Coronavirus News Africa

FIRST TAKE: Smiling Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams takes us all, and the president, for a ride

Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, or “StellaRated”, as she is known on Twitter, needs to be disciplined by President Cyril Ramaphosa. Going to dinner parties while the rest of South Africa is under a three-week lockdown undermines his whole effort to get citizens behind is national effort to curb the coronavirus, writes Pieter du Toit.

On Sunday Scotland’s chief medical officer, Caroline Calderwood, resigned after she made two trips to her country home during that country’s lockdown.

She departed her post, saying her behaviour “risks becoming a distraction from the hugely important job that government and the medical profession has to do in getting the country through this coronavirus pandemic”.

On Tuesday, New Zealand’s health minister, David Clark, was demoted after he was first photographed going biking and then taking his family to the beach during a similar lockdown.

“At a time when we are asking New Zealanders to make historic sacrifices, I’ve let the team down. I’ve been an idiot, and I understand why people will be angry with me,” he said.

But in South Africa, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, the minister of communications and digital technologies, visited friends at the weekend, had a sumptuous meal, laughed about good times and enjoyed each other’s company. And that in the middle of a lockdown, when the president has asked all citizens to forego the freedom of movement, proximity to family and friends and the pursuit of happiness in service of the greater good.

She was pictured, happily smiling, about to dig into a midday meal, at the table of disgraced former deputy higher education minister Mduduzi Manana who resigned in 2017 after admitting to the assault of two women in a nightclub. The picture was shared on social media and widely circulated.

And unlike the Scottish and New Zealand examples, Ndabeni-Abrahams has offered no explanation, no apology and certainly no resignation. Manana has issued a statement, attempting to provide cover.

This after Lindiwe Zulu, the minister of social development, pranced around in the week after President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a state of disaster, asking all South Africans to avoid crowds and to practice physical distancing to curb the coronavirus. In a video – for which she later apologised – Zulu said: “Stay at home if you can, I am finding it difficult to stay at home!”

Ndabeni-Abrahams’ luncheon, as Ramaphosa referred to it on Tuesday, confirming he has summoned her to his office, came on day 10 of the national lockdown. South Africans have begun to question the efficacy of the lockdown, with many questioning the planning behind the government’s decision and millions battling to keep life and limb together in less than ideal circumstances.

And Ramaphosa has been at pains to get the public into line, time and again emphasising why a total lockdown, confining people to their homes and basically shutting down the whole economy, is the only way to contain a virus which has now also felled Boris Johnson, the British prime minister.

Infections are approaching 1 700 people in this country, with this week considered key in attempts to counter the spread.

If this virus is to be beaten, the president has said, it will require a considerable and committed national effort, one that has not been seen since the dawn of democracy and certainly not experienced since World War II.

But Ndabeni-Abrahams – her Twitter handle is @StellaRated – seems not to be concerned by the national effort. Like Zulu.

Pampered by the luxuries and privileges of executive public office, she is known more for the extremely high regard she holds herself than being a Cabinet minister known for efficiency and leadership. In an interview at the weekend with City Press, she said some people regard her as “God”, seemingly intimating that she is not – but not dispelling the rumour.

She was appointed deputy minister of communications by former president Jacob Zuma in 2011, surviving his tenure alongside ministers like Faith Muthambi who oversaw the politicisation and gutting of the SABC. Yet, she was promoted by Ramaphosa in 2018 to become a full Cabinet minister.

Ndabeni-Abrahams has had an unremarkable political career. She was elected to Parliament in 2009 as part of a cohort of ANC Youth League devotees (when Julius Malema was its president) where she served on the portfolio committee on defence, among other committees. But where other MPs were concerned in providing oversight or securing an outstanding defence review, Ndabeni-Abrahams looked disinterested and bored. Parliament did not seem like a good fit for her.

She has thumbed her nose at the president, and Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, who cannot afford their closest colleagues to ignore the instruction they gave to the citizenry. Because if the president and his senior minister cannot keep an errant colleague in line, what hope to convince ordinary South Africans not to break the lockdown?

Ramaphosa must discipline Ndabeni-Abrahams. She, and others, need to understand this is a case of life and death. Not a dinner party. 

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