South Africa: Opinion - South Africa's New Government: Compromise Over Renewal

Deputy President David Mabuza, foreground left, and President Cyril Ramaphosa, foreground right, along with Cabinet Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Directors- General and Senior Government officials at the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House for the Extended Cabinet Meeting.
opinion

After days of speculation, South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa has formed his new government. His cabinet shows a clear intent of reform, but it also shows Ramaphosa's need to compromise, writes DW's Claus Stäcker.

Real politics instead of true change: Ramaphosa's new cabinet is by any standard better than the unstructured, bloated, incompetent and corrupt ministries who had served under Jacob Zuma. But the arbitrary composition of ministers shows all too clearly that Cyril Ramaphosa's power has its limits.

South African politics is after all not only a product of the impressive Union Buildings, the seat of the government in Pretoria. For the past 25 years, Luthuli House, the party headquarters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), is where many of the decisions come into being. And although Ramaphosa has attempted to style himself as a president for all South Africans, party politics continues to have a strong influence over him.

In his day, his predecessor Zuma used the ANC as his personal one-stop shop and network to maintain power and from this Ramaphosa cannot break free. At the party conference where Zuma was forced to resign, for instance, Ramaphosa only garnered enough support by a margin. And even for this, he was forced to forge murky alliances, which haunt him to this day. The rumors ahead of the cabinet appointment were already an indication that difficult negotiations were going on in the backrooms of Luthuli House.

The new cabinet list now shows Ramaphosa's achievements: the sizing down of Zuma's monster cabinet from 36 to 28 ministers, last seen in the days of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. A first-time achievement of gender-balance. He also managed to place key ministries with reform politicians, in response to which the South African Rand surged as investors showed their appreciation. Ramaphosa's allies control the finances, state enterprises, justice, environment and agriculture.

He's also managed to maintain a degree of ethnic diversity. With Barbara Creecy he has a competent white woman in the environment ministry. For the ministry of public works and infrastructure, he appointed the renegade opposition politician Patricia de Lille. The former Cape Town mayor, who fell out with the main opposition party Democratic Alliance (DA) and founded her own party, Good, is colored. Her appointment is a thorn in the eyes of the DA, whose Western Cape stronghold also has a soft spot for Lille.

But the Cabinet also has the other members: tired communists from parties allied to the ANC, the obligatory union representative, an even balance of the provinces, the women and the youth. Strategic alliances, equal distribution and payback often determine the choice, instead of competence and integrity. Deputy President David Mabuza, for instance, helped secure Ramaphosa's succession of Zuma, but he's definitely not one of the reformers.

Cyril Ramaphosa, who was once a close confidante of Nelson Mandela, a union leader and entrepreneur, now leads the country with limited powers. He managed to strike a minimal compromise, but it's not a victory.

His government might bring the country back to the era of Thabo Mbeki - an investment friendly climate and a reliable political ally. This means good news for Germany and the European Union, for whom South Africa could once again be a serious strategic partner.

But the "Mandela moment," which so many South Africans had hoped for is something that Ramaphosa cannot deliver. He remains trapped in the strife against his old rivals in his own party.

In the 25 years in government, the ANC has lost its ability to reform from within and for millions of young South Africans, it has become a party of the past. The Mandela magic has gone for good. Only fast, quantifiable successes will help Ramaphosa and his government stop the political erosion.

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