Whatever you think of Stella’s sanction, it’s a step-up from the ...

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Whatever you think of Stella’s sanction, it’s a step-up from the Zuma years

All too often, errant ministers have got away, if not scot free, then with the mildest of reprimands

Journalist
Communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has been placed on special leave and had her salary docked.
All play, no pay Communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams has been placed on special leave and had her salary docked.
Image: GCIS

When President Cyril Ramaphosa put communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams on special leave for two months and docked her salary for a month for violating a government-imposed lockdown, there were mixed reactions about the appropriateness thereof. 

It was‚ however‚ an improvement on the reprimand meted out by former president Jacob Zuma to ministers in his cabinet for their role in the government overspending taxpayers’ money on his Nkandla homestead.

Then public protector Thuli Madonsela instructed Zuma to reprimand public works minister Thulas Nxesi‚ a former minister in the same department‚ Geoff Doidge, and former police minister Nathi Mthethwa.

He did not do so until the Constitutional Court, in 2016, ordered him to.

“I hereby deliver the reprimand required‚” said Zuma to his ministers. His statement was described as a “joke”. 

The primary tool presidents have to hold their executives to account is firing them‚ but cabinet reshuffles are usually favoured and have little to do with sanctioning bad behaviour.

Even when errant ministers are fired it is not framed as a punitive deterrent. Rather it is usually done for political expedience.

However, there have been three times in recent history when presidents had no choice but to get rid of ministers and deputy ministers.

Even when errant ministers are fired it is not framed as a punitive deterrent — rather it is usually done for political expedience.

Famously‚ in 2007‚ former president Thabo Mbeki fired then deputy minister of health Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge and publicly sanctioned her after she repeatedly defied him.

It is worth mentioning that at the time it was believed that Madlala-Routledge was also being punished for pushing for anti-retroviral treatment to be rolled out and for disagreeing with the Aids stance taken by Mbeki and then health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

“I have‚ during the period you served as deputy minister of defence‚ consistently drawn your attention to the concerns raised by your colleagues about your inability to work as part of a collective‚ as the constitution enjoins us to. For the same reason‚ I have also discussed this matter with you as deputy minister of health‚” Mbeki wrote in a letter that was made public.

“You travelled to Madrid despite the fact that I had declined your request to undertake this trip. It is clear to me that you have no intention to abide by the constitutional prescriptions that bind all of us. For this reason‚ I suggested to you that you should resign. It is clear that you do not accept my advice. This leaves me no choice but to relieve you of your duties.”

Zuma was forced to deliver an ultimatum to former deputy minister of higher education Mduduzi Manana after he was found guilty of assaulting three women at a nightclub.

In August 2017‚ Zuma accepted Manana’s resignation after it was clear his only other choice was to fire him.

Ironically‚ it was a post by Manana on Instagram showing him and Ndabeni-Abrahams having lunch on Sunday in violation of the lockdown regulations that prompted Ramaphosa to act against Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Ramaphosa was faced with the same dilemma in November 2018 when he instructed Malusi Gigaba to resign or face the chop.

Ramaphosa was faced with the same dilemma in November 2018, when he instructed Malusi Gigaba to resign or face the chop.

Public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane directed Ramaphosa to take appropriate disciplinary action against Gigaba for lying under oath in court.

This was in relation to the Fireblade Aviation terminal at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport.

Ramaphosa called Gigaba and instructed him to tender his resignation or he would be fired.

When Gigaba resigned‚ he insisted it was not an admission of guilt, despite a court finding that he had lied under oath.

There have been dozens of other cases where ministers and deputy ministers under the three presidents were worthy of a reprimand. However, political allegiance and patronage often trumps this.

As the debate rages on about whether Ndabeni-Abraham’s sanction was equal to the “crime”‚ it has served an important purpose: a deterrent to others who may be tempted to abuse their power.

*This story has been amended to reflect that Routledge-Madlala was widely believed to have been punished for pushing for antiretroviral treatment to be rolled out and for speaking out in contravention of the Aids message being pushed by Mbeki and then health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msiman​g.