Deconstructing the new Cabinet

It's been said before, but it's worth repeating. Cabinet changes, appointments and re-shuffles give one a strong indication of the thinking of a political leader. When that leader is Jacob Zuma, who is not known for communicating his thoughts of the political situation surrounding him, examining the appointment of a whole Cabinet is extremely useful. In this case, one rather gets the impression he is unhappy with the security cluster - which has been in the news for the last few months over a story that is all about him. At the same time, it appears the creation of a Ministry of Small Business Development is another indicator that the ANC is changing from within. And becoming more capitalist. Really.

That Zuma has given his security cluster a lot of attention cannot really be questioned. From the very beginning of his strange path to power (the spy tapes, conspiracy and plot of the years 2004 to 2009) this cluster has really mattered to him. It was the Intelligence Ministry that somehow found a way to tell him (or his lawyer, Michael Hulley) that recordings existed that could be used to get him off the corruption hook. It was the Police Ministry where Zuma spent the early years of his first term, telling officers it would be better to shoot earlier and more often. And it was Justice, and the National Prosecuting Authority that falls alongside it, that became what appeared to be a place for only the closest allies. Just in case the DA won its case eventually, and was able to reinstate the corruption charges against him.

And then came Nkandla. It's hard to imagine what more the former ministers of the security cluster could have done to protect Zuma. Nathi Mthethwa, Jeff Radebe and Siyabonga Cwele all played ball, claiming the Public Protector's report was wrong, could not be made public, and was legally flawed. All in the name of national security. Eventually, they even went to court on the matter, in an application still pending.

So why, then, these changes by Zuma? All three are gone. Radebe is Cabinet royalty; the last person who took the oath after being appointed by Nelson Mandela still to be there. While he's now in charge of Planning and Monitoring at the Presidency, surely someone with elder statesman status might have preferred to stay on at Justice. Justice, after all, matters, daily.

Mthethwa has gone to the place where Zuma's enemies are traditionally housed: Arts and Culture. What has he done wrong? It's hard to believe he's being chucked because of the way the police have behaved. There have been problems with the police for years: Andries Tatane died three years ago; the Marikana shootings are nearly two years old now. So why only act against Mthethwa, if that's the reason?

And Siyabonga Cwele? The man makes our nation look like a Frederick Forsyth novel, being in charge of our fake passports and yet having a wife who grooms drugs pushers. If a president doesn't fire a spy chief for that, then what does he fire them for? In the end, Cwele was given the job of telecommunications minister.

Perhaps it's just about trust: The Nkandla scandal is showing no signs of abating, and Zuma may be calculating that the sharp end of that is still to come. And so he may need fresh blood.

Or maybe Zuma is well aware that the end to his real political power, the power he gains through being president of the ANC, is only three years away, and he needs to plan for the future. So people he knows will have his back need to be in those ministries.

Or, if all that is too cynical, maybe it's about bringing in some fresh blood. Justice could do with someone from the computer age, while State Security could do with someone seen as less partisan. And the Ministry of Police could do with a whole new makeover. The problem with being Police Minister, though, is that you actually have very little power. The National Police Commissioner is appointed by the president, and you can't really order them to do anything. Charles Nqakula found that out on his watch, as Thabo Mbeki refused to fire Jackie Selebi.

It is going to take a while to fully decipher the security cluster appointments here. But when dealing with matters presidential at the moment, it is often foolish to be less than cynical.

Easier to understand is what's happening at the economics cluster.

Investors will be watching the ANC's press conference on Monday closely, to see if any reason is given for the departure of Pravin Gordhan from the Treasury. He had suggested he didn't really want to remain there, and the party could well explain that the Department of Cooperative Governance could really do with his talents and experience to help it fix municipalities.

His replacement is Nhlanhla Nene. It's still going to be some time for his name to not come up in Google with a slightly embarrassing video, courtesy of an SABC chair before he was Deputy Finance Minister. He seems to have a strong belief that the Treasury must be independent, and able to budget independently. However, he doesn't necessarily have the same long track record as Gordhan. This could matter. The pressure to increase public spending is more likely to increase than decrease over the next few years. Gordhan has warned several times that we cannot carry on borrowing to cover our running costs (namely, government wages). Nene could find it tough to keep his Cabinet colleagues in line.

His appointment also puts to bed a rather strange critique of our nation. We've never had what you could call a "black" (African) Finance Minister - depending, of course, on how you define these things. That has now changed.

With him in the cluster are Rob Davies at the DTI, and Ebrahim Patel. Like all the other SACP appointments, they've shown they're Royal Game, and can't be moved. It will come as no surprise to anyone who's ever read anything I've written on the economy before to find out that I am disappointed here. They are both in favour of more government intervention, and appear to have made life harder for firms, and particularly smaller firms, over the last few years. Davies, in particular, tried to make it compulsory for companies to register with their local councils, which could have allowed small-time officials to make life very difficult for some companies. And they were both part of a bid to tighten the conditions on the Walmart merger with Massmart (owners of Game and Dion) several years ago.

However, they are now being joined by Lindiwe Zulu, as the newly formed Department of Small Business Development. Gwede Mantashe had hinted several months ago that this ministry was coming. It is clearly a victory for a lobby group for business within the ANC, led by the Black Business Council.

It's hard to find a more impressive figure than Zulu. A former ambassador, International Relations advisor, representative in Zuma's intervention in Zimbabwe, and an MK vet, she really does seem to have it all. Brilliant, sharp, funny, and warm, all in one human being. As Zuma's point-person with Mugabe, she suffered humiliating insults from him, at a time when the ANC could not, in public, defend her. But even Mugabe had to apologise to her in the end, which may well be an indication of her closeness to Zuma.

Zulu has not spoken much about the economy in her previous role as a diplomat. But she is no pushover. If she does have a different view on things than Davies and Patel, the economic cluster is going to be fun for a while.

While Cabinet announcements are fun in that they give us the lie of the political land for a while, they can also be frustrating. It can often take quite a long time before the true motives for appointments are revealed. But it's going to be fun working it all out over the next five years.

Stephen Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes

This column appeared on _ Daily Maverick._