept watered-down compromises,” he added, to “ensure that the portfolios we receive are also really substantial.”

“We aim to carefully rebuild the government institutions that are now under our management,” he said.

Mr Steenhuisen was given the role of minister of agriculture. That ministry previously included land reform and rural development, but Mr Ramaphosa made land reform a separate ministry and appointed Pan Africanist Congress leader Mzwanele Nyhontso as minister.

This creates an interesting dynamic, as Mr Nyhontso’s party has vigorously promoted “the restoration of land” for black people dispossessed by colonization in its manifesto. The Democratic Alliance has generally advocated increasing land ownership opportunities for South Africans, but not through the lens of racial justice.

Increasing land ownership among black South Africans — or land reform, as it is called — will likely require coordination between Mr. Steenhuisen and Mr. Nyhontso. Once land is transferred, new owners often need financial support from the Agriculture Department so they can farm effectively.

“If we don’t move quickly on land reform, we may not be able to achieve the additional growth and inclusiveness in agriculture,” said Wandile Sihlobo, a South African agricultural economist.

Ms Motimele of the University of the Free State said in an interview that while forming a cabinet was a big commitment, the most critical moment for the country is now: creating and implementing policy.

“This is the moment,” she said, “when social movements, civil society and ordinary South Africans can now get involved in shaping what happens.”

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