April 21, 2018

Understanding South African Cabinet members’ paths to mobility

Author: Maddie Keyes

Research Question

  • What factors are common to Cabinet officials’ paths to political success?
    • Is mobility among South African Cabinet officials unique considering the widespread policy changes brought about by the end of apartheid?
    • What role does geography play in advancing the position of Cabinet members?

Key Social Mobility Finding

  • Large exogenous shocks (i.e. the end of the apartheid regime) can potentially have marked impacts on life trajectories that impact social mobility.
  • In the South African Cabinet, geography (i.e. rural, metropolitan, or urban areas) and education level seem to have little impact on Cabinet membership


Members of the South African Cabinet are chosen from among the members of Parliament by the President, with the stipulation that no more than two officials can be chosen from outside the pool of MPs.1 The South African consists of Ministers and Deputy Ministers; although the Deputy Ministers are not technically considered to be part of the Cabinet, the President selects them from Parliament in the same manner as Ministers, and their sole function is to assist their respective Ministers, leading to their inclusion as “Cabinet members” for the purpose of this analysis.2 The Cabinet presents an interesting group to study due to both their appointment by the President and Parliamentary membership. Members of Parliament are elected via a method of proportional representation according to the number of votes their party receives.3 The President himself is chosen from within Parliament members4, and as the ANC currently has the highest representation in the National Assembly (with 62.25% of the seats5), the President is effectively chosen from the ranks of ANC members. The African National Congress (ANC) has a unique relationship with the country, as compared to other political parties in South Africa, due to its integral role in bringing about the end of apartheid in South Africa. The ANC’s website today continues to integrate rich information about the ANC’s struggle against the apartheid system with its current political information.

Image 1 from http://www.anc.org.za/content/what-anc

Understanding the backgrounds of Cabinet officials in particularly important in the South African context. The Cabinet is in a frequent state of flux; former President Jacob Zuma reshuffled his Cabinet 11 times from May 2009 to March 2017.6 With media attention frequently on these reshuffles and the negative attention focused on ministers themselves, it is important to understand the channels officials used to achieve their positions. For the broader context of social mobility research, increasing what is known about channels to success for politicians is particularly important, given the unique political situation of each country. In looking at the publicly available information for each Minister and Deputy Minister in the Cabinet, I will be able to analyze trends across Cabinet officials to identify what channels to political success exist in a particularly South African context.


Using publicly available data sources from a variety of websites including South Africa’s government department sites, People’s Assembly, Who’s Who South Africa, and a variety of other news sources, I was able to collect data on key characteristics of interest about the Ministers and Deputy Ministers from every Cabinet department. Information about an individual’s gender, municipality and province of birth, rural/urban/metropolitan categorization, birth year, highest level of education attained, involvement in anti-apartheid movement, and primary work experience were collected, in addition to other contextual facts such as the year of first Cabinet position and first year in Parliament. Using the aforementioned characteristics, I grouped Cabinet members together by category and compared the relationships between these characteristics to identify trends of people with similar background characteristics. In terms of identifying social mobility paths, looking into the relationships between background characteristic categories is particularly salient given the power to pinpoint commonalities between members in a certain subgroup as a potential avenue for social mobility. I primarily used alluvial diagrams to illustrate the flows between these groups more clearly.

In recent months, the Cabinet has experienced quite a bit of turnover. As data was first collected in September 2017, the Cabinet members reflected in this sample are the Cabinet members as of that date.

Preliminary Results

Age and anti-apartheid involvement:

Given that apartheid gave way to a democratic government as recently as 1994, the role of each Cabinet member in the fight against apartheid proved to be a key factor of interest. The vast majority of officials born in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s were involved in fight against apartheid in some way. In order to categorize individuals as being involved in anti-apartheid activity, I looked for information including but not limited to their involvement in the ANC prior to the 1990s, involvement in Umkhonto weSizwe, involvement in the United Democratic Front (UDF), or time held as a political prisoner due to protesting/other blatant anti-apartheid action. This indicates that currently, many members of the ANC specifically were involved with the fight against apartheid; it will be interesting to see in future years if the make-up of the Cabinet changes in any significant way as the population ages.

Figure 1. Cabinet officials: Birth decade connected to anti-apartheid involvement.

One particularly interesting feature of Figure 1, albeit unsurprising, is that a large number of officials born in the 1970s and 1980s were not directly involved in the fight against apartheid due to their age. Figure 2 then shows a more specific breakdown of organizations affiliated with ANC. We see that Umkhonto weSizwe’s overlap with Cabinet membership came from individuals born in the 1950s and 1960s, which supplements the story seen in Figure 1. More interestingly, however, we see that 100% of individuals born in the 1970s and 1980s had explicit involvement in the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). This indicates the high possibility that the ANCYL is key to a quick rise to national Cabinet positions for younger members of Cabinet; in other words, ANCYL involvement is one pipeline for young politicians on the national stage.

Figure 2. Cabinet Officials: Birth decade connected to formal channels of anti-apartheid involvement.

Role of Geography

Geography additionally plays a key role in social mobility, as differences in urban, metropolitan, or rural upbringing can have a real impact on the opportunities available to individuals. In Figure 3, the middle column shows the division of Cabinet members into metropolitan, rural, and urban categories. Both the distribution of individuals from geographic region to birth decade and to anti-apartheid are relatively random. Particularly, at the extremes of the age distribution, the same number of officials are from each respective category. The seeming randomness related to location of birth is particularly interesting in the South African context, as it is possible that anti-apartheid movements across the entire country potentially impacted the political involvement of individuals from all geographic locations.

Figure 3. Cabinet Officials: Birth decade to geographic classification to anti-apartheid involvement.


  1. https://www.gov.za/about-government/government-system/executive-authority-president-cabinet-and-deputy-ministers
  2. https://omalley.nelsonmandela.org/omalley/index.php/site/q/03lv02167/04lv02184/05lv02193/06lv02200.htm
  3. http://www.etu.org.za/toolbox/docs/govern/elections.html
  4. https://pmg.org.za/page/structure-of-government#The_Legislature
  5. https://pmg.org.za/page/political-party-representation
  6. Van Onselen, Garreth. “Zuma’s 11th Cabinet reshuffles: all the graphic details.” Business Live. 31 March 2017. Accessed: 21 April 2018. https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/national/2017-03-31-zumas-11-cabinet-reshuffles-all-the-graphic-details/