DA's Phumzile van Damme refuses to take sabbatical 'forced' on her by Steenhuisen

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Phumzile van Damme.
Phumzile van Damme.
Jan Gerber
  • DA MP Phumzile van Damme is refusing to take a three-month sabbatical for health reasons after being told to do so by party leader John Steenhuisen.
  • Van Damme says she suffers from functional neurological disorder, which has debilitating symptoms, and is incurable.
  • Van Damme supported Mbali Ntuli for party leader against Steenhuisen.

DA leader John Steenhuisen has been accused of using fellow MP Phumzile van Damme's illness in order to sideline her.

Steenhuisen has extended Van Damme's three months' sick leave by another three, saying he is concerned about her health.

Van Damme tweeted on Friday night that she's "merely" been informed by Steenhuisen that he was granting her a sabbatical.

"I didn't request it," she tweeted. "He merely informed me. I could walk away, but I choose to stay, and challenge it ON PRINCIPLE."

She states that she has been open about being sick and has already been on leave for three months, focusing on her parliamentary committee work during that time.

Her sick leave is due to end on 15 December. 

"Did I drop the ball when I was sick? No. Even when I was sick, like I do when I am well, did I still outperform many of my colleagues? Yes. I asked for no sabbatical," she tweeted, saying that she and her doctors were responsible for determining her health, not her employer.  

READ | John Steenhuisen elected new DA leader

In a letter to Van Damme on Friday, Steenhuisen said he would grant her a three-month sabbatical from all parliamentary responsibilities, ending on 30 March next year, to enable her to focus on her health and to ensure that she receives the "requisite treatment, rest and rehabilitation without the distraction of added stress and responsibility".

Steenhuisen wrote:

"I remain deeply concerned about your health situation and the four chronic illnesses that you have been diagnosed with. I understand that these have become incredibly debilitating for you to perform every day functions, like walking, due to the chronic pain, vertigo and dizziness. I also know that you require significant periods of bed rest."

He said because December and January are fairly quiet periods in the parliamentary schedule, it would be "an opportune time for this sabbatical".

He said, although he understood that she was passionate about her work, "I would be failing in my duty as a leader if I did not take cognisance of the pain and challenges you are experiencing and intervene to ensure that you focus on getting better".

He told News24: "I have had to make changes to my shadow cabinet after my election, having inherited a shadow cabinet I did not appoint. It is the prerogative of the leader to do so and has been exercised by every DA leader. 

"This is a decision made in consultation with the caucus leadership and with Ms Van Damme's best interests at heart, I am sorry she is trying to portray it otherwise."

Candidacy

Van Damme, who did not back Steenhuisen's candidacy for DA leader ahead of the party's elective conference at the end of October, tweeted after the conference that there are arguments between the leaders in the party sometimes.

"This is not the town of Pleasantville," she tweeted, but added that she would work with Steenhuisen to pursue the common values the DA leaders have. 

Van Damme previously also had heated discussions with former party leader Helen Zille, who she tweeted had no hand in the decision about her leave.

"HZ and I disagree, then we meet and resolve it like adults," she shared in a tweet.

Earlier this week, she hit back at someone who fat-shamed her on Twitter, saying that this was due to her medical condition, functional neurological disorder, which makes it hard for her to walk around or exercise, and which upped her stress and anxiety levels.

She said there is no cure for the condition, but sometimes she goes into remission. 

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