Now in charge of solving SA’s jobs crisis: one minister who tried to cover up Nkandla, and one who helped try to sell Denel to the Guptas

Business Insider SA

News analysis

  • Creating jobs is so important that he changed the name of the ministry of labour, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in announcing his new cabinet on Wednesday.
  • The primary minister tasked with pushing employment, Thulas Nxesi, was intimately involved in the drama around Nkandla.
  • His small business counterpart quietly walked away from nasty allegations with a golden handshake – before heading to Denel just as it partnered with VR Laser Asia.
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Unemployment is such a critical issue that he was renaming the department of labour, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Wednesday – and in name at least, jobs is now the first priority for the minister of employment and labour.

To that post Ramaphosa appointed Thulas Nxesi – who became deeply embroiled in covering up the extent to which then President Jacob Zuma had benefitted from massive state spending on his private residence in Nkandla.

Ramaphosa has made the right noises about the importance of small business and entrepreneurship in boosting the economy, and has acknowledged that small businesses face issues such as red tape that are directly within the control of his administration. The fact that he kept a ministry of small business while downsizing his cabinet drew praise.

As minister of small business, Ramaphosa appointed Ntshavheni Mukwevho, who quietly left the State IT Agency (Sita) considerably richer after allegations of impropriety, before quietly serving on the Denel board that effectively tried to gift a Gupta-linked company with part of the proceeds of future weapons sales.

See also: South Africa's cabinet remains much bigger than in other countries - here's how we compare

Ramaphosa chose to retain the two ministers important to the foreign investors his administration is courting aggressively, Tito Mboweni as finance minister and Pravin Gordhan at public enterprise. He also left out from his cabinet ministers who had presided over high-profile disasters such as Bathabile Dlamini – who mismanaged oversight of crucial social grant payments – despite their strong constituencies within the ANC.

Yet it seems Ramaphosa was willing to gamble and compromise when it came to jobs.

Nxesi and the fire pool

At employment and labour, Nxesi replaces Mildred Oliphant, who survived every Zuma cabinet reshuffle since 2010 while avoiding being linked to any of his administrations worst scandals. It was Oliphant who oversaw the introduction of a national minimum wage as she incrementally improved conditions through legislation and regulation around everything from maternity leave to the employment of domestic workers.

Nxesi, by contrast, became involved in one of the scandals that came to epitomise Zuma's time as President. In 2013 it was Nxesi who claimed, in the face of clear evidence to the contrary, that Zuma had not known how much the work as his Nkandla homestead had cost

Nxesi commissioned a government report that cleared Zuma of wrongdoing on Nkandla, then declared the report contained details too sensitive to allow it to be made public (which it did not), but made sure its findings were released in such a fashion as to counter early contrary findings by then public protector Thuli Madonsela.

It was during that process of reports and denials that South Africa learned that what had looked remarkably like a state-funded swimming pool built at Nkandla was, in the estimation of Nxesi and his colleagues, actually a "fire pool".

Mukwevho's golden handshake

Until Wednesday the small business portfolio had been run by Lindiwe Zulu – a minister prone to moments of drama in Parliament, but with the kind of pull that on Wednesday saw her upgraded to minister of social development, where she will oversee a vastly larger budget in a much more prominent job.

Zulu's replacement, on the other hand, is almost entirely unknown, having managed to stay largely below the radar despite her proximity to major scandals.

When Mukwevho was appointed to the board of state arms company Denel in 2015, she was identified as the manager of Phore Farms, an organisation with no profile – skipping the opportunity to mention her much more high-profile previous job as chief operating officer at the State IT agency (Sita). 

Within three years of her appointment Mukwevho was on precautionary suspension at Sita, with a reported recommendation that she face disciplinary action for matters involving "dishonesty, deliberate non-performance and financial misconduct, including fruitless, wasteful and irregular expenditure".

Instead she reportedly left Sita with a settlement worth R1.9 million.

At Denel, Mukwevho was appointed as a non-executive director on a new board under chairperson Daniel Mantsha, a lawyer connected to Zuma. That board would soon oversee the creation of a partnership between Denel and VR Laser Asia, a letterbox company with close links to the Gupta family of state capture fame, that would have entitled VR to a big chunk of revenues if South Africa sold weapons to countries such as India.

The board continued to defend that decision until it was removed.

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