Where there is smoke, there must be a fire

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This past weekend’s reports of a possible cabinet reshuffle must therefore have some degree of credence to them. In theory, a cabinet reshuffle could take place at any time. It is, after all, the prerogative of the president to fire people from his executive. 

However, with a pandemic spreading like wildfire, a health structure that is crawling from the pressure, a schooling system that is in crisis and a dithering economy the last thing South Africans need right now is for an exposure of the cracks of disunity in our national executive. 

In the face of the ban on alcohol as well as the one on tobacco, President Ramaphosa and his cabinet have been able to show resilient unity amidst the strong opposition. When the broader lockdown regulations were questioned and even dismissed by some, as lacking common sense, the national leadership of our country was able to stand united in the face of such criticism. 

As we witness the daily changing Covid-19 statistics of different countries across the globe, there has been a rapid rise of the number of infections and deaths in Brazil. President Jair Bolsonaro has been heavily criticised for his failure and, some would suggest, lack of leadership in tackling the pandemic in his country. 

Yet this lack of leadership has been most exemplified in his cabinet and the shortage of cohesion in it. For example, since the outbreak of Covid19 in Brazil, at the beginning of March, the country has had three ministers of health to date. Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who was the minister at the time of the outbreak, was fired by President Bolsonaro despite having been popular among Brazilians. 

Nelson Teich, Mandetta’s successor and an oncologist by training, lasted only a month. Data shows that the infections in Brazil spiked after Mandetta’s dismissal and today Brazil is second only to the United States with the highest number of infections and deaths worldwide. Brazil proves that disunity in a national leadership can be catastrophic. 

According to the weekend reports, President Ramaphosa will take aim at those ministers who have become the government’s face in the fight against Covid19. The minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, has taken the lead given that the president declared a state of national disaster. 

The Disaster Management Act, which hitherto has never been criticised by the opposition, empowers Dr Dlamini-Zuma with the enacting of the vast regulations. Given that the nature of the national disaster is a pandemic, it helps somewhat that the minister is also a trained medical doctor. 

By her side, Dr Dlamini-Zuma has had the minister of police, General Bheki Cele, who has had to ensure the implementation and upholding of the regulations. General Cele, who is also the former police commissioner, has come under severe criticism for the manner in which the regulations have been rigidly implemented especially in regards to the tobacco ban.

Finally, the other minister who also seems to be in the firing line, according to the reports, is the minister of health himself, Dr Zweli Mkhize, who too is a medical doctor by training. These three ministers have been the most vociferous in their implementation of the lockdown with the primary aim of flattening the curve and saving lives. Their reward? The possibility of being fired.

The other names added to the list seems to be a matter of convenience and politics. We know who the real targets are; these three ministers. 

Many in our country have never underestimated the might of the private sector and even in particular the tobacco and alcohol industries. Despite these specific industries having a devastating effect on our economy annually, they have been able to apply enough pressure in the last few weeks to ensure that all is done to lift the bans. 

When the strategy of going to court failed, it was obvious that these players, worth billions of Rands, would throw their might around. It would have come as no surprise that they would have engaged in action of lobby and calling in favours. The talk of a cabinet reshuffle is therefore more than just about internal ANC politics. 

It is fair to believe that there was a cabinet reshuffle fire in the making. Let us hope that, learning from Brazil, President Ramaphosa himself is the one to extinguish that fire. 

Seale lectured South African politics at Rhodes University and UWC. He writes from Beijing.