JUDITH FEBRUARY: Our politicians cannot operate above the law


This is a country that breaks one’s heart in a million ways.

It’s a rainy Saturday and the waste-pickers living in shacks in Newtown, Johannesburg, are hungry and cold. One man, their ‘leader’, is being interviewed by Lindokuhle Xulu for television news. A tall man, his face tells a story of resignation. One suspects that he has long ago learned to numb the pain of displacement and hunger.

In terms of the lockdown, waste-pickers are not allowed to operate. Usually they are responsible for much of the recycling in the suburbs and in so doing, earn a meagre wage for themselves.

In this little shack land, the waste-pickers would go hungry were it not for interventions by an array of modern-day Good Samaritans. While interviewed, the leader says that he ‘understands’ why the lockdown is necessary. All the while, a man in the distance wanders around on crutches, perhaps hoping that this interview, this prominence, will provide respite.

Life in South Africa is hard, but its hardship knows no bounds if you are poor.

When the lockdown was announced, President Ramaphosa appealed to our sense of patriotism and solidarity. Then, we were all asked to model good citizenship by staying at home. For once, the ultimate act of solidarity was to do nothing but stay put as far as possible. What happens in the suburbs affects the townships and rural areas and vice versa.

The message was that we are truly in this together. Ramaphosa and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize have led by example. They have provided steady and calm leadership during a time of crisis and they have been working hard to follow the science and make decisions based on reliable data. Declaring a lockdown could not have been an easy decision to make given the state of the economy and a society,which is deeply divided and rule-averse.

By and large South Africa has answered Ramaphosa’s call - cities are quiet and businesses shut. There is an understanding that we need to get this right - ‘to flatten the curve’ so that our ailing economy can be reopened as soon as possible. We are now in a crucial phase of dealing with this pandemic.

The markets have witnessed the inevitable bloodbath and more disturbing is that we have seen images of poor people being whipped and shunted around as they scurry out of their makeshift homes and, in so doing, break the lockdown. (Incidentally, if we didn’t already know it, the gung-ho Minister of Police Bheki Cele has shown himself completely unfit for purpose during this time.)

If the lockdown is to be effective, then everyone, no matter how powerful, needs to adhere to these difficult rules.

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern demoted Health Minister David Clark after two breaches of lockdown regulations. Then she said that he was being retained in his position as health minister because “we cannot afford massive disruption in the health sector or to our response. For that reason, and that reason alone, Dr Clark will maintain his role. But he does need to pay a price. He broke the rules. While he maintains his health portfolio, I am stripping him of his role as associate finance minister and demoting him to the bottom of our cabinet rankings. I expect better, and so does New Zealand”.

In Scotland, the Chief Medical Officer, Catherine Calderwood, resigned after breaching lockdown rules twice. Initially Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, accepted Calderwood’s apology, but Calderwood resigned after a public outcry.

South Africa is a country where politicians routinely believe they operate above the law.

Ordinary citizens are being asked to make extraordinary sacrifices during this period of lockdown and so whatever a government says and does is a reflection on its credibility. It was no wonder then that outrage followed the Instagram post in which Mduduzi Manana was seen sharing a meal with Minister of Communications, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. The post was ‘tone deaf’, and the prandial act both callous and disregarding.

Ndabeni-Abrahams and Manana are hardly individuals who have covered themselves in glory while allegedly serving the public.

In 2017, Manana, then Deputy Minister of Higher Education, was found guilty of assaulting three women. Manana admitted to intentionally assaulting the women and a brawl ensued. Manana was subsequently sentenced, but not before we heard that he had two previous charges of theft against him. One charge related to stealing a can of Coke. Let that sink in for a moment. Someone manages to rise to the position of deputy minister despite two charges of theft, one being for stealing a can of Coke.

In a subsequent scandal, Manana’s domestic worker had also laid a charge of assault against him, but the NPA declined to prosecute given the low prospects of success.

Manana voluntarily resigned as an ANC Member of Parliament. Mercifully so.

Ndabeni-Abrahams, singularly unimpressive in her crucial portfolio, has also made the news recently when asked about an overseas trip she had taken. The comments are now well-known - “I have never been to Switzerland. My husband has never been to Switzerland. We went to Geneva and New York." Almost as soon as the words rolled off her lips, they went viral on social media. She apologised later and said she meant ‘France’.

“During a question that was asked relating to my September 2019 trip to Geneva in Switzerland, I erroneously referred to Switzerland instead of France. I profusely apologise for this, as I meant to say ‘we had not been to France’ in this particular instance.”

Quite how gullible does she think we all are? She wriggled her way out of that one without even a shred of remorse and went arrogantly on her way. We still have no real detail regarding the trip she made. As South Africans we are familiar with this culture of impunity that marks public life. A slap on the wrist, if that, is the ordinary course for the ANC and its cadres. And then we are meant to move on.

As the public storm grew around the lunch between Ndabeni-Abrahams, Manana and others, Manana explained that she was there to collect PPE for students assisting her ministry on a digital services project related to the COVID-19 crisis. Again, one must ask, how gullible does Manana think we are?

Ndabeni-Abrahams who tweets under the name ‘Stellarated’ probably thought this time would be no different to her previous ‘Geneva/New York’ shrug. After all, her Cabinet colleague, Social Development Minister, Lindiwe Zulu, was also prancing around Melrose Arch, declaring that she was having a hard time staying at home. That was pre-lockdown. Zulu was forced to apologise, but really, South Africans knew that had there been no social media outcry, Zulu would not have checked her own conduct.

Ramaphosa has now suspended Ndabeni-Abraham for 2 months, one without pay. She has also delivered a public apology that is noteworthy for its blandness. The statement by the President says that he was “unmoved by mitigating factors she offered”. As to the violations, “the law should take its course”.

Indeed it should. The President would do well to use the next 2 months as an opportunity to gain clarity about the Geneva/New York trip and usher Ndabeni-Abrahams out of her position in 2 months’ time. Better yet, she should simply do the right thing and resign.

In that way the waste-pickers’ suffering would not have been in vain. After all, the National Disaster Regulations apply to us all equally.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy' which is available. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february