Ndabeni-Abrahams sanction better than Zuma's 'I hereby reprimand you' action on rogue ministers
Even then, Zuma did not reprimand his rogue ministers until a court ordered him to do so
When President Cyril Ramaphosa decided to put communications minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams on special leave for two months and dock a month's pay for violating a government-imposed lockdown, there were mixed reactions as to whether that was an appropriate sanction.
It was, however, quite an improvement from the reprimand meted out by former president Jacob Zuma to ministers in his cabinet for their role in the government’s overspending of taxpayers' money on his Nkandla homestead.
Then public protector Thuli Madonsela had 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 do so.
“I hereby deliver the reprimand required,” was Zuma’s reprimand to his ministers which was described as a "joke".
While the primary tool presidents have to hold their executive to account is firing them, cabinet reshuffles are usually dictated to by politics and have very little to do with sanctioning bad behaviour.
Even when errant ministers are eventually fired from cabinet it is not framed as a punitive deterrent — rather it is usually done for political expedience.
There have been three times, however, in recent history where presidents had no choice but to force the resignations of their errant ministers and deputy ministers.
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.”
In Zuma’s era, he was forced to give an ultimatum to the former deputy minister of higher education Mduduzi Manana after he was caught on camera assaulting a woman at a nightclub.
In August 2017, Zuma accepted Manana’s resignation after it was clear that 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 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 else he would have been fired.
When Gigaba eventually resigned, he insisted that it was not an admission of guilt despite a court finding that he had lied under oath.
With all three presidents, there have been dozens of other cases where ministers and deputy ministers were worthy of a reprimand.
But political allegiance and patronage often trumps this.
As the debate rages on whether Ndabeni-Abraham’s sanction was equal to the crime, the action has served an important purpose: a deterrent to others who may be tempted to abuse their power.
Maybe, this time, everyone will be equal before the law.
*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-Msimang.