After President Cyril Ramaphosa’s unprecedented move to temporarily relieve Communications and Digital Technologies Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams of her duties and dock her salary for one month, she will still keep her blue lights during her special leave.
Ndabeni-Abrahams made history as the first Cabinet member to be placed on special leave since the dawn of democracy in South Africa. A statement, issued by Presidency spokesperson Khusela Diko, said Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu will be acting in Ndabeni-Abrahams’s position.
“The minister has been placed on leave for two months. One month of the two months is unpaid. The minister’s other conditions of service remain unchanged. The minister has been placed on leave for two months,” Diko said.
“Minister Jackson Mthembu will assume all of minister’s duties and powers during this period.”
Ndabeni-Abrahams was placed on special leave by Ramaphosa after her violation of South Africa’s 21-day national lockdown. This was after a picture was published on Instagram, in which she was seen having lunch with former higher education deputy minister Mduduzi Manana and a group of others, which also include the director of special events in the Presidency, Lydia Kawe. “The Presidency has been in contact with Ms Lydia Kawe and will be instituting an internal process to get her to account for her presence at the lunch,” said Diko.
Despite the Presidency announcing that one month of the special leave will be unpaid, it was mum about the other perks that come with Ndabeni-Abrahams’s role.
The Constitution has provisions allowing the president to assign powers to one minister — and to take them away and confer them on another — but there is no provision for suspension or special leave. Attempts by the Mail & Guardian to obtain clarity from the Presidency regarding the conditions of the special leave, specifically regarding the perks, were unsuccessful.
In May 2019, a report by Africa Check on the ministerial handbook found that, for the 2018-19 financial year, ministers would receive an annual salary of R2401633. Other perks include that they would receive 25% of their salary towards their private vehicle; free accommodation in a state-owned residence, and first-class flight tickets for official international journeys.
But according to a senior government official with knowledge of rules governing ministers’ conduct and conditions of service, by the letter of the rule book, a suspended minister should temporarily lose the benefits and perks of being a minister during special leave. But these are uncharted waters.
“This is unprecedented. We’ve seen senior officials [and] government DGs [director generals] put on special leave, but never a Cabinet minister or even a provincial MEC. This is a first,” the official said.
“In instances like this, it means all the benefits of a minister, for two months, have fallen away. Police must pull-back the VIP protection [and] they would lose [their] staff and the state car. They may still be allowed to remain in the ministerial house, because if you are removed from the Cabinet you have 30 days to leave the house,” the government official said.
“There’s no real difference between saying someone is suspended or someone is on special leave. The impact should be the same,” the source added. Ramaphosa’s decision to take this action did, however, first have to be checked with the ANC’s Luthuli House headquarters.
According to an ANC insider close to Ndabeni-Abrahams, during consultations Ramaphosa had with the party it was agreed that there should be serious action taken against Ndabeni-Abrahams.
“They all put the president in a very bad position and CR’s back was against the wall. We can’t be the ones asking people to abide by the law and still be the first ones who break the same laws,” said the insider.
Meanwhile, opposition parties say Ramaphosa should go further and lay a criminal complaint with the police. In a statement, the Presidency quotes Ramaphosa as saying the “law should take its course” if Ndabeni-Abrahams is criminally charged.
“Given the nature of the anger of the public — because people have stayed at home and have lost income and jobs — it’s a slap on the wrist. We are worried that there will be civil disobedience, and we feel Cyril should be the one who lays the complaint. It would be easy for us to do it. But he, as the leader of the country, must show the public that he takes this seriously,” said the Democratic Alliance’s Phumzile Van Damme.
Under the Disaster Management Act regulations, people found guilty of disobeying the rules could be liable to pay a fine and/or face a prison sentence of up to six months.
Police have not responded to questions about whether they will be investigating Ndabeni-Abrahams.