South Africa’s communications minister has been sent on compulsory “special leave” for two months, by President Cyril Ramaphosa, for breaking the rules of a countrywide lockdown and having lunch with a former official.
Ramaphosa acted after a picture of Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams at the lunch emerged on social media, angering South Africans confined to their homes during the 21-day lockdown that started on March 27 to rein in the coronavirus outbreak.
The president, speaking on the minister’s defiance to the lockdown order, said one of the two months the minister will spend off duty will be unpaid.
According to the rules, people are only allowed to leave their homes for essential tasks like buying food or seeking medical help. Police arrested more than 17,000 people during the first few days of the lockdown, many for violating the lockdown.
“The president strongly believes that no one, including the minister, is above the law,” Ramaphosa’s spokeswoman, Khusela Diko, said.
“He says none of us should undermine our national effort to save lives in this very serious situation.”
In a video posted by the presidency on Twitter, Ndabeni-Abrahams apologised for her actions.
“I would like to convey an apology to President Cyril Ramaphosa … (and) society at large for breaching lockdown rules put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19,” she said. “I regret the incident and am deeply sorry.”
The country’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, had called on Ramaphosa to fire Ndabeni-Abrahams and lay a criminal complaint against her over the “lockdown lunch.”
Minister in the presidency Jackson Mthembu will act as communications minister while Ndabeni-Abrahams is on leave.
Ndabeni-Abrahams has been leading government efforts to lower data prices and increase policy certainty in the telecoms sector, including via the licensing of high-demand spectrum.
She is not the first government minister to break lockdown rules – New Zealand Health Minister David Clark drove his family to the beach in the early stages of the lockdown there.
Scotland’s chief medical officer stood down after breaching the lockdown by visiting her second home.