Here’s the thing – we all know that actions speak louder than words, but SA’s leadership seemingly does a stella(r) job of forgetting that – time and time again.
For Minister of Communications & Digital Technologies Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams, the concept of consistent leadership by example seems to be difficult to grasp. She’s issued an apology for her recent outrageous Instagram post showing her enjoying a luncheon with a number of others at the home of former ANC MP Mduduzi Manana – a flagrant violation of current lockdown regulations, which expressly forbid social gatherings.
Manana – who obviously hasn’t enrolled for PR 101, where the first rule of damage control is to avoid making any comment until one’s had time to compile an appropriate and conciliatory response – made matters worse by issuing a statement attempting to defend the indefensible. (Compounding the débâcle is the fact that Instagram is a communication platform considered to be a digital technology.)
Ndabeni-Abrahams was quickly called to order by ANC Secretary-General Jessie Duarte and was thereafter summoned to a private meeting with an angry and embarrassed President Cyril Ramaphosa, who clearly rebuked her harshly and placed her on “special leave” of two months (one of which may be unpaid). Minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu will act in her position.
But the damage had been done to South Africans around the country, who are already largely embittered by the Draconian measures placed on them by the lockdown – and for whom the sight of a Cabinet Minister flouting them so blithely added salt to the wound. Sights of South African Defence Force and Police Services members shoving, beating and even shooting defenceless citizens have already soured many’s patriotic spirit and conjured up memories of Sharpeville and Marikana.
At the beginning of the lockdown, the large majority of South Africans (and the international community) hailed the President for acting decisively. Now citizens are demanding the reprimand of violating leaders.
Sadly, Ndabeni-Abrahams isn’t alone. There’ve been several instances of government leaders around the globe applying one law to their populations and another to themselves. English Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for example, who urged his citizens to avoid stockpiling essential household items like toilet rolls when the virus first hit the UK, so that nothing was left on retailers’ shelves for others: within a few hours of this heartfelt plea, a delivery van piled to the roof with toilet rolls was filmed driving into his private residence and being unloaded.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden demoted her Health Minister, David Clark, for violating lockdown rules, having rejected his resignation due to the importance of his portfolio at this time.
The past month has also provided time to reflect on the seeming disproportion in the global response to the virus, compared with other year-round factors causing hundreds of thousands of death. There’s been little or no reporting on the rate at which women and children are dying due to gender-based violence, which has surely been amplified by the lockdown, since women are being forced to stay indoors with abusive partners 24/7. Women were given only a helpline number to call, rather than a lifeline in the form of alternative shelter. We’ve also seen recent incidents of shocking crimes, such as 21 Gauteng schools having either been burglarised or torched, the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Soweto girl and the rape of a 75-year old woman by criminals posing as SANDF soldiers.
We applaud and fully support the lockdown declared by government, however, we appeal only for those entrusted with enforcing it to exercise common sense, compassion, restraint and consistency. While Police Minister Bheki Cele is doing a good job in sending a message across that if you ignore the lockdown rules your honeymoon suite might just be a jail cell, one wonders if these citizens who test the boundaries of the lockdown would do so if the policing of crime was consistent and a matter of course, lockdown or no lockdown.
All countries have a duty to impose emergency regulations on their populations in times of war and other crises. These must, necessarily, deprive citizens of many freedoms and rights they normally take for granted. But certain rights are not negotiable, such as dignity, protection from arbitrary brutality and bullying, and equality under the law for all, regardless of rank, position or class – especially for a population already battling to cope with extreme stress, uncertainty and fear.