In South Africa, a government minister lost her salary for eating lunch in the wrong place

insider@insider.com (Helena Wasserman)
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, South African Minister of Communications, at the State of the Nation Address in Cape Town, South Africa, February 13, 2020.

Jeffrey Abrahams/Gallo Images via Getty Images

  • South Africa has been under strict lockdown since March 27, despite only a small number of Covid-19 deaths in that country.
  • No-one is allowed out for exercise, and the sale of alcohol, cigarettes, and clothing has been banned.
  • The country's president has just sanctioned a government minister for visiting a friend's house.
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Amid one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, South Africa's minister of communication has been put on leave from her job for having lunch with a friend.

South Africa has effectively been shut down since March 27, when a nationwide lockdown was imposed before a single person died of the novel coronavirus in the country. Authorities moved fast amid concerns about the high percentage of the population with compromised immune systems, which would make them more vulnerable to COVID-19. South Africa has one of the highest rates of HIV and tuberculosis in the world. 

But so far, only 13 people have died from COVID-19 in the country of almost 60 million people – due in part to the stringent lockdown. 

Streets are deserted as movement outside of residences is restricted to grocery shopping and visiting the doctor. Exercise or dog walking is not allowed. The sale of alcohol, cigarettes, clothing, homewares, and all other goods deemed non-essential is illegal. South Africa has also banned fast-food deliveries

With South Africans now effectively confined to their own homes, many stripped of an income, the Instagram picture of the 42-year old Communications and Digital Technologies Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams enjoying lunch at the home of a friend instantly spread on social media — to massive outrage.

On Wednesday, less than a day after the photo first surfaced, President Cyril Ramaphosa put the minister on two months' leave, one of which will be unpaid, and said he was "unmoved" by her excuses for the outing – her friend earlier claimed that she was picking up a donation of masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. Ramaphosa said the law must be allowed to take its course in determining whether she breached lockdown regulations. He also demanded a public apology, which Ndabeni-Abrahams delivered shortly thereafter, asking South Africans to "find it in your hearts to forgive me".

She wasn't the first public figure to flout new coronavirus-related rules. On Sunday Scotland's chief medical officer, Caroline Calderwood, resigned after she visited her country home during lockdown — twice. Earlier this week, New Zealand's health minister, David Clark, was demoted after being photographed going biking and taking his family to the beach.

Ramaphosa's next big challenge will be a decision whether to extend the current lockdown, which is supposed to be lifted on April 17.

While the country is rolling out mobile coronavirus test stations, so far testing has not been widespread and there are concerns that with the arrival of colder autumn temperatures in the Southern Hemisphere it may be too early to lift restrictions. 

The current stringent measures have also brought unexpected benefits.  

Many emergency rooms are unusually quiet as the impact of restrictions on travel and alcohol sales ban are seen in fewer car accidents and a sharp fall in crime. In the first week of lockdown, only 94 murders were recorded in the country – from 326 in the same week in 2019. The number of rapes was down 86%. 

Still, the enormous damage to an economy which was already grappling with sky-high unemployment and a recession — even before the pandemic — may persuade Ramaphosa to at least ease restrictions.

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