Skip colour, age or tribe - ministers must perform

After President Cyril Ramaphosa announced his first Cabinet reshuffle late on Monday night, many South Africans were more pre-occupied with the number of people in Cabinet with whom they could identify than the skills and experience of those appointed.

After feeling disappointed that he did not go far enough, I now realise Ramaphosa did reasonably well with his maiden Cabinet reshuffle. He is operating under severe restrictions in the ANC because of the narrow margin by which he won the presidency at the elective conference in December.

So, to take out 10 suspect ministers a week after outsmarting the wily Jacob Zuma is a feat not to be scoffed at.

My hope, though, is that after the Cabinet review he will have another opportunity to remove some others because of their portfolios falling away or being merged.

But while logical people would look at the skills and experience of those appointed, there are many who only look at whether Ramaphosa appointed ministers who look and sound like them.

There is a weird assumption that if someone looks and sounds like me, he will probably think like me too and he will have my best interests at heart.

But I am alarmed when people list the ages of the Cabinet members on social media and say not enough young people have been appointed. I agree that we need to create more opportunities for young people at all levels of society, but it must never be just because they are young. At the level of the Cabinet, in fact, it must be about how competent they are. If you are young, that should almost be a bonus.

As someone who was young once, I have realised that there are many things that I would have done differently. I was one of the youngest people to be appointed editor of the Cape Times, but it was only after I left the paper and reflected on some of the things I did that I realised I made many mistakes which I would not repeat having had the benefit of more experience and, dare I say it, wisdom. I am not saying my experience is indicative of all young people, but it’s the experience I know.

One of the other criticisms of the Cabinet is the number of women who have been appointed, but this perception is probably tainted by the disappointment at the choice of Bathabile Dlamini as the minister responsible for women.

I agree that women are under-represented in many areas where it matters. But being a woman should not be the major reason for being appointed to the Cabinet. Competence should always be the main reason. The other criticism of the new appointments is that there is not enough of this or that racial or tribal group. Some people seem to have nothing better to do than to scan people’s profiles to see which racial or tribal group they belong to.

I have never supported group identity, because it’s the easiest way to perpetuate situations of us and them. If I belong to one group, then surely there must be many others to which I don’t belong and with whom I should take issue.

I prefer to look at what I can learn and, in some cases, adopt from my interactions with different groups of people. Having said that, we must be conscious of how we put together groups of people in South Africa, especially with something as important as the Cabinet.

At Cabinet level, however, I care less about the colour, gender or age of ministers than about their ability to deliver. Hopefully, all ministers will have proper performance agreements with the president, which will be used to assess their fitness to hold office going forward.

If Bathabile Dlamini does not deliver, then she must go, even if it will upset her ANC Women’s League constituency. If Blade Nzimande does not sort out our transport problems, then he must go, even if it upsets the SACP. The same should apply to all ministers. If they don’t perform, they should be fired - even if it upsets those who supposedly look and sound like them.

In the end, we are all South Africans and we want the best for our country.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 3 March 2018)