FIRST TAKE: Gordhan's retention in Cabinet a sign of intent, but challenges remain

When Cyril Ramaphosa became president in February last year the message was that he will use the remaining months of the Zuma government to review policy, prepare the foundations of his own administration and ensure that he gets to appoint the people he wants to in his first Cabinet.

At first blush it seems like he was able to do exactly that – whether they are the right people for the job however is a totally different question.

It's clear that Ramaphosa was able to consolidate his influence in three key spheres of government: justice and security, social justice and finance – three clusters that aren't only vital for the reform efforts he is championing, but for his continued survival as president.

Appointing a Cabinet from the contested and toxic environment that is internal ANC politics is a terrain fraught with danger.

There is a myriad of vested interests to consider, factions to appease and alliance partners to pacify. In addition, race and gender, as well as that old ANC chestnut of "generational mix" (referring to the appointment of younger people) make it even more difficult.

And the rough and tumble of politics adds another layer of complexity, as Pravin Gordhan, the target of a sustained campaign by the EFF's Julius Malema, can attest to.

Ramaphosa had to navigate through this matrix of contradictions before he could even begin to consider executive efficiency and competence. And efficiency and competence are what South Africa needs urgently. The economy has been in decline for years, governance under the previous administration was failing, health and education abject disasters and law enforcement gutted by capture.

This Cabinet, as those that came before it, is therefore the product of internal ANC considerations, conflict and the need to keep as many inside the proverbial tent as possible, balanced with Ramaphosa's plans for reform and restructure.

The most obvious signal of his intent was the retention of Gordhan as minister of public enterprises.

Gordhan has been the president's most important ally in efforts to clean up the state, starting with the sanitising of rotten state-owned companies. He has been the target of a vitriolic and often racist campaign from inside the ANC and especially from the EFF, who has referred to him as "a dog of white monopoly capital" and a "constitutional delinquent". As former finance minister he resisted the capture of Treasury and knows where most bodies are buried. Leaving him out of Cabinet would have been a signal of surrender – but Ramaphosa resisted.

Similarly, the retention of Tito Mboweni at Treasury, despite reports and rumours of his aloofness and disaffection, means that Ramaphosa has someone trusted in a ministry absolutely central, not only in getting the economy back on track, but in tightening the collective belt of government.

With economic development reverting back to trade and industry (where it used to be a directorate) and Ebrahim Patel heading up the latter, Treasury will again become the centre of economic policymaking. Mboweni won't have to contend with different policy pronouncements and alternating economic positions like some of his predecessors had to contend with. He'll be left alone to let Treasury get on with the job.

And at education – basic and higher – Ramaphosa has opted for consistency, with Angie Motshekga trusted to lead reform and repair and tertiary institutions welcoming back (or dreading) a known quantity in Blade Nzimande. Zweli Mkhize, a medical doctor, is tasked with rescuing the public health sector while having to manage the impossibility of the stillborn National Health Insurance system.

Stability in justice and policing is crucial for Ramaphosa's reform efforts, and he's kept Bheki Cele at police, while replacing the anonymous Michael Masutha as justice minister with Ronald Lamola. The justice ministry – that houses the NPA – has seen a series of weak appointments in recent years and although Lamola is young (he's 37) he is considered one of the more cerebral and committed up and coming ANC leaders.

State security remains a problem. Ayanda Dlodlo moves there from public service and administration with former ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa rewarded with a deputy ministry. Dlodlo, who is close to elements in the orbit of MK veterans, will have to clean house at a department that has long ago departed from its legal mandate to safeguard the interests of the country to involving itself with ANC infighting. She has an enormous task – but is she an honest broker?

And then there's Deputy President David Mabuza, who last week masterfully launched his own presidential ambitions and managed to have his questionable past of alleged murders and corruption cleansed by the ANC's Integrity Commission.

He helped Ramaphosa to victory at the ANC's Nasrec conference in 2017 and has made it clear to the president he won't be sidelined and neutralised in an office whose functions are determined by the head of state. The Cat, as he is known, will provide conditional support for Ramaphosa, and he'll keep an eye on a succession, either in 2022, or later.

Ramaphosa's Cabinet also sees the end of the road for some veterans, notably Jeff Radebe and Derek Hanekom, members of the Mandela Cabinet. Radebe is probably acutely aware why he has been left out, but what Hanekom (an ardent supporter of Ramaphosa and truly passionate about tourism, where he was minister) did to be omitted is a puzzle.

The national executive has now largely been delivered from the remnants of the Zuma years. It truly is good riddance to Nomvula Mokonyane and Bathabile Dlamini, two of the worst appointments in democratic history. But how on earth did David Mahlobo, Zuma's strongman, spy and former overlord of state security make a return, albeit as deputy minister (of human settlements, water and sanitation)?

Ramaphosa has covered his most important bases, most notably with Mboweni and Gordhan, trusted lieutenants at police and justice and an efficient bureaucrat in Motshekga. Now he just needs to get Luthuli House on board.