Opinionista Judith February 8 April 2020

The unseemly sight of ministers expecting special treatment while the poor suffer

Politicians in South Africa are not just tone-deaf — they firmly believe that they are above the law in South Africa. This attitude comes at a time when ordinary citizens are being asked to make extraordinary sacrifices.

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 learned long ago 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. This earns them a meagre wage.

In this little shack land, the waste-pickers would go hungry were it not for interventions by an array of modern-day Good Samaritans. During the interview, the “leader” says he understands why the lockdown is necessary. In the background a man moves about on crutches, perhaps hoping that this interview, this brief spotlight on their circumstances, might bring respite.

Life is so much harder when you’re poor

When the lockdown was announced, President Ramaphosa appealed to our sense of patriotism. We were asked to be model citizens 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? 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 often averse to rules and regulations.

By and large, South Africa has answered Ramaphosa’s call. Cities are quiet, streets are empty and businesses have 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 taken a beating and, on a more human level, so have some people at the hands of the police. Not everyone is able to comply with the lockdown laws with the same degree of ease and they have paid the price. 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.

An effective lockdown relies on the buy-in of all

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern demoted her health minister, David Clark, after two breaches of their own lockdown regulations. Then she said he was being retained in his position 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 twice breaching lockdown rules. Initially, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, accepted Calderwood’s apology but Calderwood resigned after a public outcry.

Politicians who think they are above the law

Ordinary citizens are being asked to make extraordinary sacrifices during the lockdown. Now, perhaps more than ever, the words and actions of the government are a reflection on its credibility.

It was no wonder that outrage quickly followed the Instagram post in which Minister of Communications, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, was seen sharing a meal with disgraced former minister Mduduzi Manana. The post was tone-deaf and the prandial act both callous and disregarding.

Ndabeni-Abrahams and Manana have hardly 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 and sentenced to community service and a fine. It also emerged 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 laid a charge of assault against him but the NPA declined to prosecute given the low prospect of success.

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

Ndabeni-Abrahams, singularly unimpressive in her crucial portfolio, also made the news recently when asked about an overseas trip she had taken. Her 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 later apologised and said she had made a mistake:

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.”

How gullible does she think we all are? She wriggled her way out of that one without even a shred of remorse and arrogantly went on her way. We still have no real details 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 personal protective equipment 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. 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 two months, one without pay. She has also delivered a public apology noted for its blandness. The statement by the president said that he was “unmoved by mitigating factors she offered”. As to her violations, “… the law should take its course.”

Indeed it should. The president would do well to use the next two months as an opportunity to gain clarity about the Geneva/New York trip and usher Ndabeni-Abrahams out of her position.

Better yet, she should simply do the right thing and resign.

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

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