GNU cabinet a bloated beast or herald of change?

The announcement of the new cabinet must be considered a significant disappointment by many opposition party supporters. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet has increased from 30 to 32 ministers, and the number of deputy ministers has risen to 43. It is clear that the cabinet’s expansion was a negotiating tactic aimed at keeping parties happy, but it failed to prioritise the voting citizen. 

Historically, opposition parties have called for a decrease in the size of the cabinet. For instance, the Democratic Alliance (DA) has advocated for the removal of cadre deployment, a practice the ANC has used to appoint officials of their choosing. It would have been expected that during the government of national unity (GNU) negotiations, there would have been a push for a reduction in the cabinet size and a restructuring of its functions. Instead, we have seen an increase in cabinet positions, which appear to be politically motivated rather than aimed at improving overall government administration. 

DA federal council chair Helen Zille recently discussed the issue on Radio 702, stating that the party should not be blamed for the “bloated cabinet”. She said the DA made concessions regarding cabinet positions under the assumption that it would be reduced in size. Zille also said she hoped that the new ministers would not take full advantage of the Ministerial Handbook benefits, and rather pay for electricity and water and not maintain two residences. 

But this does not absolve the DA, because there was a reluctance to abandon key demands during negotiations, including their manifesto’s call to reduce government spending on the cabinet. The ministerial mansions are worth a collective R967 million, and R2 billion has been spent on ministerial “support staff”. This money could have been better invested in initiatives that benefit the people of South Africa. 

The increase in the size of the cabinet is likely to lead to a larger ministerial budget to support the new “bloated” cabinet, as it has been termed in the media. Given the government’s long history of financial mismanagement, it is likely that this situation will only worsen. If the GNU’s many politicians are more interested in representation and financial benefits than improving overall government efficiency it raises concerns about whom the unity government is serving. 

Many political parties cite unemployment, crime and load-shedding as South Africa’s most pressing issues. It would have been preferable for the GNU to reduce the cabinet size and reallocate that spending to address these problems more effectively. Additionally, a smaller, more streamlined cabinet would improve decision-making and execution. 

South Africa is already one of the most unequal societies in the world. There is a growing fear that politicians may be perceived as indifferent to the general population’s struggles and may continue to enjoy a lifestyle disconnected from the reality faced by many South Africans. 

With some politicians living in mansions estimated to be worth R10 million, there is concern that financial perks may attract individuals who are not genuinely interested in politics but rather in exploiting the system. 

But, with various political parties holding positions in the cabinet and serving as deputy ministers in many key portfolios, there is a possibility for a change in political culture. This could lead to a more service-oriented approach to governance and a potential shift away from the empty promises South Africans have heard for years. 

As the initial euphoria of the GNU settles, much as it did during Ramaphosa’s first term, we will see whether there is anything to be hopeful about. 

Khumo Kumalo is the founder of the website Misunderstood, which unpacks social, identity and economic issues in South Africa, and a student at Morehouse College, studying political science. He is also a Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans 2024 winner.

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