Lonely? Stupid? SA’s dying to know why Stella lunched at Chez Manana
When the minister enters the Grand Central Station of infection in lockdown, we must question her intellect
The post was hastily deleted off Instagram, but South Africans are quick on their screengrabs and by Tuesday afternoon the picture was everywhere: communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, having a pleasant lunch at the home of disgraced former MP Mduduzi Manana. During the national lockdown.
As media reported that President Cyril Ramaphosa was going to have a little chat with Ndabeni-Abrahams about the “visuals” of her outing, Manana tried to put out the fire by throwing petrol on it.
The minister, he explained, had come to his house to fetch masks and other protective gear his foundation was donating. Since his family was having lunch, he’d invited her to stay. In other words, pretty much exactly what the frantically deleted picture had shown in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, South African Twitter was buying none of it. The minister, some suggested, was embodying the arrogance of the elite who believe that laws don’t apply to them. Others pointed out that senior officials have been demoted in Scotland and New Zealand for breaking national lockdown regulations.
It’s either a case of astonishing ineptitude – why is a whole minister of communications fetching masks from private homes? – or elitist entitlement. But before we file this one away in “ANC Ministers Being Arrogant And/Or Incompetent Cockwombles”, Page 1,398, Volume 752, I have a few questions. And I don’t mean the obvious one, about why Ndabeni-Abrahams would willingly have lunch and pose for a photograph with someone convicted of assaulting three women in a nightclub in 2018, or who was recorded offering his domestic worker a R100,000 “consolation” after she accused him of pushing her down stairs in his home.
No, my questions aren’t about the morality of Ndabeni-Abrahams or her taste in friends, but rather her intellect. And, indeed, the intellect of anyone who goes to visit the home of anyone else during the lockdown.
Because right now, any home in SA that is still open to guests isn’t a home: it’s the blood-flecked, phlegm-saturated spittoon of epidemiological nightmares. Yes, they’re your friends and it’s lovely to see another human and you’re only popping in for a few minutes, but you’d probably be quite a lot safer licking a shopping trolley.
You see, if your generous hosts are inviting you around for a quick lunch, it means they’re inviting other people around, too. And every single person who sits at that table is, by virtue of being there, demonstrating that they don’t take Covid-19 seriously, and therefore probably aren’t washing their hands or practising social distancing or staying away from yet more high-risk nomads. That happy little dinner table is the Grand Central Station of infection.
Now, the way I see it, there are three reasons someone might willingly go into such a place.
The first is that they are suffering so intensely from the loneliness of isolation that the risk of catching Covid-19 is outweighed by the reward of human contact.
The second is that they are deep in denial. They don’t believe that Covid-19 is as bad as everyone says, or that it is spreading in SA, and if it is, they tell themselves, they won’t get it, and if they do, they won’t get it badly.
Nobody reaches the top echelons of the ANC unless they have mastered the ability to deny all sorts of realities, ignore evidence, silence experts and obey only the voices in their own heads, or those noises being emitted by the head of the current Big Man.
The third reason someone might go socialising during lockdown is that they are very, very stupid.
Which brings me back to those questions I have about minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams and her little get-together at Chez Manana.
Because we have to ask: which one was it? Which of those three reasons did she have for ignoring her own government’s regulations?
Was it the despair of prolonged loneliness? I doubt it. Cabinet ministers are all still working. Ndabeni-Abrahams might have been in close proximity to dozens of people that very morning. God help them.
So was it denial? Perhaps. Nobody reaches the top echelons of the ANC unless they have mastered the ability to deny all sorts of realities, ignore evidence, silence experts and obey only the voices in their own heads, or those noises being emitted by the head of the current Big Man.
Was it stupidity? Writing in Time in 2017, author and philosopher Steven Nadler suggested that stupidity isn’t a lack of knowledge but rather a refusal to use it.
“Stupidity,” he wrote, “is a kind of intellectual stubbornness. A stupid person has access to all the information necessary to make an appropriate judgment, to come up with a set of reasonable and justified beliefs, and yet fails to do so. The evidence is staring them right in the face but it makes no difference whatsoever.”
Does that definition accurately describe Ndabeni-Abrahams, privy to immense amounts of information, who decides to ignore it all anyway? Again, perhaps.
In short, we don’t know if Ndabeni-Abrahams is a sleepwalking denialist, endangering the health of everyone around her, or an idiot. But we do know she is at least one of those two.
Which asks a second, more pressing question: why, exactly, is she still a cabinet minister?