Can someone explain to me why South Africa needs 31 Cabinet ministers? According to The Times, Jacob Zuma is planning to enlarge the Cabinet from 28 to 31, plus 19 deputy ministers. That would make South Africa’s Cabinet, as far as I could ascertain, the largest in the world.

The UK has 22 cabinet ministers; France, a country synonymous with bureaucracy, needs only 16. India, with a population 25 times ours and developmental problems as huge, has 30; Nigeria makes do with 23. And we need 31, plus 19 deputy ministers to tie their bootlaces? You’ve got to be kidding me.

The idea, Zuma said at a media briefing on the eve of the election, is to make Cabinet “more effective and efficient”.

“The incoming administration will make changes to certain Cabinet portfolios based on the experience of 15 years in government and the priorities for the five years ahead,” The Times quoted him as saying. “We know that our people have greater expectations as the ANC campaign message has captured their imagination. They will expect faster action and visible change in their lives.”

The Times bills this “Zuma’s plan for South Africa”. But is it about the needs of the country, or about the need to reward loyal comrades? Among those to be given Cabinet positions are Communist Party leader Blade Nzimande, Women’s League president Angie Motshekga and ANC MP Enoch Godongwana, according to The Times. None of them brings any particular experience or qualifications to the job (not that those are necessarily prerequisites for Cabinet service), except that they are staunch Zuma supporters. I don’t want to sound cynical, but it seems to be payback time.

I mean, do we really need three deputy ministers of foreign affairs? One, according to The Times, will be responsible for Africa; another for multilateral institutions; the third for a “military skills development programme”. What is left for the minister to do? And a deputy minister for youth affairs? Julius Malema needs that job more than South Africa.

It may be that Zuma can make a coherent case for enlarging the Cabinet, and convince me that a larger executive improves efficiency. But what concerns me is the potential wastage. Nobody, as far as I know, has calculated what the phalanxes of executive mayors, MECs, provincial premiers, Cabinet ministers and their deputies, are costing the country in financial terms. I am not an ideological opponent of big government; in developing countries, a large public sector is necessary. But can we afford such a big executive?

It is true that the government has a problem with delivery. And the ANC has promised a lot in this election campaign. But appointing more ministers will not solve the problem. Firing a few may.
(A version of this post also ran on my personal blog.)


Robert Brand

Robert Brand

Robert Brand teaches media law, ethics and economics journalism at Rhodes University. Before joining academia, he worked as a journalist for the Pretoria News, the Star and Bloomberg News.

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