Lindiwe Sisulu’s F-you to Ramaphosa should surprise no one — here’s why
In a stunning about-turn on Thursday night, Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said President Cyril Ramaphosa was lying when he announced that she had agreed to apologise for her insulting comments about South African judges. This is a show of unprecedented defiance from a Cabinet minister to their own president — but anyone familiar with Sisulu’s history shouldn’t be remotely surprised.
You can count the number of times Lindiwe Sisulu has publicly apologised for just about anything on one hand.
While intelligence minister in 2002, she had to apologise for “unsavoury” questioning on her watch by the National Intelligence Agency, when journalists hoping to join the new presidential press corps had to answer questions on their sexual activity, including listing all sexual partners and disclosing whether they had ever had homosexual sex.
While human settlements minister in 2017, she reportedly apologised to members of the Liliesleaf Farm ANC branch for the outcome of the 2007 ANC electoral conference in Polokwane at which Jacob Zuma triumphed over Thabo Mbeki, saying: “We didn’t know what we were doing; we were caught up in factions.”
While Dirco minister in 2018, she apologised to King Letsie III of Lesotho after he was reportedly mistreated at a border crossing.
In 2020, while minister of human settlements, water and sanitation, Sisulu apologised to the community of Sekhukhune in Limpopo for the fact that they hadn’t had water for a decade. (She also promised to rectify the situation; as of two months ago, Sekhukhune still didn’t have water.)
There must surely have been a few other times over the course of her 21 years as a Cabinet minister when Sisulu has publicly said sorry for something, but you’d be foolish to bet on many more.
So it should have come as little surprise when, less than an hour after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced an apology from Sisulu on Thursday night for her vitriolic public attack on the country’s judiciary and its Constitution, Sisulu said she had no intention of apologising at all.
Her statement read:
To all Media Houses
I have just been informed of a media alert issued by the Presidency that apparently claims that I Lindiwe N. Sisulu retracted my original expression.
I wish to categorically disown this statement in its entirety as a misrepresentation of the said meeting I had with the president. The president and I met on Wednesday at 9 pm at his house. In such a meeting, he shared his challenge with one aspect of the article on the judges. The president proposed an intermediary that would focus on the one line about the judges to resolve that. I awaited such to be communicated which would do nothing to the entire article.
Under no circumstances did I commit to any retraction or apology since I stand by what I penned.
The content of the president’s statement in its current form is unfortunate as it is not what we agreed on. In this regard, I wish to distance myself from such.
I will in the next 24 hours issue a full statement.
Lindiwe N. Sisulu
In fact, in comparison with Sisulu’s track record, her statement is relatively mild — were it not for the point that it amounts to a staggering show of contempt for her own president.
In the past, when Sisulu has been confronted with evidence of her own dereliction of duty, her standard response has been to turn the accusation back on the person making it — in a manner that would almost be comical in its childishness, if it were not so breathtakingly inappropriate from a Cabinet minister.
Exhibit A: In February 2008, Delft backyarders standing in the way of Sisulu’s disastrous N2 Gateway housing project are forcibly removed, following escalating threats from Sisulu herself, and a violent confrontation with police ensues. Children and elderly people are among those hit by rubber bullets and trampled.
UWC history professor and anti-apartheid activist Martin Legassick writes an open letter to Sisulu accusing her of having “blood on her hands”.
Sisulu replies with a letter to Legassick asking: “If you were present at the N2 Gateway and did nothing to stop what was clearly an explosive situation, who has blood on their hands?”
Exhibit B: In May 2020, residents of Ikemeleng in West Rand are given temporary accommodation after living in tents for four years. Journalists ask Sisulu why it has taken the Department of Human Settlements four years to intervene.
Sisulu’s response: “Why did it take you four years to discover? You are the media, your job is to bring to the attention of officials of society some of the hazards of the way people are living.”
