Shake-up in South African cabinet


By Norm Dixon

The ANC-dominated government of national unity in recent weeks has experienced a rash of resignations, appointments and sackings. South African left sources in touch with Green Left Weekly have interpreted the moves as a strengthening of the GNU's conservative, pro-capitalist economic direction and a further marginalisation of the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP) as a serious program to redistribute wealth.

The changes followed finance minister Chris Liebenberg's resignation on March 28. Liebenberg, the former chief executive of the Nedcor banking group and an economic adviser to the ANC prior to its winning government in 1994, made it clear his resignation was not political.

In the reshuffle, trade and industry minister Trevor Manuel became finance minister, and deputy finance minister Alec Erwin moved to the trade and industry portfolio. The minister responsible for the RDP, former leader of the COSATU union federation Jay Naidoo, was made post and telecommunications minister.

The RDP office was abolished, its functions absorbed by deputy president Thabo Mbeki. Control of the 37 billion rand (A$10 billion) RDP fund was transferred to the finance ministry. Post, telecommunications and broadcasting minister Pallo Jordan was unceremoniously dumped from cabinet.

For the first time, ANC members now control all the important economic ministries. However, Manuel was quick to give assurances that the economic direction of the government would not change. The 1996-97 budget handed down on March 13, the GNU's third, again emphasised maintenance of "investor confidence". The GNU pledged to cut the budget deficit to 5.1% of GDP this year (from 6% in 1995-96), aiming at 4% by 1999.

Under Manuel's auspices as trade and industry minister, the GNU began the drive to make South African industry "internationally competitive". He enthusiastically liberalised the economy, reducing tariffs on cars, clothing and textiles faster than required by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Manuel's transformation from a leading activist in the United Democratic Front in the turbulent 1980s — detained for 35 months — to a pragmatic economic rationalist has startled many of his colleagues.

This shift was poignantly symbolised when ex-UDF comrade Ebrahim Patel led a march of clothing and textile unionists to parliament to present him with a bunch of withered flowers. Manuel's mother was a textile worker.

Manuel's immediate task as finance minister is to reassure business that government spending will not blow out to meet the dire needs of the black majority. The finance ministry's control of the RDP fund will ensure that projects will be held hostage to "fiscal responsibility".

Alec Erwin's promotion will present a dilemma for the South African Communist Party, of which he is a leading member. Erwin will be expected to continue the GNU's drive to restructure the economy and open it up to international competition, resulting in huge job losses in many of the country's antiquated industries.

The sacking of Pallo Jordan from Post, Telecommunications and Broadcasting removes from cabinet the only minister who has questioned, albeit timidly, the economic direction of the GNU. The decision to sack Jordan, according to the Weekly Mail and Guardian, was taken by President Nelson Mandela with no consultation with the ANC leadership or caucus. Only Mbeki was consulted.

Mandela claimed Jordan had to go because, with the ANC replacing the non-party Liebenberg as finance minister, its constitutional quota of ministers had been exceeded. However, given the choice, many in the ANC would have nominated foreign minister Alfred Nzo as the most expendable minister.

The real reason for Jordan's removal was his half-hearted support for the partial privatisation of Telkom, South Africa's telecommunications utility. Jordan had also clashed with his ANC cabinet colleagues over moves to water down constitutional rights in the name of fighting crime. He was reportedly offered, but declined, a diplomatic posting in Japan.

Jordan, the ANC's most prominent socialist outside the SACP, reportedly earned Mandela's ire when, at the 1994 ANC Congress, he opposed as undemocratic Mandela's attempt to present a list to be voted en bloc to the national executive. Mandela's move was defeated by delegates and in the subsequent election Jordan polled the second highest number of votes to win his place on the leadership.

Jay Naidoo, Jordan's successor, will be expected to steer the privatisation of Telkom speedily through choppy waters caused by widespread opposition to the sale by trade unions.

The much-publicised resignation from parliament of Cyril Ramaphosa, head of the Constitutional Assembly and former mineworkers' leader, to enter big business is linked to the changes in the ANC parliamentary leadership. Ramaphosa and Mbeki have been rivals to succeed Mandela when he steps down as president in 1999.

Despite few real differences in political perspective between them, Ramaphosa has enjoyed the backing of the trade union movement, mass organisations and the SACP. The recent machinations, especially the lack of consultation with Ramaphosa as ANC general secretary over the Jordan sacking, as well as the steady marginalisation of the interests of Ramaphosa's traditional backers by the ANC leaders, indicated that Mbeki had triumphed.