Honey, I shrank the government
The election of Cyril Ramaphosa as South Africa's fifth democratic president has generated a palpable sense of renewal and optimism. It also presents a real opportunity to reimagine the structure of the state machinery over which he will preside. President Ramaphosa signalled as much in his maiden state of the nation address, remarking that he would "initiate a process to review the configuration, number and size of national government departments".
A planned reorganisation of state machinery has inevitably become conflated with speculation about the extent to which President Ramaphosa will shake up and reduce the size of the inflated Cabinet he has inherited from Jacob Zuma. Cabinet composition will have a direct effect on the size and scope of the national departments that implement the mandates of individual ministers.
But it would be shortsighted to allow immediate-term cabinet reorganisation – masquerading as internal party politics – to determine the optimal size of the state's machinery. How, then, should a Ramaphosa presidency embark upon the project of state machinery reform?
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The structure of South Africa's state machinery has undergone dramatic changes since the democratic transition. The trajectory of change in the number and composition of government departments reveals discernible differences between Mr Ramaphosa's predecessors, which have collectively produced an expanding and splintered population of national departments.
1994 – 1999: Incremental machinery expansion and policy reform under Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela's presidency saw extensive organisational remodelling, marked by the alteration, disbandment and creation of new departments to fit a dramatically changing and expanding policy agenda. This inevitably produced an enlarged population of national departments, although this growth was moderated by broader policy prerogatives such as "rationalising" the public sector and early debates about integrated policy management.
Despite these strategic considerations, the pressure to maintain continuity of public service delivery through an organisational apparatus that could scale up delivery blunted the rationalisation drive; as did pressure for state machinery to accommodate interparty power-sharing to secure a new constitutional order.
2000 – 2008: Stabilising the machinery and policy management under Thabo Mbeki
Thabo Mbeki's presidency ushered in a more intensive approach to integrated policy management, marked by consolidation and relative stability in the composition of the national machinery. This shift to a more implementation footing, favoured bolstering central control through reorganising cabinet coordinating structures in the presidency, with relatively minimal alteration to national departments.
The Mbeki period's approach to state machinery change, with a focus on improving the implementation modalities of policy delivery from the centre, did not, however, succeed in breaking through the siloed nature of government departments, despite maintaining relative stability in their numbers.
2009 – 2014: Runaway state-building under Jacob Zuma
The number of national departments expanded abruptly following the election of Jacob Zuma as president, despite this potentially diluting the effectiveness of his administration's renewed efforts to bolster central coordinating capacity in the presidency. The rationale for expanding the number of ministerial departments reprised the Mbeki period's emphasis on implementation and integrated policy management, but departed dramatically from its preference for machinery stabilisation.
Machinery expansion under Zuma was driven primarily by the remodelling of existing government departments, e.g. splitting and recombining functions. Notwithstanding genuine debate about the benefits of more functionally specialised and policy-focused departments, the political value to be gained by fragmenting the machinery in this way is a plausible explanation for the expansion.
This stems from heightened patronage pressures exerted on President Zuma following an acrimonious succession from Thabo Mbeki, resulting in the deployment of government machinery as political capital to build and sustain a coalition of cabinet support.
Conor O'Dwyer's notion of "runaway state-building", which recounts the experience of post-communist democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, is a potentially useful metaphor to characterise machinery change under Jacob Zuma. O'Dwyer describes runaway state-building as a phenomenon in which state-building becomes entwined with party building through the state's capacity to generate patronage; with the added dimension of intraparty contestation (factionalism) in the ANC potentially heightening this drive.
Mr Ramaphosa's time at the helm of the National Planning Commission will surely have sensitised him to the virtues of a leaner and more 'capable' state machinery.
What might lie in store for the state machinery that Cyril Ramaphosa has inherited? His intention to review the size and configuration of national departments suggests an intention to reverse the seemingly runaway state building pursued by his predecessor, if not to cut Cabinet departments beyond even levels maintained by presidents Mbeki and Mandela, as opposition parties have called for.
Mr Ramaphosa's time at the helm of the National Planning Commission will surely have sensitised him to the virtues of a leaner and more "capable" state machinery.
This is to be generally welcomed, especially amid the taint of capture that our state institutions have had to endure. However, it should not become embroiled in both the short-term political calculations of cabinet reshuffles or the partisan point-scoring of opposition politics. Cabinet change constitutes an event; state machinery changes a process.
It is a process that must reconcile a genuine commitment to the principle of departments implementing policy with greater integration and less waste/duplication, whilst maintaining the scope and breadth to respond to the many policy issues that continue to command government attention.
Vinothan Naidoo is a senior lecturer in the politics department at the University of Cape Town. This article is based on a working paper he presented in 2017 in collaboration with the Public Affairs Research Institute: www.pari.org.za.