Exhibit C: In January 2021, Sisulu is conducting an informal settlement visit in Cape Town when housing activist Nkosikhona Swartbooi reminds Sisulu she has not yet provided residents of eMpolweni with building materials Sisulu had personally promised the community at a meeting the previous year.
In a video widely circulated at the time, Sisulu accused Swartbooi of “lying”, ordered him to stop filming her, and snapped: “I said to you I will buy that material.”
“Did you buy it?” asked Swartbooi.
“Did you bring it to me?” Sisulu replied.
The pattern is clear: to borrow a dictum attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, “Never explain; never apologise.” Sisulu is, after all, ANC royalty — and being a royal means almost never having to say you’re sorry.
The list of things for which Sisulu should have apologised in the past, and did not, is long.
There was the time in 2008, while minister of housing, that she oversaw the expenditure of more than R22-million on a mysterious “communications programme”, the centrepiece of which was a Sarafina-type play titled A re Ageng Mzansi (Let’s build South Africa). In response to criticism, Sisulu described it as “an extremely useful tool”. Her successor immediately scrapped the play on the grounds that it had “nothing to do with housing”.
There was the time in 2009, while minister of defence, that Sisulu tried to ban soldiers from unionising — which was a violation of their constitutional rights.
There was the time in 2010 — still minister of defence — when Sisulu refused to release to Parliament an urgent report on “subhuman” conditions in the military produced by a commission she herself had appointed. This was after Parliament’s own legal adviser confirmed MPs had the right to the reports and her refusal was unconstitutional, and even after defence committee chair, ANC MP Nyami Booi, had ordered her to produce the documents. (Sisulu saw to it that Booi was sacked as a result.)
When she was minister of human settlements in 2014, there was the time she announced, addressing South Africans under 40: “None of you are ever going to get a house free from me while I live”. Analyst Eusebius McKaiser later wrote: “It is a viewpoint I’d expect from AfriForum”, premised on the idea that apartheid didn’t negatively affect anyone younger than 40.
Still as minister of human settlements, in 2017, there was the time she lied to Parliament that the government had built 1,200 houses a day since democracy. When Africa Check asked for the source of this claim, her adviser Vusi Tshose said Sisulu was “referring to a study which was done by someone else”. He never elaborated.
Africa Check concluded that the real figure was closer to 377 houses a day.
As minister of human settlements, water and sanitation in 2021, there was the time Sisulu announced the roll-out of “transitional residential units” to ease overcrowding during the pandemic, which turned out to be tin shacks built at a cost of R64,000 per unit.
It subsequently emerged that the shacks were beset with structural issues and vulnerable to flooding, with some residents declaring them “worse” than the shacks they previously lived in.
One more for 2021: the time when the founder of social movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, the remarkable S’bu Zikode, won a Swedish government prize for human rights activism and Sisulu attempted to share credit, congratulating him in a statement which referred to her as a “patron” of Abahlali.
Abahlali’s response speaks for itself:
“Our movement does not have a patron. Moreover, all our efforts to engage the Minister [Sisulu] on violent and unlawful evictions in eThekwini have failed. Even during the Covid lockdown when all evictions were stopped by law by the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development and the UN had announced a world-wide ban on all evictions she did not bother to stop the eThekwini Municipality from evicting Abahlali.”
Never explain, never apologise.
Ramaphosa can perhaps console himself with the reminder that he is by no means the only member of ANC leadership who Sisulu has publicly disrespected — although he is certainly the most senior.
In October 2017, Sisulu launched a breathtaking attack on then ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, asking “Where was he when we were fighting for this freedom in exile and in jail?”
To quote politics professor Anthony Butler: “This claim that exiles were superior to mineworker organisers such as Mantashe confirmed to many that [Sisulu] was out of touch and arrogant.”
There seems to be no public record of an apology from Sisulu to Mantashe — or evidence of a rebuke from the ANC.
On this occasion, however, Sisulu has overplayed her hand. She may indeed be ANC royalty — but Sisulu would do well to remember that the long sweep of history suggests it often ends badly for miscreant royals. DM