Malaika Mahlatsi8 July 2024 | 9:00

MALAIKA MAHLATSI: Zille’s lies and lessons from the globe on the (in)effectiveness of large Cabinets | Part 2

If the DA knew that party leader John Steenhuisen would be appointed Minister of Agriculture, it also knew that the Cabinet would increase, because agriculture was initially amalgamated with land reform and rural development, writes Malaika Mahlatsi.

MALAIKA MAHLATSI: Zille’s lies and lessons from the globe on the (in)effectiveness of large Cabinets | Part 2

Newly sworn-in Cabinet ministers pose for a photo with Chief Justice Raymond Zondo and President Cyril Ramaphosa on 3 July 2024. Picture: GCIS

Part 1 of this opinion piece, titled: Of bloated cabinets - A barometer of SA’s executive from 1994 to 2024, was published on the 1st of July. The said article traces the barometer of the size of executives from the first administration in the democratic dispensation – a government of national unity (GNU) under the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) president, Nelson Mandela – to the recently appointed executive that is also constituted as Government of National Unity.

It illustrates the growth in the size of the national executive, growth that was especially pronounced in the Jacob Zuma administrations where the number of deputy ministers increased by 20 in less than a decade. However, it is under the current GNU that we have the biggest executive, comprised of 34 ministers and 43 deputy ministers.

There have been many concerns raised about the size of the executive.

Interestingly, the Democratic Alliance (DA) which is part of the GNU, with six ministers and an equal number of deputy ministers, has been a loud voice in the condemnation of the size of the executive. 

In an interview with Aldrin Sampear, DA Federal Council chairperson, Helen Zille, claimed the party did not know what the size of the Cabinet would be until it was announced. She claims the party did not anticipate that the Cabinet would be as large as it is, and that the addition of four ministers to it is worrisome.

When asked if she knew what portfolios the DA would be given prior to the announcement, she responded in the affirmative.

Naturally, this makes her argument irrational and downright dishonest.

If the DA knew that party leader John Steenhuisen would be appointed Minister of Agriculture, it also knew that the Cabinet would increase, because agriculture was initially amalgamated with land reform and rural development.

For Steenhuisen to be Minister of Agriculture, the department had to be split, and by so doing, the number of ministers had to be increased. It's simple mathematics that exposes the DA’s ongoing lies and hypocrisy. I explored this in the article The DA’s shameless hypocrisy on cadre deployment.

Hypocrisy aside, the DA’s argument that a bloated executive is ineffective is not unreasonable. Across the world, there are numerous countries with grossly ineffective but large Cabinets.

The island nation of Papua New Guinea, with a population of just over 10.5 million people, has a Cabinet with 33 ministers. It is also one of the most underdeveloped nations on earth, with crippling unemployment, a devastating cost of living crisis, spiralling debt and deterioration of public services.These conditions have worsened rather than improved, as the Cabinet increased.

Nigeria, the largest country in Africa by population, has 48 ministers under the presidency of Bola Tinubu.

Despite this, the country is facing headline inflation that has worsened a cost of living crisis that is bringing the country to its knees. The devaluation of the country’s currency, the Naira, has also brought with it many problems, including dwindling foreign reserves. To support the large Cabinet, the government has been forced to borrow, increasing its already large debt which the Debt Management Office estimates at almost 38% of the gross domestic product (GDP). 

In various parts of India, the cost of large Cabinets is notable. The Cabinet of Goa state in western India, which comprises 14 ministers, spends almost half its budget on the salaries, vehicles and VIP protection of these individuals. The money, which could have gone towards much-needed infrastructure development and building climate resilience in a coastal city situated on the Arabian Sea that has seen its temperature increase by 1.2 degrees Celsius, is falling into a bottomless pit of political greed.

This bottomless spending pit is also felt in South Africa where, in the previous administration, ministers and deputy ministers employed 624 personal staff members, costing taxpayers R1.9 billion.

Additionally, ministers and deputy ministers lived in 97 state-owned mansions in Pretoria and Cape Town worth nearly R1 billion. This money could have gone towards more critical investments, including education and healthcare. It could have also added to the reduced expenditure on research and development (R&D), which is threatening the country’s capacity for re-industrialisation.

Conversely, smaller Cabinets have had effective results on a domestic and global scale.

Germany, the largest economy in Europe and the third largest country by population (after Russia and Türkiye), has just 16 federal ministers and a Chancellor. This is despite the country having over 20 million more people than South Africa.

The Cabinet has been able to pursue critical policies, both domestically and within the European Union (EU). It played an instrumental role in advancing the Critical Raw Materials Act, which is now a centrepiece of the EU strategy on increasing competition with the United States and China, particularly in the manufacturing of clean tech products.

The Cabinet has also approved important bills, including that of fast-tracking the construction of hydrogen infrastructure – among others. Similar outcomes have been observed in other countries, many of them developed and highly industrialised, which have smaller cabinets.

An important case for the reduction of the South African Cabinet, and analysis of the potential efficacy of such a Cabinet, was outlined by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) which, in its report titled ACTION ONE: Reorganise the Presidency and the Cabinet, argues, among other things, that adding extra layers of bureaucracy and parallel management structures has made it harder for the executive to take decisions and co-ordinate key actors to deliver on outcomes.

This is a no-brainer. There is a reason that governments in developing countries are adopting lean bureaucracy to drive programmes at minimal cost for maximum impact.

Even large countries are introducing e-governance to reduce the cost of running government. India is implementing this at federal level even as states are struggling to do so. Research demonstrates that beyond effective governance, this approach has enhanced citizen participation and feedback. Additionally, it has reduced corruption and waste.

South Africa, if it is serious about building a capable, accountable and efficient state, must seriously rethink its obsession with bloated executives. They are ineffective and costly.

Malaika Mahlatsi is a geographer and researcher at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. She is a PhD in Geography candidate at the University of Bayreuth in Germany.