Winners and losers are evident in South Africa’s historic new government.


President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, renowned for his adept negotiation skills, appears to have deftly maneuvered amidst talks with his main coalition partner, the Democratic Alliance (DA), to shape the formation of a new government while also addressing challenges from radical opposition parties advocating for the nationalization of white-owned land.

In a significant move, Mr. Ramaphosa unveiled a 32-member cabinet on Sunday, allocating 20 posts—more than 60%—to his African National Congress (ANC). This allocation underscored the ANC’s dominant position despite not securing an outright majority in the 29 May election. In contrast, the center-right DA received six seats, less than 20%, despite initially demanding 30% as per their power-sharing agreement with the ANC.

To bolster the DA’s representation, Mr. Ramaphosa appointed six officials from the DA as deputy ministers, including in crucial areas like finance where Enoch Godongwana of the ANC retained leadership, respected by both the business community and trade unions.

These appointments followed intense negotiations and a heated exchange of correspondence, during which Mr. Ramaphosa accused the DA of attempting to establish a “parallel government,” which he argued violated the constitutional framework. Furthermore, Mr. Ramaphosa diluted the DA’s influence by assigning an additional six cabinet posts to smaller parties, ranging ideologically from the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) to the Afrikaner nationalist Freedom Front Plus, making this government the most diverse in South Africa’s history.

Consistent with the post-apartheid tradition of inclusive governance, the cabinet represents all racial groups, with ministerial and deputy ministerial roles allocated to members of the white, colored, and Indian communities. This inclusivity reflects a broader sentiment among voters, as political analyst Thembisa Fakude noted to the BBC, “they don’t care if the cat is black or white, but whether it catches the mice.”

However, Mr. Ramaphosa’s decision to enter into a coalition with the DA has faced resistance. Led by John Steenhuisen, the DA is often accused of protecting economic privileges accrued by white individuals during apartheid, although the party denies these allegations.

In what he terms a government of national unity, Mr. Ramaphosa also appointed a deputy minister from the Muslim Al Jama-ah party, signaling his continued support for Palestine despite opposition from the DA. This stance was reinforced by the appointment of former justice minister Ronald Lamola as foreign minister, known for leading South Africa’s arguments in the genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice.

The ANC, which lost its parliamentary majority for the first time, necessitated Mr. Ramaphosa’s coalition government. In May’s election, the ANC secured 40% of the vote, while the DA followed with 22%. Initially demanding 11 cabinet posts and seeking the deputy presidency or a ministerial role in the presidency, the DA ultimately settled for the agriculture ministry, with Mr. Steenhuisen expressing satisfaction over the deal.

Acknowledging the challenge ahead, Mr. Steenhuisen affirmed the DA’s commitment, stating, “DA is proud to rise to the challenge, and take our place, for the very first time, at the seat of national government,” emphasizing their insistence on substantial portfolios through tough negotiations.

While Mr. Steenhuisen’s appointment may assuage concerns among white farmers apprehensive about land nationalization calls by opposition parties like former President Jacob Zuma’s MK party and Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Mr. Ramaphosa surprised many by entrusting the newly formed land reform ministry to the PAC, known for its slogan “Africa for the Africans” during the liberation struggle.

This strategic move is likely aimed at deflecting criticism from MK and the EFF, which accuse Mr. Ramaphosa of betraying the liberation movement by aligning with the DA.

Mr. Ramaphosa retained major economic portfolios within the ANC, reversing plans to hand the trade and industry ministry to the DA amid internal opposition and concerns from the black business sector and trade unions. This decision underscores the ANC’s commitment to its black economic empowerment policies, which the DA opposes, citing their alleged adverse impact on investment and allegations of corruption benefiting ANC affiliates.

Political analyst Ongama Mtimke highlighted the significance of these portfolios in addressing racial inequalities, suggesting Mr. Ramaphosa’s choices aim to demonstrate the ANC’s dedication to advancing the country’s revolutionary goals.

Despite potential disagreements over economic policies such as privatization, Mr. Fakude suggested common ground exists between the ANC and DA, aligning on various issues beyond their differences.

Mr. Ramaphosa also assigned key portfolios to the DA, including basic education, public works and infrastructure, and home affairs—a sensitive issue in a nation grappling with low literacy rates and contentious language policies in schools. Public works minister Dean Macpherson pledged vigorous infrastructure investment to drive economic growth and job creation, crucial for South Africa’s development agenda.

The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), allied with the DA, received two portfolios, with its leader Velenkosini Hlabisa appointed to the ministry of cooperative governance and traditional affairs. This move is perceived as another step by Mr. Ramaphosa to neutralize Mr. Zuma’s influence, amidst calls for increased powers for ceremonial monarchs and chiefs.

The appointment of Senzo Mchunu, an ANC leader from KwaZulu-Natal, as police minister reflects Mr. Ramaphosa’s efforts to address historical political violence in the province, exacerbated during Mr. Cele’s tenure, marked by riots following Mr. Zuma’s imprisonment.

South Africa braces for Mr. Zuma’s upcoming corruption trial, expected to reignite tensions in KwaZulu-Natal, Mr. Ramaphosa’s coalition with the DA positions MK as the official opposition, setting the stage for a contentious political landscape.


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