When President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams minister of communications last year, there were many howls of protest and sighs of disappointment in the sector.
Why, why, why, the question was asked, was this critical sector being lumped with another dud.
The cries were understandable.
This was a ministry that had had to endure Dina Pule, she of the red sole luxury shoes and a penchant for Ben 10s; Faith Muthambi – whose incompetence brought a small Limpopo town to its knees before Jacob Zuma elevated her to Cabinet; and Nomvula Mokonyane, who left the water and sanitation department billions in the red and also had a penchant for Ben 10s.
The few ministers of substance who served in that portfolio were there for very brief periods before being shuffled off.
You would have been forgiven for believing that this ministry had been treated as some kind of dumping ground for incompetents.
There was hope that Ramaphosa – who put Mokonyane in the chair in the compromise Cabinet of February 2018 – would treat this portfolio with more seriousness than his predecessor when he fully took on the presidency on his own elected mandate in May 2019.
Then he appointed Ndabeni-Abrahams, previously a multiple-decibel howler who could outshout anyone in a Mediterranean fish market.
Whether by design or sleight, an impression was created that Ndabeni-Abrahams was one of the untouchable favourites of the president.
Ndabeni-Abrahams’ record in politics had been less than stellar and she owed her swift rise less to talent, than to calculating the route to the top cleverly.
Back in the early years of the Zuma presidency, Ndabeni-Abrahams fell out with the mutinous ANC Youth League leadership under Julius Malema.
Zuma and his coterie tactically saw an opportunity and drew her and some of the growing legion of Malema victims in the youth league leadership on to his side.
The reward of a deputy minister’s post came quickly for this new convert, who benefited from one of Zuma’s early reshuffles in 2011.
Now comfortable as deputy minister of communications and postal services, the formerly ardent Thabo Mbeki fan ensconced herself in the trenches of Nkandla.
Even as the dirtiness of the president of the country and governing party unfolded, she was one of those who stood firmly by him – for obvious career reasons.
Former president Jacob Zuma. (File photo: Michele Spatari, Pool, AFP)
Her unrestrained nature came through when her former youth league comrades arrived on the Parliamentary benches in 2014, dressed in the red of the newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters.
She had scores to settle with her former comrades.
Having returned to her post in a slightly reconfigured portfolio, Ndabeni-Abrahams was one of the shock-troops when the ANC had to shamefully defend the stinky affair that was Zuma’s R240 million Nkandla upgrades.
The images of her and fellow ANC parliamentarians screaming at the opposition parties – mainly the EFF – who were holding a thief to account are still etched in the mind.
Those ANC MPs were like possessed members of some religious cult in middle-America.
Ndabeni-Abrahams was right there in the middle of them, loyally protecting the useful idiot (who really thought he was the kingpin) of the state capture project.
Then came 2017 and, as the song goes, Zajik’ izinto (The wheels turned).
The end of the Zuma era was nigh and our rising star had to make fresh calculations.
When Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams was still a, Eastern Cape PEC member and head of communication. Here she is pictured with ANC provincial leaders, spokesperson Mlibo Qoboshiyane, provincial secretary Oscar Mabuyane and chairperson Phumulo Masualle. Picture: Luababalo Ngcukana/City Press
Was it going to be Cyril Ramaphosa or should she stay with her old crew and support Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma?
She calculated well and threw herself into the CR17 campaign, campaigning tirelessly for the man who would the following year become president of the republic.
By the time of the Nasrec conference in December 2017, she was viewed as a key cog in the Ramaphosa machinery and the man himself was said to be impressed by her youthful energy.
New vistas were opening for her.
It was no surprise then that, even though she didn’t get rewarded immediately when he took office in 2018, she got a full ministry come May 2019.
That’s when the critics howled.
She had done nothing in all the years as deputy minister to justify promotion except to give long, self-indulgent and mind-numbing speeches.
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. Pictures: Leon Sadiki
Talk to anyone who has had to endure those and you might be moved to buy them a very expensive Scotch when Bheki Cele’s booze prohibition time is over, just to help them get over the lingering trauma. The thing was that an area where South Africa had fallen so far behind the developed world, our own peer countries and even the less developed ones, surely needed better brains and firmer hands.
Not only was there a lot of catching up, there was a lot of fixing to be done while doing the catch up.
Those who were sympathetic or gave her the benefit of the doubt pointed out that she had begun to mature and become more measured.
She would grow into the job where she had been an understudy for a very long time, they said.
What this missed was who she had been an understudy to and what bad habits she might have picked up from those elements.
It was soon to show.
The screaming Ndabeni-Abrahams came out, now emboldened by the massive power she had acquired.
She battered the boards of the state entities she oversaw and ran interference on matters that were supposed to be far from her exalted throne.
Within her ministry and department there were tales of rule by fear.
Whether by design or sleight, an impression was created that she was one of the untouchable favourites of the president.
Her power and arrogance, it was said, came from her proximity to Ramaphosa.
She was even moved to deny her God complex in an interview with City Press last weekend, saying she was far from being “God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” that people claim she behaves like.
Read: People think that I am God – Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams takes swipe at critics
Many were wishing that her blatantly defying Ramaphosa by breaking the lockdown regulations that have been drummed into South Africans’ ears many times a day for the past two weeks would have heralded the end of her stint in Cabinet.
The assumption was that the credibility of Ramaphosa’s so-far solid management of the Covid-19 crisis rested on him treating an errant minister the same way as his security forces were treating ordinary citizens.
The only way forward was the guillotine. Furthermore, he couldn’t risk an entrenchment of the idea that this minister was really untouchable.
But this was Ramaphosa.
There was never any chance in hell he would do anything so bold as to make an example of one of his most ardent supporters in an ANC terrain where he is not 100% sure of his own footing.
We keep producing leaders who do not grow up. They become senior in their parties and in government but they remain the children they were when they entered politics.
After the virus is defeated he will still have to fight intra-party battles, albeit from a stronger position after he has managed to get the nation united behind him.
So this commander-in-chief was not going to leave this able lieutenant lying wounded on this battlefield when he may need her in the next one, where victory is less certain.
So he gave her what was essentially a slap on the wrist for an offence that was very severe in these circumstances.
Whether Ndabeni-Abrahams returns to the Cabinet and to her position in two months’ time will be determined by how fast the wheels of the law turn and how much public pressure Ramaphosa can withstand.
Criminal charges have been laid against her by others.
Other forms of institutional pressure will be applied on the president not to allow someone who wilfully broke the law and thus violated her oath of office to continue serving in Cabinet.
He may still blink, but for now the bigger battle he needs to fight keeps Ndabeni-Abrahams safe.
It may well be that he wants someone else to do that job for him, such is the nature of our president.
But this problem is not just Ramaphosa’s alone. It is our collective problem.
We keep producing leaders who do not grow up.
They become senior in their parties and in government but they remain the children they were when they entered politics.
They chant – and believe – the same slogans they chanted in their student and youth activism.
Their belief in the political parties is higher than the belief in the republic, the Constitution and the citizens.
Intellectually they remain rooted in ideologies that are obsolete while living comfy personal lives that are ahead of the contemporary.
Then we give them power and the only thing they know to do with it is wield it for the sake of it.
Arrogance, self-interest and a superiority complex rule them as they believe the rules and norms of the society are not for them.
Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams is that person. She is the young lion who never grew up. When given the ultimate adult tool – power – she became a danger to herself and all around her.
She remains that danger – mainly to our progress as a modern state and 21st century economy.