President Cyril Ramaphosa admitted to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) that the ministerial handbook is often flouted when he approves ministers' requests for travel abroad on "urgent" business.
Ramaphosa answered questions in the NCOP on Tuesday.
DA whip in the NCOP, Cathlene Labuschagne, asked the president about his approval for Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula's trip to Zimbabwe last month.
The defence minister ferried civilians, who all happen to be ANC officials - Ace Magashule, Tony Yengeni, Nomvula Mokonyane, Enoch Godongwana and Dakota Lekgoete - to Harare aboard a South African air force jet.
In her original question, Labuschagne asked when Ramaphosa was first informed of the flight, on what grounds he approved the flight, and whether he was informed that a delegation of a certain political party was included on the flight at the time of approval.
"Honourable members, as you may be aware, I directed that documentation, including correspondence and reports, relating to the visit to Zimbabwe by Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Ms Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula be made public," Ramaphosa said.
"Thus, as I expressed publicly, I received a written request for travel from Minister Mapisa-Nqakula, dated 7 September 2020.
"The minister requested permission to travel to Zimbabwe from 8 to 10 September 2020 to conduct a bilateral meeting with her Zimbabwean counterpart. This is the normal request that I receive, as I have to give ministers permission to leave the country.
"As I was not in Gauteng at the time, the minister submitted her travel request, I gave the minister verbal approval of the travel on 8 September 2020 and signed the relevant documentation upon my return to Gauteng. This often happens, where ministers are able to get permission verbally.
"On 10 September, the presidency sent the minister written confirmation that the president had approved her travel.
"The minister travelled on a South African Air Force aircraft, which also conveyed senior leaders of the African National Congress. I have since issued the minister with a formal reprimand for conveying the ANC delegation to Zimbabwe on an aircraft of the South African Air Force.
"I took this action after considering the minister's initial report and a supplementary report that I had directed the minister to provide on the circumstances that led to the ANC delegation travelling on a South African Air Force plane.
"While the minister was on an official trip, for which I had given permission and for which she was entitled to use an air force aircraft, I found that it was an error in judgement on her part to use the plane to convey a political party delegation.
"I directed the minister to make sure that the ANC reimburses the state for the costs of the flight to Harare and I understand that this has now been done," Ramaphosa said.
Labuschagne then pointed out that the ministerial handbook requires that ministers must seek presidential approval for a trip outside the country at least two weeks before their departure, which, by Ramaphosa's own admission, wasn't done.
After News24 reported that Ramaphosa approved Mapisa-Nqakula's trip the day after she returned, the presidency issued a statement, which said that Ramaphosa gave verbal approval on 8 September.
Labuschagne said the written approval was only given after public outrage about the trip, and the verbal approval appears to be a "last-minute attempt to cover up".
"Why did you lie to the South African public?" she asked.
ANC whip Seth Mohai raised a point of order, and NCOP chairperson Amos Masondo asked her to withdraw, which she did.
She then asked why he wasn't providing all the facts, and asked that he provide the grounds for approval of the trip.
Ramaphosa said the grounds for the trip was that Mapisa-Nqakula had bilateral discussions with her Zimbabwean counterpart, about security matters in the region. He said the meeting was urgent.
He said the ministerial handbook requires two weeks - "but it has often happened that matters happen on an urgent basis".
He said some trips are planned well in advance, others are on short notice.
"Then we say all members of Cabinet do not leave South Africa without seeking permission from the president," he said.
Nowhere does the ministerial handbook have an exception to the two-week rule, based on urgency or any other reason.
FF Plus MP Armand Cloete noted that the trip took place while strict lockdown regulations against international travel were in place. He asked whether these regulations were contravened and what actions will be taken if they were.
Ramaphosa said there are a "few processes under way", including an investigation by the Public Protector, which he believes will provide answers to these questions.
Timeline of the Zim junket:
31 August: President Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking after an ANC NEC meeting, says: "The secretary-general [of the ANC, Ace Magashule] will be finalising the delegation that will be going to Zimbabwe in days, to meet with the Zimbabwe governing party, Zanu-PF."
2 September: Zimbabwean news outlet Chronicle reports of a pending meeting between the ANC and Zanu-PF.
7 September: Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula requests a meeting in Harare on 9 September with her Zimbabwean counterpart, Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri.
7 September: Muchinguri-Kashiri responds, granting Mapisa-Nqakula's request for the meeting.
7 September: Mapisa-Nqakula writes to Ramaphosa to request presidential approval for her visit to Harare.
8 September: Ramaphosa grants Mapisa-Nqakula "verbal approval" for the visit.
8 September: The ANC announces that a delegation is heading to Zimbabwe for a meeting with Zanu-PF.
8 September: An Air Force Falcon 900 jet leaves Waterkloof Air Force Base at 18:25, with Mapisa-Nqakula, Social Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu, Ace Magashule, Tony Yengeni, Nomvula Mokonyane, Enoch Godongwana and Dakota Lekgoete on board. They arrive at Harare Airport by 19:35.
9 September: At 10:00, the ANC delegation, including Mapisa-Nqakula meets with Zanu-PF officials. At 16:30 Mapisa-Nqakula breaks away for her official meeting with Muchinguri-Kashiri, which concludes at 19:00. The Falcon 900 leaves Harare at 21:45 and lands at Waterkloof at 22:30.
10 September: The presidency issues Mapisa-Nqakula with written approval for her visit.
10 September: The news breaks that ANC officials flew to Harare on board an air force jet.
11 September: Ramaphosa instructs Mapisa-Nqakula to provide him with a report on the matter within 48 hours.
13 September: Mapisa-Nqakula receives approval to self-quarantine.
22 September: Ramaphosa writes to Mapisa-Nqakula, requesting more information. She responds with several documents, including a draft affidavit to the Public Protector.
26 September: In a late-evening statement, the presidency announces that Ramaphosa found that Mapisa-Nqakula made an "error in judgement" and docked her three months' salary.
30 September: The presidency publishes the documentation Mapisa-Nqakula provided.