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Opinion: South Africa’s new government – compromise over renewal

After days of speculation, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has formed his new government. His Cabinet shows a clear intent for reform but also Ramaphosa’s need to compromise, DW’s Claus Stäcker writes.

Real politics instead of true change: Cyril Ramaphosa's new Cabinet is by any standard better than the unstructured, bloated, incompetent and corrupt ministries under former President Jacob Zuma. But the arbitrary composition of ministers shows all too clearly that Ramaphosa's power has its limits.

South African politics is, after all, not only a product of the impressive Union Buildings, the seat of the government in Pretoria.

For the past 25 years, Luthuli House, the party headquarters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), is where many of the decisions come into being.

And although Ramaphosa has attempted to style himself as a president for all South Africans, party politics continues to have a strong influence over him.

Read more: Opinion: Nelson Mandela party's last easy win in South Africa 

Stäcker Claus

Claus Stäcker is the head of DW's Africa programs

In his day, his predecessor Zuma used the ANC as his personal one-stop shop and network to maintain power and Ramaphosa can't break free from this.

At the party conference where Zuma was forced to resign, for instance, Ramaphosa only garnered enough support by a margin. And to achieve even this, he was forced to forge murky alliances, which haunt him to this day.

The rumors ahead of the cabinet appointment were already an indication of the difficult negotiations going on in the backrooms of Luthuli House. 

The new cabinet list now shows Ramaphosa's achievements: the sizing down of Zuma's monster cabinet from 36 to 28 ministers, last seen in the days of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki as well as a first-time achievement of gender-balance.

He also managed to place key ministries with reform politicians, in response to which the South African Rand surged as investors showed their appreciation.

Ramaphosa's allies control the finances, state enterprises, justice, environment and agriculture.

He also managed to maintain a degree of ethnic diversity. With Barbara Creecy he has a competent white woman in the environment ministry. For the ministry of public works and infrastructure, he appointed the renegade opposition politician Patricia de Lille. The former Cape Town mayor, who fell out with the main opposition party Democratic Alliance (DA) and founded her own party, Good, is Cape-colored. Her appointment is a thorn in the eyes of the DA, whose Western Cape stronghold also has a soft spot for De Lille.

But the Cabinet also has the other members: tired communists from parties allied to the ANC, the obligatory union representative, an even balance of the provinces, the women and the youth.

Strategic alliances, equal distribution and payback often determine the choice, instead of competence and integrity. Deputy President David Mabuza, for instance, helped secure Ramaphosa's succession of Zuma, but he's definitely not one of the reformers.

Read more: South Africa: the state of the arts 25 years after apartheid

Cyril Ramaphosa, who was once a close confidante of Nelson Mandela, as well as a union leader and entrepreneur, now leads the country with limited powers. He's managed to strike a minimal compromise but it's not a victory.

His government might bring the country back to the era of Thabo Mbeki – an investment friendly climate and a reliable political ally.

This is good news for Germany and the European Union, for whom South Africa could once again be a serious strategic partner.

But the "Mandela moment," which so many South Africans had hoped for, is something Ramaphosa can't deliver. He remains trapped in the strife against his old rivals in his own party.

In the 25 years in government, the ANC has lost its ability to reform from within. For millions of young South Africans, it has become a party of the past. The Mandela magic has gone for good. Only fast, quantifiable successes will help Ramaphosa and his government stop the political erosion.  

Watch video 02:09

Ramaphosa sworn in as president of South Africa

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