Six Reasons Why Rushed Cadre Deployment is Bad for the Cabinet and for the Country

The African National Congress has recently launched its Imvuselelo (Revival) Campaign. At the launch, President Jacob Zuma indicated it means a “back to basics campaign”. The campaign aims to reconnect with voters and drive membership. The campaign requires new members to swear an oath that they did not join the ANC to advance personal material interests and for branches to conduct community work each Friday.

Iterations of this campaign using the same name have been around since 2006. The campaign is laudable in that having an ANC that has a focus on community issues is much better than the current state of the ANC, which has a persistent theme of “palace politics”. The focus of the campaign however needs questioning, as going “back to basics” in the current environment is likely to yield poor outcomes without institutional changes.

Instituting institutional reforms in the ANC requires navigating both internal structures of the ANC, as well as those of government. A difficult task, but a useful starting point is to reconsider how cabinet appointments are made.

Think back to May 10, 2014 when election results were announced. President Zuma’s Cabinet was announced on 25 May 25, 2014. Between the announcement of election results and the appointment of his cabinet, several processes needed to occur. Parliament was convened, parliamentary leadership appointed and the president elected. All this takes place in two to three weeks.

But several months after the announcement of Jacob Zuma’s cabinet, the president’s second term is still not off to a surefooted start. There are still new departments being established, new ministers grappling with the intricacies of their portfolios and new plans being developed. The underlying reason for this shaky start is the breakneck speed with which cabinet appointments are made after election results are announced in the first place.

A major reason for the swiftness in transition from one administration to the next is that the ANC remains in a dominant position at the national level. The assumption is that continuity rather than change is the order of the day and that a speedy process supports a seamless transition from one administration to the next. But the manner in which things take place in South Africa actually has the opposite effect, raising longer-term problems with the pace of service delivery.

Six challenges arise.

1. Ministers are not provided with the space or time to understand their new portfolios. Ministers are given limited time to come to grips with their roles and responsibilities. Moreover, some ministers have the dual responsibility of understanding their new portfolios, and at the same time, supporting new ministers in their old portfolios. Ministries such as policing and justice have seen both the appointment of a new Minister, and the appointment of the old Minister to a new ministerial position. The task for ministers is huge in terms of understanding legislation, adopting strategies to engage stakeholders and aligning their political work to the manifesto of their parties. It is a complex and complicated task.

2. Political factors outweigh other considerations when cabinet appointments are made. Creating a cabinet is a balancing act, but political factors do appear to outweigh other considerations. Rewarding loyal lieutenants with office is part and parcel of any cabinet selection process and it is naïve to suggest otherwise. However, some important factors appear to carry less weight. In particular, content knowledge of the sector and engagement with stakeholders appears less important.

The working groups, as the ANC caucus for each committee is called, have talented individuals who are wondering what it would take to get appointed to executive office. It is better if parliamentarians with expertise in specialist sectors are groomed for and compete for promotion to the executive.  The pool of potential candidates is potentially wider if one considers ANC veterans working in various sectors. This is important for planning, continuity and public service performance. For the ANC it would strengthen the links that it has with community organisations and stakeholders in various sectors, which at the moment are the weakest they have ever been than at any other time in our democracy.

3. Jacob Zuma likes playing musical chairs. The president reshuffled his Cabinet four times during his first term of office. Some of these reshuffles were out of his control, due to the passing on of cabinet ministers. But, even in this circumstance, President Zuma chose to change many portfolios, not just those of ministers who had passed on. Others changes were occasioned by scandals or political considerations. In total, just under 50% of ministers remained in the same portfolio for the full term of President Zuma’s first administration. Over this period, the economic and security clusters saw the least change, but governance and social clusters of ministries saw extensive changes.

Given this experience, the first term of President Zuma was routinely about orientating new ministers. If this continues as a trend in his second term there is simply not enough time for ministers to make an impression in their portfolios. The Mbeki administration was criticised for doing the opposite, standing by Cabinet ministers even when performance was wanting. Balancing stability with the need to remove scandal prone or ineffective ministers is difficult, but neither stability nor improved performance is achieved with the almost annual reshuffles that characterised President Zuma’s first term in office. 

4. It takes a long time to set up a new ministry. The process of establishing new departments is extremely long. The official transfer of functions and powers to newly formed departments or departments that have been split or combined takes place nearly three months after the appointment of the cabinet. More to the point, in the case of the Small Business Development ministry, it will receive its first budget in the current budget cycle, with the best-case scenario being a separate budget during the next Medium-Term Expenditure Statement. The process thus far has been cumbersome and long drawn out.

5. There is always tension between new ministers and senior staff. New ministers are very likely to clash with senior managers in the public service. The appointment of ministers usually requires a fairly quick display of loyalty or effectiveness. Ministers thus storm into departments and face impediments to immediately delivering, often because budgets are simply not available for these activities. This is usually the beginning of clashes between ministers and Director-Generals (DGs), which continue to simmer over a couple of years or until the minister appoints a more “suitable” DG.

6. Implementation slows down. Appointing a new minister has an immediate impact as it signals the possibility of a change in direction. Doubly so, if the new Minister has no background in the sector and needs to first become familiar with the sector. Bureaucracies slow down when there is political uncertainty and take several months to reboot, as they understand the goals of new political leaders.

Reforming the process of appointing cabinet ministers from one election to the next an important requirement to improve governance and performance. Undertaking these reforms would require that the ANC better appreciate that moving from one administration to the next requires a transition. In democracies where outcomes of elections are less certain than ours, there is a process of transition that lasts a couple of months. During this period, transition teams are appointed with new cabinet appointments overseeing the transition process. Even in emerging economies, when the incumbent party wins the election, there is still a transition process. This process usually takes three months. South Africa would benefit from a process that would allow newly appointed ministers time to adjust to their new roles without the day-to-day demands of office.

The formal process of transition would be further enhanced with a rethink on the meaning of “cadre deployment”. Even the ANC notes the rise of careerist in its ranks and asks for a reorientation of its members towards service. The ANC has a large layer of its membership consistently engaged with public policy issues, most never emerge from the internal fisticuffs of palace politics. Beginning to reward focus on public policy and community engagement is thus central to developing a wider pool of candidates that would vie for cabinet and other appointments. This requires a strong stance to deliberately reward focus on solving societal problems by members, over the narrow focus on short-term political gain.

Going “back to basics” in this instance requires much more than motivational talks to branch members, or even regular interactions with communities. It requires the building of institutions within the ANC and within government to help refocus the ANC to work with society to solve the challenges we face.  Reforming the way appointments are made at local, provincial and national levels would provide the kinds of reforms that shift attention towards an external focus on service.

This article was first published under creative commons license on South African Civil Society Information Service website.