/ 7 April 2020

Eusebius McKaiser: Why Ramaphosa must act decisively against Ndabeni-Abrahams

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s smart move was appointing Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams as the minister of communications.
President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. (Phill Magakoe/Gallo Images)

Minister of Communications Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams should be severely censured by her boss, President Cyril Ramaphosa, for violating the national lockdown regulations

Her friend, former deputy higher education minister Mduduzi Manana, posted a picture on his Instagram account — which has since been deleted — of the minister visiting him on Sunday for what appeared to be lunch or dinner. The minister, at the time of writing this analysis piece, has yet to break her silence about the photo that has emerged.

There is no reason to believe that the photo is inauthentic and at least one media platform, Jacaranda FM, reports Manana confirming to them that the photo was taken this past Sunday, and that indeed his friend had popped in at his place. So, on the face of it, she broke the law.

This is not a trivial matter. First, the very meaning of “rule of law” is that everyone must be law-abiding, that no one is above the law, and that we are all equal before the law. This means that even politicians must comply with the lockdown regulations. They are not exempted from being law-abiding on account of positions of public power.

Secondly, the way you entrench a culture of compliance with the law is to make sure that your law-enforcement agencies are seen to be treating citizens equally. This means that if you arrest a newly wedded couple and their wedding guests for not complying with the lockdown regulations, then you should also be prepared to arrest a politician for violating the lockdown regulations. If you do not do so, the legitimacy of the legal system is undermined. That reduces trust between the public and the law-enforcement agencies, which bodes poorly for generally getting citizens to be in the habit of complying with laws.

In the South African context, these points are even more important than in many other societies because we have a history of being suspicious of institutionally biased and unfair criminal justice systems across time, both before the advent of our democracy and since 1994. We cannot afford to misstep, not least during a pandemic when we need everyone to trust the state, and to respect the authority of the state, including the powers of the South African Police Service. 

So, if the minister gets away with flouting the lockdown regulations, it means the cops will have a harder time telling Karen or Sipho they cannot walk their dog or visit their friends. That is why she must be censured, legally, in the first instance.

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Thirdly, it is worth considering other dimensions of this profound leadership failure on Ndabeni-Abrahams’s part. The context of the Covid-19 pandemic worsens her poor judgment. We are all being asked to make enormous personal sacrifices at this time. Our lives have been socially disrupted in profound ways. 

Many women and children are unsafe during the lockdown, with their monsters enjoying opportunities for meting out violence while the public focus is almost exclusively on the virus. Many families cannot properly bury loved ones because of the lockdown regulations. Many people who love their pets dearly, whatever others think of those relationships, cannot walk them in the parks near their homes. Many moms and dads who are estranged or divorced cannot see their children if the other parent was the lucky one to have the child with them when the lockdown began.

In between these examples are a range of other social disruptions that are not trivial. Friendship matters to us enormously. Many of us would dearly love to celebrate a birthday with a friend but such annual rituals are not allowed at this time. The minister, however, is able to enjoy friendship while the rest of us cannot even attend the funeral of a relative. 

In that context, Ndabeni-Abrahams, quite apart from appearing to have broken the law, has also demonstrated a lack of regard for ethical leadership. When you have taken on the burden of a leadership position then you must lead, ethically. If you do not want to lead or you cannot lead then you should decline the burden that comes with public office.

This is not to say that politicians are perfect and infallible. Of course, that kind of view would be absurd. I do not expect any politician to be virtuous because perfectly virtuous human beings are a fiction. However, when Police Minister Bheki Cele and other Cabinet colleagues are shouting at us, the public, to obey, then we expect a minister to not falter on something as elementary as not visiting friends during the lockdown. Cele mocks South Africans who wish to drink or smoke or take their dogs for a walk. In that context, it leaves a taste in one’s mouth that is more bitter than a pint of Black Label beer when you see a minister enjoying a meal at a friend’s house. 

If millions of South Africans were not asked to accept very strong restrictions on our civil liberties, and disruptions to recognisable forms of social life, then this would all be trivial. But in the context of needing to ensure we do not have a public-health disaster on our hands with this virus that is spreading through our population, the lack of example setting from a minister is something that must be nipped in the bud — immediately and strongly.

Which brings me, finally, to political accountability. In New Zealand, Health Minister David Clark was demoted by Prime Minister Jacinda Arden after he flouted that country’s lockdown regulations, having decided to drive his family to the beach. He offered to resign. He is lucky only to have been demoted to a junior position, and this isn’t because the prime minister was soft. It is because his position in the health portfolio is critical to the government’s plans to contain Covid-19. But he had the moral sense to self-rebuke and offer to resign. His boss, not wanting to scupper her government set-up during the pandemic, did not do nothing, and at the very least — and rightly so — demoted him. That signals leadership from the line manager — in this case, the prime minister of New Zealand.

Ndabeni-Abrahams ought to do the same. She should show contrition, admit she broke the law unless an unlikely explanation to the contrary is given, and then offer to fall on her sword. In turn, our president must censure her politically because she serves only at his pleasure. Neither Ndabeni-Abrahams nor Ramaphosa can choose silence on this matter. Ramaphosa, often chided by critics for being conflict-averse or addicted to negotiating rather than being firm, should show mettle. 

If we need to extend the lockdown period and even toughen some of the regulations then the president must show leadership now. It will be far easier to make the case that South Africans should accept further limitations on our liberties or the current limitations for longer if we are all in this together. If Ramaphosa does not censure his minister immediately and decisively, it will undermine his moral entitlement to address the nation and ask us to make sacrifices during this time. 

The choices, and their implications, are that stark, that important and that clear. What would I advise him? Do what is right as a matter of both law and politics: tell the country that you have asked the police minister to make sure the cops are investigating this matter, and meanwhile demote Ndabeni-Abrahams politically in addition to extracting an apology from her. Alternatively, nothing less than a final written warning, which is shared with the public, will do.