RET VS RAMAPHOSA
Showdown looms after Lindiwe Sisulu denies Presidency statement that she apologised and retracted her attack on judges
By getting Lindiwe Sisulu to apologise, President Cyril Ramaphosa aimed to show he had control over a Cabinet that was committed to constitutionalism and the rule of law. But Sisulu undermined her boss in what appears to be a move to force him to fire her ahead of the ANC's elective conference.
President Cyril Ramaphosa and Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu met this week in Cape Town to discuss Sisulu’s attacks on the judiciary. What happened at the meeting is unclear, with both parties providing conflicting reports on whether Sisulu apologised.
What is clear is that the meeting has now become about the race for ANC president.
The Presidency issued a statement on Thursday evening claiming Ramaphosa “admonished” the long-serving Cabinet member, who retracted and apologised for some of the most insulting passages of her column that claimed the Constitution and judiciary are used to maintain systems of poverty and oppression.
Here’s the Presidency’s statement in full:
President Cyril Ramaphosa met with the Minister of Tourism, Ms Lindiwe Sisulu, in Cape Town earlier this week, where he admonished her about her recent article entitled “Hi Mzansi, have we seen justice?” published on 7 January 2022.
The President specifically admonished the Minister about her attack on the judiciary when she said: “Today, in the high echelons of our judicial system are those mentally colonised Africans, who have settled with the worldview and mindset of those who have dispossessed their ancestors.
“They are only too happy to lick the spittle of those who falsely claim superiority.
“The lack of confidence that permeates their rulings against their own speaks very loudly, while others, secure in their agenda, clap behind closed doors.”
Minister Sisulu conceded that her words were inappropriate.
Minister Sisulu retracts this statement and affirms her support for the judiciary.
“I accept that my column has levelled against the judiciary and African judges in particular unsubstantiated, gratuitous and deeply hurtful comments,” said Minister Sisulu.
“I retract unequivocally my hurtful comments. I recognise that many women and men judges past and present have served their country in the judiciary with dedication and patriotism and some have made sterling sacrifices in the fight against apartheid and colonialism.
“I apologise for and regret the hurt I have caused the judiciary.”
Sisulu’s initial column, published on Independent Media platforms, has been interpreted as an attempt to woo the ANC’s Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction ahead of the party’s elective conference in December, where it’s believed she wants to lead the challenge against Ramaphosa for the party presidency. Her comments echoed claims from former president Jacob Zuma and other RET supporters.
The Presidency’s statement was meant to be a show of strength from Ramaphosa. He is famous for building consensus, but has been criticised for failing to act against his opponents within the ANC who have undermined his leadership and the rule of law.
Sisulu’s column, which she defended in two subsequent opinion pieces, subverted Ramaphosa’s authority and the image he has been trying to build locally and abroad.
Acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo called Sisulu’s comments “completely unacceptable” and said “it would be a pity if it was allowed to stand”. Zondo, who handed the State Capture Inquiry’s first report to Ramaphosa days before Sisulu’s article was published, said there was a pattern of people trying to intimidate the judiciary following critical judgments.
Civil society groups the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation‚ the Council for the Advancement of the SA Constitution‚ Corruption Watch‚ Defend our Democracy Campaign‚ Freedom Under Law‚ Helen Suzman Foundation and Judges Matter said Sisulu’s call to overhaul the judiciary was “dangerous and regressive”.
They said such unwarranted attacks on the judiciary by politicians “appear intended only to foreclose on the prospect of accountability for crimes, malfeasance and other wrongdoing associated with public office”.
Justice Minister Ronald Lamola admonished his colleague for failing to mention a single judgment to support her claim that courts are enforcing oppressive laws. “Referring to judicial officers by using crude racial tropes cannot pass off as a debate,” he added.
The Presidency’s statement implied that Ramaphosa had responded to calls to defend the judiciary and South Africa’s democracy, taking action while a significant portion of his party has rallied to ensure he serves only one term.
Barely an hour after the statement was released, Sisulu issued a response, once again undermining her boss and effectively calling him a liar. Here’s her statement in full:
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.
The presidency shot back with another statement, reiterating its position, which means it, in turn, accused Sisulu of lying. It reads:
The Presidency stands by its statement earlier this evening, 20 January 2022, on a discussion between President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of Tourism Ms Lindiwe Sisulu.
The Presidency has nothing to add to the earlier statement.
While it’s unclear what happened when Ramaphosa met Sisulu, it seems extremely unlikely that the Presidency would draft a press statement including her apology – with direct quotes from the minister – without talking to her and her staff.
Ramaphosa resisted calls to fire Sisulu after she penned three columns that essentially attacked his leadership, undermined the rule of law and read more like RET campaign pieces than what she claimed were legitimate musings on the country’s inequities.
By disputing the Presidency’s statement on Thursday, Sisulu appears to be making a calculated move to force the president to sack her.
Sisulu has been unashamed about her political ambitions. In 2017, she launched a campaign for the ANC presidency but later agreed to run as deputy president when it was clear she couldn’t compete with Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.
In the run-up to the ANC’s 2022 conference, she does not yet have the constituency or backing to topple Ramaphosa. But the RET faction doesn’t have an obvious candidate to challenge the president. Sisulu appears to be positioning herself to fill that role and vie to become the party’s first female leader. To do so, she needs to campaign early and campaign hard.
Her columns have attacked the judiciary, political elite, big corporates and the system of structural racism that continues in South Africa. She is attempting to build her campaign around populist rhetoric that positions her as a defender of the poor, black majority that has not enjoyed the benefits of democracy and feels betrayed by the promises of freedom.
Getting fired by Ramaphosa would play into that strategy. The politics of victimhood are a regular feature in the ANC as leaders have purged opponents and used both real and manufactured allegations to maintain power.
Former president Jacob Zuma set the template, campaigning against Thabo Mbeki on the claim that he was being persecuted by an elitist because he was a man of the people.
Sisulu does not enjoy the wide support Zuma did and Ramaphosa is not Mbeki. But she appears to be forcing Ramaphosa to act against her and give her a legitimate reason to lead the RET faction into the December conference.
Ramaphosa must weigh up the consequences of acting against an errant minister with the consequences of retaining a minister who undermines his leadership. DM