The huge, ‘temporary’ 30-member cabinet President Ramaphosa announced earlier this year is larger than those of many developed countries, even discounting the 36 deputy ministers lurking in the background.
With the 2024 general election around the corner and the possibility of a reformist coalition taking over government, here is what a lean, constitutionally compliant cabinet could look like.
The Constitution explicitly mandates only the following cabinet portfolios, some of which could in theory be combined in one department: President, Deputy President, Finance, Cooperative Governance, Justice, Defence, and Police.
All other portfolios are created at the discretion of the President.
One could argue, of course, that the various other general government responsibilities that can be gleaned from the Constitution – the progressive realisation of the right to education, for instance – by implication require additional cabinet portfolios.
A minimalist 11-member cabinet
Taking the explicit and implicit cabinet obligations found in the Constitution into account, here is a proposal for a minimalist 11-member cabinet that a reformist coalition could establish:
President; Deputy President; Finance; Defence; Justice; Home Affairs; International Relations; Public Service; Public Works; Cooperative Governance; and Social Development.
Many of the necessary functions of the scrapped portfolios will fall away, whether devolved to provinces or municipalities, or entrusted to the private sector. But others will be redistributed amongst the remaining portfolios.
The portfolio of Police could reside under Home Affairs, as is customary internationally. The portfolios of Transport, Electricity, Communications, and Water and Sanitation could reside under Public Works.
The international commerce responsibilities of the Trade, Industry, and Competition portfolio could be entrusted to the International Relations portfolio, and other necessary regulatory functions could be spread across Public Works and Social Development. This, too, for the Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment portfolio.
The Institute of Race Relations has long advocated for the introduction of a state-funded voucher system, primarily for healthcare, education, and housing. This is why the portfolios of Basic Education, Higher Education, Health, and Human Settlements can fall away under a reformist government.
The portfolio of Social Development, rather than providing education, health, or housing itself – something government has shown itself to be uniquely unsuited to – could simply become responsible for administering the new voucher system and overseeing any strictly necessary regulation.
Could be scrapped
To that can be added electricity vouchers, as the portfolio of Mineral Resources and Energy could be scrapped.
The portfolios that South Africa likes to have but could not possibly justify at this stage of its development and wealth – Women, Youth, and Persons with Disability, Small Business, Sport, Arts, and Culture, Tourism, Science and Innovation – should be shelved, and their functions left to South Africa’s dynamic and efficient private sector. Communications and Digital Technologies can similarly be lumped into this category. Any necessary regulatory aspects of communications could reside under Public Works.
The portfolio of Agriculture, Land Reform, and Rural Development should be broken up. The productive aspects of land reform (restitution, distribution of unused state land) could be entrusted to the courts and the Justice and Public Works portfolios. The harmful aspects of land reform (redistribution, nationalisation or ‘custodianship’, and leasing of state land) should fall away.
Agriculture and rural development should be left to the private sector and to farming and rural communities. To the extent that necessary regulatory aspects remain, those could reside under Public Works.
One hopes that a reformist government would privatise most, if not all, of South Africa’s state-owned enterprises currently under the Public Enterprises portfolio, which itself should fall away. If it does not, Eskom, Transnet, Alexkor, and SAFCOL could reside under Public Works, and Denel could reside under Defence. South African Airways and SA Express must simply be privatised – this is long overdue and most arguments to the contrary are spurious.
What is there to be said about the Labour and Employment portfolio? South Africa has some of the highest unemployment rates in the world. At best, this portfolio is useless, and at worst (which I think is the more likely answer), this portfolio has caused much of our joblessness. Ostensibly necessary aspects of labour regulation could reside under the Social Development portfolio.
Some other changes inside these portfolios could also be useful. Correctional Services could be severed from Justice and reside under Home Affairs, and State Security could be severed from the Presidency and reside under Defence, to name two examples. The Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation portfolio belongs in the Public Service ministry.
This cabinet rationalisation would mean fewer departments and portfolios to hold workshops, galas, and arrange expensive (and often pointless) summits.
But such a cabinet would still be capable of rendering all constitutionally required social services and care for the essential functions of government. It would be appropriate for a bloated and rapidly collapsing public service, and for an economy that has not really grown since 2008.
It is time to prioritise the cutting of public expenditure and providing real relief to taxpayers.
There are almost infinite ways of approaching how to do this, so this should be seen as a contribution to a debate that should be happening, rather than a conclusive and final proposal.
Countenancing a proposal like this necessarily means entrusting much economic and social development to the private sector. That is a bitter pill to swallow for the governing political elite, but there would also be unease among the reformist parties, not least because there would be fewer positions to distribute to secure the political support of coalition partners.
Unease is misplaced
While understandable, this unease is misplaced. At virtually every juncture over the last few decades of South African history, it has been the private sector that has kept things going, while the state has done incredible and likely unquantifiable damage to the economy.
If there is to be unease, it should be directed at whether the functions retained under the streamlined government are in fact still too numerous. A reformist government should recognise, respect, and productively exploit the superior capacity and efficiency of the private sector.
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