Who will be SA’s Minister of Health in the new cabinet?

Who will be SA’s Minister of Health in the new cabinet?ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa, with Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla and his deputy Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, during the signing into law of the National Health Insurance Bill. (Photo: @MYANC/Twitter)
Comment & Analysis

After the ANC received less than 41% of the votes in last week’s national elections, negotiations are now underway that will determine how and by who South Africa is governed. Ministerial posts, including the country’s top health job, might be on the negotiating table. Spotlight considers the candidates for the post of South Africa’s Minister of Health.

For most of the last 30 years, it went almost without saying that the country’s Minister of Health would be drawn from the ranks of the ANC. But given the dramatic decline in the party’s electoral fortunes and the consequent pressure to enter into coalitions or other deals, the pool of realistic candidates for the post of health minister might this year be larger than before.  

The President has the prerogative to appoint any members of the National Assembly as ministers, whether or not they are of the same party as the President. The President can also at his or her discretion appoint two ministers who are not members of parliament. It is also relatively trivial for a party to ask a Member of Parliament (MP)  to stand down and to have another sworn in, as happened with Minister of Electricity Kgosientsho Ramokgopa. This means that candidates who were not high enough on party lists to get seats in parliament could still be substituted in. 

Although technically the pool of possible health ministers is thus quite large, political realities narrow the choices down considerably. 

Let’s start with candidates from the ANC, given that odds are still that our next health minister will be from the party. 

Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla.
Dr Joe Phaahla. (Photo: Elmond Jiyane/GCIS)

First in line is South Africa’s current Minister of Health Dr Joe Phaahla. He is not on the ANC’s national candidates list, but he is high up on the party’s regional list for Limpopo and thus set to become a member of the National Assembly. Though some might describe his time as health minister over the last three years as uninspiring, he also hasn’t been implicated in any scandals or made any obvious blunders.

It might well be that President Cyril Ramaphosa, presuming he stays in the job, sees Phaahla as a safe pair of hands and considers him the right person to drive the ANC’s stated goal of preparing for and starting the implementation of National Health Insurance. Phaahla previously served for some years as Deputy Minister of Health. 

Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo. (Photo: Black Star/Spotlight)

Second in line is the current Deputy Minister of Health Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo. He is also not on the ANC’s national list, but he is high up on the ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal regional list and thus also set to join the National Assembly. He is a former MEC of health for KwaZulu-Natal and former chair of parliament’s portfolio committee for health. If Phaahla is not to return, Dhlomo would be the most natural replacement. 

After those first two candidates, things get much harder to predict. 

Former health ministers Dr Aaron Motsoaledi and Mmamoloko Kubayi are on the ANC’s national list and Dr Zweli Mkhize is on the ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal regional list. Given that Motsoaledi’s time at Home Affairs has been something of a disaster, it is not impossible that Ramaphosa might feel he can get more out of him back in the health portfolio where his record was somewhat better.

A return of Mkhize to the health portfolio seems extremely unlikely given the grubby circumstances under which he left. Kubayi’s role for a few months as acting health minister was really just that of a care-taker, and a return is unlikely. 

One interesting trend is that the ANC has largely chosen medical doctors as health ministers and deputy ministers – Phaahla, Dhlomo, Motsoaledi, and Mkhize are all medical doctors. 

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Current Eastern Cape MEC for Health Nomakhosazana Meth is high on the ANC’s national list, though the poor performance of the Eastern Cape Department of Health in recent years should mean her chances of getting the top health job are slim.

In previous years, current Limpopo MEC for Health Dr Phophi Ramathuba was considered a possibility by some, but her name is only on the ANC’s candidates list for the Limpopo legislature and a few ill-judged incidents, such as a video in which she berated a pregnant woman, would make her a controversial choice. She’s also often been at loggerheads with unions in Limpopo. A lack of standing with healthcare workers may also hold back the prospects of one or two others with health backgrounds who did make it onto the ANC’s national list. 

Candidates from other parties 

The DA remains South Africa’s official opposition. Should they become part of a ruling coalition or government of national unity, the current Western Cape MEC for Health would be the party’s most obvious candidate for the role of health minister. Mbombo is however only on the DA’s list for the Western Cape legislature and is thus likely to again be the province’s MEC for health.

Dr Nomafrench Mbombo. (Photo: Joyrene Kramer/Spotlight)

Jack Bloom, the party’s leading health MPL in Gauteng over the last two decades would be a long shot for the post of health minister, as would Dr Karl le Roux, an award-winning rural doctor who has joined the party. Bloom is on the DA’s list for the provincial legislature and not on the lists for the national assembly. It is thus not entirely out of the question that he could become MEC for health in Gauteng.  

The EFF received the fourth most votes nationally, having been third in the previous national elections. In the previous parliament they were represented on the portfolio committee for health by Dr Sophie Thembekwayo (not a medical doctor) and Naledi Chirwa. Chirwa is last on the EFF’s national candidates list and is thus very unlikely to return to the National Assembly. Thembekwayo is 36th on the EFF’s national candidates list. 

It is also possible that other parties such as MK or the IFP could end up as part of a governing coalition or government of national unity and that candidates from these parties would thus also be in with an outside chance for the top health job. There will be many new, and to us unknown, faces in parliament – no doubt we’ve missed some people with solid health backgrounds in our analysis. 

As mentioned earlier, the President can appoint two ministers to his or her Cabinet from outside the National Assembly. It is thus possible that someone with health management expertise could be roped in from outside the usual political circles.

Professor Glenda Gray. (Photo: Wits University)

Though very long shots, outsiders like Dr Fareed Abdullah  – former CEO of the South African National AIDS Council and an important player in the early days of HIV treatment –  or Professor Glenda Gray – outgoing President of the South African Medical Research Council – might well, and arguably should, be considered. Though we’d be surprised if strong outsider candidates like these two are interested in the job given how politically fraught the role is likely to be. That said, we suspect the right outsider candidate would be a hit in healthcare circles. 

Ultimately, whichever way the current negotiations pan out, the ball remains in the ANC’s court when it comes to determining who will be our next Minister of Health. That means the decision is likely to remain subject to the ANC’s internal politics, with all the complexities that entails.

Despite all the intriguing possibilities, chances are thus that it will be Phaahla or Dhlomo who get the nod – and in terms of South Africa’s healthcare trajectory things will probably remain roughly as they are now. 

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