Effective, streamlined government and Cabinet needed to drive crucial reforms

Cabinet would be greatly strengthened by a far more rigorous process of priority setting so that it focuses on doing fewer things well. The Cabinet needs a small number of clearly defined priorities or

In this series for Daily Maverick, executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), Ann Bernstein, makes the case for a policy agenda that is substantially different from what we have seen over the past 15 years. It is drawn from Agenda 2024: Priorities for South Africa’s new government, which is based on CDE’s extensive policy work and recent collaboration with experts, business leaders, former public servants, and others across our society. The project sets out to answer the most important question facing South Africa: what can a new government do to get the country back on track after 15 years of stagnation and decline? 

This second article in the series recommends ways to restructure Cabinet and the Presidency as the first step towards fixing our collapsing state. Read Part 1 here.

What are the priority actions that a new government should take to get South Africa out of its crisis of stagnation and decline?

First, the government needs to fix itself.

The best governments are run by Cabinets full of talented, knowledgeable, hard-working and ethical political executives who can lead the agencies that report to them effectively, while ensuring that a wider agenda, led by the president, is elaborated and implemented. Individual ministers in such a Cabinet are experienced, flexible and pragmatic.

They are leaders of teams and capable of evaluating evidence to solve complex problems. They regard themselves as bound by the Constitution and the law, but also by a wider ethic of public service and loyalty to the president and his agenda. They are of unimpeachable integrity and willing to act against dishonesty whenever and wherever it manifests, notwithstanding any pre-existing political loyalties.

In the best governments, the right systems are in place. There is an effective, streamlined centre of government that is able to choose priorities and ensure that delivery targets are met. Reporting lines are clear, duplication of effort is avoided, and everyone is committed to the policy agenda.

The constraints to constructing such an ideal-type, reformist government in South Africa are manifold.

One is the constitutional requirement that all but two Cabinet ministers must be MPs, which limits the pool of eligible candidates.

A second reality is that any president will have to reward his supporters with positions of power and influence, irrespective of whether they share his reformist instincts or are especially well suited to delivering that agenda.

A third is that the composition of the Cabinet will have to be negotiated with coalition partners who may also not put forward the most appropriate leaders for these roles.

There are, therefore, significant political constraints on any president, no matter how reform-minded, that will limit his ability to select a Cabinet of the excellent people the country’s current situation demands. These constraints make the appointment of directors general and other senior State positions more important, so a new government needs to ensure that they are excellent professionals committed to public service delivery.

Our new government needs to find ways to minimise its deficiencies and build systems and processes into the centre of government so that it functions as well as it possibly can. Fortunately, some interventions would dramatically improve the functioning of the presidency and the Cabinet — even if a new president were not supported by a world-class Cabinet.

The most important figure in the Cabinet (after the president) is the minister of finance who needs to be someone with personal and political authority with the unwavering support of the president. In addition, the president must make full use of his constitutional prerogative to appoint two Cabinet ministers from outside the National Assembly. This is a crucial mechanism to bring in specialist expertise into key positions for a country in crisis.

Streamlined Cabinet

In the construction of a government of national unity, the president will need to accommodate various parties and interest groups in his Cabinet.

Nonetheless, it is still possible to reduce the number of Cabinet seats and ensure that the best available people are chosen in key portfolios. This is important because smaller cabinets tend to be more agile, more collegial, more accountable. The president can also consider all the other positions he has at his disposal in trying to keep the Cabinet small and committed to a common reform agenda.

In CDE’s analysis, based on advice from knowledgeable experts, a more effective, nimble Cabinet of some 20 ministers could be constituted out of the current 30.

There are a number of ways to do this. Some examples. Create a single minister of the economy (incorporating the trade, industry and competition, mining and tourism portfolios), a single minister of water, sanitation, energy and the environment and a single minister of transport, infrastructure, communications and digital technologies.

We recommend the creation of a new cities, housing, and urban development ministry that absorbs human settlements and is focused on metros.

A number of ministries need to be terminated. These include the minister in the presidency responsible for electricity, and the minister of small business development. Similarly, the ministry in the presidency for women, youth and persons with disabilities should be terminated with that function shifted into relevant departments.

Priority setting

Cabinet would be greatly strengthened by a far more rigorous process of priority setting so that it focuses on doing fewer things well. The Cabinet needs a small number of clearly defined priorities or it will flounder. This requires leadership and discipline: President Ramaphosa’s tendency to redefine the list of priorities every time he makes a speech needs to become a thing of the past.

Operation Vulindlela (OV) should be strengthened and reconstituted as a unit focused solely on the delivery of priority reforms. It should absorb the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation and the Project Management Office in the Presidency, while ensuring that implementation of a reform agenda is its core raison d’être.

The tasks of the new OV would be:

  • ensuring that priorities are pursued without distraction;
  • focusing on routine problem-solving and delivery;
  • systematically promoting cooperation across government agencies; and
  • developing metrics that identify achievements and early warnings of challenges being encountered.

Consideration should also be given to bringing back the Mbeki-era Policy Coordination and Advisory Services (Pcas) unit in the Presidency. Pcas was small, simply organised and staffed by high-quality people. It had a range of functions such as risk mitigation, addressing bottlenecks in complex multi-sectoral policies and ensuring the president is briefed on all key proposals on Cabinet’s agenda.

It should also be tasked with playing devil’s advocate in respect of policy proposals to Cabinet, testing the plausibility of assumptions, costing methods and risks, and working closely with the National Treasury.


An effective president, especially one overseeing a process of policy reform, must see themself as “communicator-in-chief”. It is their responsibility to ensure that the whole of society understands and supports the reforms they lead. This is especially true when those reforms will — at least initially — be opposed by powerful vested interests in government, in society and in the political alliance they lead.

The president, with the help of a quality Cabinet and top team of officials, needs to build a compelling vision of the future that will be made possible by the reforms they are championing and will be impossible to achieve if reforms are not undertaken.

The opponents of reform are mobilising. They will argue that the reforms represent “selling out” or that they serve the interests of “white monopoly capital”. They will argue also that the reforms are not working. These arguments need to be anticipated and addressed and the messaging of the president and the Cabinet needs to be confident, effective and as much as possible unchanging.

Any hope of progress being made by a newly elected government necessitates a high-performing, streamlined centre of government setting priorities and introducing a new approach to how to govern South Africa. This requires a reorganised Presidency, a smaller, more fit-for-purpose Cabinet where duplication of effort is avoided and where everyone is committed to a deepened reform agenda. DM

Ann Bernstein is executive director of CDE. The report, ACTION ONE: Reorganising the Cabinet and the Presidency, is available on the CDE website, www.cde.org.za

Article published by the Daily Maverick

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