ANALYSIS: Assertive Ramaphosa departs from ANC, presidential norms in publicly censuring a minister

South Africans have become used to ministers and government officials behaving with impunity. It’s part of convention and the culture which became so prevalent over the last decade. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s rebuke of Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams though signals a clear departure from those norms, writes Pieter du Toit.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s swift action on Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, the minister of communications and digital technologies, is almost without precedent in recent times.

His rebuke of her was public and it hit her where it will hurt her most: her pocket.

The statement issued by the Presidency makes it very clear what went down in the meeting between Ramaphosa and Ndabeni-Abrahams: he didn’t believe her story about picking up personal protection equipment from a disgraced former deputy minister. Not only did he not believe her, he read the riot act and banished her for two months, one which will be without pay.

The language in the statement was also telling. If Ndabeni-Abrahams believed her yarn would be more palatable because she visited a former deputy minister, she was mistaken. Ramaphosa didn’t entertain it at all, not even naming him, and added he was “unmoved” by her protestations.

“The nationwide lockdown calls for absolute compliance,” Ramaphosa said. “None of us, not least a member of the national executive, should undermine our national effort to save lives in this very serious situation.”

Ndabeni-Abrahams’ subsequent video apology, very quickly distributed by the Presidency’s media unit on almost all available channels, showed a much chastened minister, all dressed in black, delivering an apology no doubt scripted by the Presidency.

There has been almost no appetite in a succession of ANC governments over the last couple of years to discipline wayward ministers, with the only occasions where ministers were reprimanded or “reshuffled”  when the Public Protector – not the current one – made adverse findings against them.

Ministers consider themselves political celebrities

Unlike in other democracies, there is no culture or tradition in the executive to punish errant ministers, with the standard line being that unless they have breached the law, there is no need to do so. There is also no culture among members of the executive to carry themselves with the dignity that public office demands. Ministers, by and large, consider themselves political celebrities, unbound by the conventions which govern the rest of society and entitled to a degree of social leeway and a lifestyle reserved for the rich and famous.

This culture was imported during Jacob Zuma’s almost lawless term of office, where there was almost no accountability, for anything, ever, and stood in stark contrast to the pervading culture under former president Thabo Mbeki, who demanded high standards of conduct for his ministers.

In 2016, in one of his more remarkable dismissals of good governance, the rule of law and the spirit of the Constitution, Zuma was ordered by the Constitutional Court to reprimand ministers who were involved in building his lavish estate at Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal. This after Zuma recruited the state and the legislature in swatting aside the public protector’s report and findings.

Cut down to size

In a letter to the ministers, complying with the court’s direction, he wrote: “The Constitutional Court has affirmed the direction by the Public Protector, amongst others, that I am required to reprimand the ministers involved in the Nkandla project, for what the Public Protector termed ‘the appalling manner in which the Nkandla Project was handled and state funds were abused’ (para 11.1.3). Pursuant to the latter, I hereby deliver the reprimand required. I am doing so to each of the ministers indicated by the report.”

The disregard for rule of law and accountability was brazen and blatant under Zuma and the ANC. Zuma never “fired” or disciplined ministers, unless he did so in service of the state capture project. That’s why Ramaphosa’s actions is such a departure from the norm for an ANC government.

Ndabeni-Abrahams, and many ministers in her league, such as Fikile Mbalula and Lindiwe Zulu, don’t trade on skills or governance, efficiency or endeavour, but on politics and patronage. Their currency lies in how they navigate internal ANC politics and palace intrigue, which constiuencies they represent and how useful they can be in the attainment or retention of power.

Politically, she has been cut down to size. In terms of governance Ramaphosa, always constrained by Luthuli House realpolitik and still bound to convention entrenched since 2009, has gone as far as could be expected.

This should not be the end of it though. Ramaphosa’s disavowed the minister, saying in the statement that “the law should take its course”. Bheki Cele’s police should investigate and fine her. As has happened with other South Africans.

Given the impunity which reigned in years gone past, Ramaphosa’s actions represents some progress.

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