Legal View

Hands off Ndabeni-Abrahams, say ICT industry bodies

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Communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

While some sections of South African society have claimed suspended communications and digital technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams got a slap on the wrist for breaking coronavirus (COVID-19) rules, some industry bodies have come to her defence.

They claim there is a malicious political agenda to oust the self-proclaimed commander of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

Last week, president Cyril Ramaphosa put Ndabeni-Abrahams on special leave for two months, one month of which will be unpaid, after a furore erupted on social media when a picture showing her in violation of government-imposed lockdown rules surfaced.

The photograph in question shows the minister having lunch at former higher education deputy minister Mduduzi Manana’s home, contrary to what the lockdown regulations stipulate.

The under-fire Ndabeni-Abrahams has since apologised for her actions via a statement as well as a video shared on Facebook.

In her absence, minister in the Presidency Jackson Mthembu will act in minister Ndabeni-Abrahams’s position.

However, some were not satisfied with her apology and the punishment.

Opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), for example, issued a statement saying: “The EFF calls for the removal of minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams from the Cabinet for breaching lockdown regulations to have lunch with her friend. The two-month censure imposed on the minister for breaching the lockdown is nonsensical and suggests that ministers and members of the executive must be treated as if they are above the law.”

Similarly, the Democratic Alliance weighed in, saying Ramaphosa must set an example by firing and laying a criminal complaint against Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Apology accepted

Besides these tough calls from opposition parties, several industry bodies have accepted the minister’s apology and are looking forward to her returning to work.

In a statement, labour body the Communication Workers Union (CWU) says although it is “disappointed” by Ndabeni-Abrahams’s conduct, it welcomes the apology from the embattled minister.

“As CWU, we felt the matter was handled very well by the president and it sent a clear message that no one is above the law and how serious we should take the issue of lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says CWU general secretary Aubrey Tshabalala in a statement.

“However, what worries us is what appears to be a political yet malicious-motivated agenda to discredit and ultimately oust the minister from her position,” he notes.

The labour union claims it has observed a concerted campaign unleashed on social media to attack and assassinate the character of the minister to an extent that sexist and bigotry utterances are at play.

“It is our view that the minister has erred and we do not condone her behaviour with regards to her breaking the rules of the lockdown. However, we dismiss any attempts of using this unfortunate episode to drive a narrow and disruptive political agenda. Since the appointment of minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahrams, there has been stability in the department,” Tshabalala says.

“Her visibility, including hard-working attitude, has yielded a number of positive results for workers in particular and the sector in general.”

The CWU notes the minister was hands-on in resolving some of the difficult situations in a number of institutions, including SABC retrenchments, USAASA shenanigans, discussions around Telkom’s retrenchments and rescuing the business from collapsing because of regulations, and many other key challenging matters with SMMEs.

“There is now [more] certainties in the industry than ever before on the release of spectrum. The commitment of government was showcased through her leadership. It was further demonstrated now during the difficult times of the lockdown when she directed ICASA to issue new spectrum that will assist the network operators to expand during the lockdown period for the benefit of the country,” says Tshabalala.

Tone of backlash

Another industry body in Ndabeni-Abrahams’s corner is the National Association of Manufacturers of Electronic Components (NAMEC).

While welcoming the pronouncement of Ramaphosa on the two-month special leave of Ndabeni-Abrahams, NAMEC says it is concerned by the rampant politicisation and tone of the backlash of the leave taken by the minister.

“NAMEC is concerned by the special interests that are using the leave by the minister as an opportunity to advance their narrow personal, economic and political agendas which, ultimately, are intended to culminate in reversals of the transformation agenda of the minister and plans the department has for transforming the sectors that fall within the ambit of the department,” says NAMEC in its statement.

The industry body says the minister has always been visible in the public, supporting government’s strategic intervention on the fight against the scourge of this global COVID-19 pandemic by making sure the correct messaging is issued to the citizens of the country, including managing the proliferation of fake news and releasing of additional spectrum by the minister instructing ICASA to issue new spectrum that is currently allowing network operators to expand their network during the lockdown.

“We, as NAMEC, accept the apology of the minister. We do, however, caution that selfish narrow special interests are using this as a tool to derail the minister’s agenda of transformation,” says Tony Booysen, secretary general of NAMEC.

“We also note there seems to be a backlash that is different in society that is wholly reserved for black women that is different from what is reserved for men. To err is human and we wish the minister well and may she come back stronger as she continues her tireless work in changing the lives of South Africans for the better.”

Incontestable censure

The ICT SMME Chamber says it extends appreciation for Ramaphosa’s demonstrable leadership following his placing of Ndabeni-Abrahams on two-month leave with one unpaid.

The organisation points out the minister’s misjudgement and the results thereof cannot be overstated.

“It is, therefore, our position that the president imposed an appropriate, adequate, well-weighted and, therefore, incontestable censure on his minister, under the COVID-19 lockdown circumstances.

“Minister Ndabeni-Abrahams is a public figure. Therefore, her wrongdoing is a matter of public interest, so is her apology. We understand the president also accepted her apology during their meeting and the chamber takes the cue from the president’s acceptance of Ndabeni-Abrahams’s apology in pleading and appealing for the public to accept same.”

However, the ICT SMME Chamber notes it is, therefore, surprising to observe certain quarters adopting a hardline stance against the president’s acceptance of the minister’s apology.

“There are those who are too notoriously placed to be appealing for the minister’s firing. We are confident the president sees these opportunistic appeals exactly for what they are – malicious.

“SMMEs across the ICT industry have pinned their hopes on minister Ndabeni-Abrahams, who has unashamedly driven policies inculcating their unflinching demand for inclusion into the mainstream telecom and wider ICT economy.

“SMMEs are, therefore, upset that the champion of 4IR and industry transformation blundered as she did on an unrelated matter, thus threatening the continuance of the transformation agenda.”

Meanwhile, while welcoming Ndabeni-Abrahams’s censure, the Progressive Professionals Forum says it “unreservedly accepts minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams’s apology and looks forward to her return to office to implement the 2019-2024 government priorities seeking to change the lives of the poor”.

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