President Ramaphosa’s first cabinet reshuffle and the sacred, untouchables

Late on Thursday evening, President Cyril Ramaphosa shuffled his cabinet, sort of. It’s been a while coming, but he told everyone he would do it. It’s his first reshuffle since being appointed to the top the job, but the timing of the announcement came perilously close to the vampire hour so loved by his predecessor. Whether or not Ramaphosa actually achieved accountability for last month’s unprecedented unrest – or just re-arranged the deckchairs on the Titanic – still remains to be seen.

Tonight, at the Cape Town Stadium, Rassie Erasmus will be pitch side in his tracksuit at the all-important, nail biting third and final game in the 12 yearly British and Irish Lions series. He might be reshuffled too in a couple of weeks’ time: fined, fired, banned from coaching or barred from even going to the stadium. Or maybe he won’t be.

He didn’t fiddle while Rome burned, but he did bring the game to the brink. He broke the arcane code of World Rugby by asking for referees to be held to the same standards that the players are. It wasn’t just that he complained, he ‘leaked’ an ‘unprecedented’ hour long video dissecting the performance of the Australian ref in the first test. 

In the second test last Saturday, the refereeing was so scrupulously fair that the first half ended up being longer than his rant. It really was a Stalingrad defence. Msholozi would have approved. He’s struggling to pay his lawyers at the moment, now that the taxpayers have been absolved of that burden, but Erasmus doesn’t have that problem. South African-born venture capitalist turned owner of the Sharks Marco Masotti has announced he has a team of New York lawyers ready to step into the breach for him at World Rugby. It’ll certainly cool the ardour of the harrumphing of the old farts at Twickenham, as Will Carling memorably termed them, but will it make any difference?

This week has been a fascinating insight into the intersection between elites in politics and the elites in sport:  There are sacred cows that are never touched, whether heroically incompetent cabinet ministers – some of whom are not just suspected of disloyalty but corruption too – or myopic refs wilfully missing a good game. It’s the same with much of the media – many are as factionalised as their principals and principles will allow.

The question is how do the fans or the voters clean up the game – because that’s what it is – when those at the top are the dirtiest players of all? If there’s no will to do what is obviously right but to hide behind rule books instead or kick for touch what can the punters do?

The only thing they can do is revolt. The clevers think that’s about storming the Union Buildings or burning down the stadiums, but it’s actually far more dangerous – and irreversible. It’s about losing faith in the system and turning your back on it. 

And when that happens, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Originally published by the Saturday Star 7 August 2021.