Tourism minister and possible presidential hopeful Lindiwe Sisulu has toned down her accusation that a statement by President Cyril Ramaphosa was a “misrepresentation” of their meeting earlier this week.
Instead, in a press release just before 8.30am on Friday morning, with an official letterhead from her department less than 12 hours after her first release in reaction to Ramaphosa’s initial statement on their meeting, she blames his media team for being “deliberately mischievous” and for twisting what was agreed in their meeting.
Her first statement, on Thursday night, incidentally, was on blank paper with no letterhead, and with no reference to her title as minister.
It is not clear who attended that meeting or whether it was recorded.
The public exchange of statements comes right in the middle of a two-day ANC national executive committee meeting, due to conclude on Friday.
Sisulu’s attack on the judiciary was apparently raised on Thursday already by some NEC members, a source with knowledge of the meeting said, and after this exchange, it’s possible that it could make an appearance again.
Just to recap, the meeting between Ramaphosa and Sisulu earlier in the week was about a piece published under her name on the IOL website on 7 January, titled “Hi Mzanzi, have we seen justice?”. The writer makes a decolonial argument against the Constitution and, in the process, said derogatory things about black judges.
According to Ramaphosa’s statement, he “admonished” Sisulu about this attack on the judiciary, specifically the following parts:
“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.”
Ramaphosa issued what appeared to have been a statement agreed between them in the meeting — described by Sisulu in her most recent statement as “mature and sensible” — in which Sisulu was supposed to have said:
“I accept that my column has levelled against the judiciary and African judges in particular unsubstantiated, gratuitous and deeply hurtful comments.
“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.”
According to her most recent statement, Ramaphosa disagreed with her on only one sentence and, after consulting an “intermediary” called her again on Thursday “and read the specific sentence as redesigned that he had found offensive”. The discussion ended “on an amicable base”.
Although she apparently agreed to “reconsider the particular line relating to the judiciary which the president had raised issue with and was to share with her,” she herself didn’t reveal what that sentence was.
Minister in the Presidency, Mondli Gungubele, issued a statement soon after Sisulu’s first statement on Thursday night, saying that the Presidency stood by its first statement. It is understood that Sisulu did, in fact, agree with Ramaphosa on the contents of the first statement, but changed her mind after it was released. It’s not clear what led to this.
Her spokesperson Steve Motale, who is also a writer and former newspaper editor, handled all her press queries on Thursday night. He told Daily Maverick on Friday morning that Sisulu’s second statement “was her final word on the matter”.
In spite of the level of debate the original piece — as well as the follow-up responses to criticism — has elicited, Sisulu hasn’t actually granted any media interviews in which she outlined her views on the judiciary, or any reasons for her attacks on it.
She has also not replied to questions sent to her.
The controversy she stoked, and the timing of it, is widely interpreted within the ANC to be a way of raising her hand as a candidate for party president.
The piece appeared in the same week that Acting Judge President Raymond Zondo handed over the first part of his report on the state capture inquiry to Ramaphosa. The outcome of the commission could lead to a number of ANC leaders facing charges.
This is expected to form the basis of some campaigning towards the party’s elective conference at the end of the year, and by attacking the judiciary, Sisulu — whose name isn’t mentioned in the first part of the three-part report — could attract the support of those who will consider themselves the victims of state capture-related prosecutions this year — many of which have rallied with the anti-Ramaphosa “Radical Economic Transformation” group in the ANC.
To become president, Sisulu will have to contest the incumbent. Ramaphosa is likely to run for a second term as he has not resisted endorsements earlier this month from Limpopo leaders for a second term. (Some have called these endorsements premature as conventions in the party dictate that support can be expressed when a province has formally voted on this in a provincial general council — a few weeks ahead of the elective conference.)
Ramaphosa, as an individual, believes in the constitutional democracy he helped create, and, as president, has to call his executive into line when they make unsubstantiated or malicious attacks on the judiciary.
By not letting Ramaphosa have the last say on the issue in his statement, Sisulu has challenged him to make the next move — and it’s not an easy one.
There are some calls from within Ramaphosa’s faction for him to fire her and not be so “weak”.
A lobbyist says: “CR has seven out of nine provinces firmly in his grip, he should use that political mileage, otherwise he will get trouble”.
It’s possible that Ramaphosa is cautious because Sisulu appears to be using the same playbook Jacob Zuma did ahead of his election as president in 2007.
Zuma was sacked by Mbeki in 2005 after corruption charges were instituted against him and he went on to use the space this gave him — and the sympathy he had as victim — to campaign for the presidency.
It’s unclear whether Sisulu has the same loyal support base that Zuma cultivated over the years while he was in government, first in KwaZulu-Natal and then nationally.
It is clear, however, that she has been doing some groundwork in the past year or two, and that she has lobbied ANC Women’s League president Bathabile Dlamini and her faction in the league to rally behind her.
The stakes are high, as it could be the 67-year-old former exile’s last opportunity to contend for the presidency. Even if she has the energy to do so again in five years’ time, the ANC’s support has been declining and the party got under 50% of the national vote for the first time in November’s local government elections. The party might not have the power to appoint the country’s president as easily as it has over the past 28 years. DM