Home News ANALYSIS: Ramaphosa is building a super presidency while ministers sit at home

ANALYSIS: Ramaphosa is building a super presidency while ministers sit at home

by Zahid Jadwat

Ahead of an impending Cabinet reshuffle, there is a strong desire for President Cyril Ramaphosa to do away with incompetent Cabinet ministers. But this is a move he appears reluctant to act upon. What is clear, though, is a centralisation of power around himself. What does this mean for the country?

There was an over-ambitious expectation that Ramaphosa would sweep out every one of the rotten ministers piled up in his predecessor’s Cabinet. But they weren’t all shown the door in the very first Cabinet reshuffle in early 2018. This would become a recurring theme in his presidency to date, where many who would eagerly be expected to be kicked out clung to their positions in spite of horrendous incompetence.

What appears to be happening, instead, is the creation of a so-called ‘Super Presidency’ at the Union Buildings. The opposition reacted with due scepticism when the president announced a Minister of Electricity would be appointed within the Presidency. This would mean at least three ministers would now be responsible for leading the country out of a pressing energy crisis.


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Super presidency

A super presidency implies an unusually strong or centralised presidency that may have expanded powers or influence beyond what is typical in a democratic government. It may also be used to describe a presidency that has been consolidated or strengthened through the accumulation of powers and authority over time.

The first sign of such a consolidation of power by President Ramaphosa, largely justified at the time, appeared in the reshuffle of August 5, 2021. His move to place responsibility of the State Security Agency (SSA) under the control of Minister in the Presidency, Mondli Gungubele, abolished the Department of State Security which had been subject to widespread abuse under the Zuma presidency.

The tightening of control over this crucial department was in line with the recommendations of the 2018 High Level Panel Review into the SSA. It further appeared all the more necessary after the deadly anarchy that ensued during the July 2021 unrest, partly due to failures on the part of intelligence structures.

While the president is within his rights as Head of State to appoint ministers within his presidency, it casts a shadow of suspicion over existing ministers. Additionally, it might forge duplication of powers and mandates between ministers in the Presidency and those in the standard Cabinet.

Incumbent president Ramaphosa is no stranger to accusations of being indecisive and reluctant to wield the axe on poorly performing ministers. Some have explained this apparent lack of will to political considerations, while others have deemed it outright incompetence.

Perhaps most telling of plans to elect a Minister of Electricity, apart from the utterly farcical sound of the title, is the shadow it casts over current ministers. Until now, the responsibility for oversight on Eskom, the country’s hobbling power utility, lay in the hands of Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan. Equally important, the responsibility of energy security was on Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe.

In the world of rife speculation, this could easily be interpreted as a swipe at these ministers for their failure to arrest the atrophy of the parastatal and energy security in their respective capacities.


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Cabinet reshuffle

Consensus amongst analysts is clear that Ramaphosa needs to clear the rot in his Cabinet. If his moves to consolidate power around him are to be accurately interpreted as a vote of no confidence in his own ministers, that should be an indictment upon his leadership.

Such sentiment was perfectly articulated by IFP MP Mkhuleko Hlengwa on day two of the SONA debate in Parliament this week.

“Every time your ministers don’t perform, instead of firing them you protect them by taking things into the Presidency. Be decisive, Mr President. Fire them! Don’t have a nanny Cabinet … If they are not working, fire them.”

He clearly needs to clean the house and rid it of all incompetence. But his attempts to appease factions within his African National Congress (ANC) mean he is almost paralysed in using his presidential powers to deal with the ineptitude that he has allowed to thrive around him. This comes at a severe cost to the country.

The reconfiguration of the Cabinet had been touted as early as the ANC’s 55th national elective conference at Nasrec in December last year. It’s now February, and all indication points to an imminent reshuffle after the Finance Minister delivers his budget speech. It better be worth the wait.

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