South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s tenuous hold on the ruling African National Congress has been exposed by a public fight within his cabinet over the role of the judiciary.
Ten days after Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu penned the first of a series of opinion pieces criticising the nation’s top judges and attacking the constitution, Ramaphosa on Monday finally weighed into the fray with a tepid response.
“We need to protect our constitution, our democratic state and the electoral process from anyone who wants to weaken our democracy and deny the South African people of their hard-won freedom,” Ramaphosa said in his weekly letter to South Africans, without identifying Sisulu.
The actions of Sisulu, who has been a member of parliament since the end of apartheid and held several ministerial portfolios, are seen as a direct challenge to Ramaphosa, who has staked his presidency on rooting out the corruption that decimated the country’s institutions during the rule of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.
Sisulu said the judiciary is not doing enough to address the legacies of apartheid under the current constitution.
“It’s a clear gauging of the political mood within the ANC,” said Ralph Mathekga, an independent political analyst and author of books about the ANC. “It was an attack on what Ramaphosa stood for, but the response was so weak.”
Earlier this month, an almost four-year judicial commission released the first of its findings outlining the depth of corruption within government and placing Zuma firmly at the center of the malfeasance and urging the prosecution of several of his allies.
Sisulu has effectively put her hand up as a potential challenger, who could be backed by Zuma’s allies, to Ramaphosa for leadership of the party at a conference scheduled for December.
To date, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola and Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele are the only senior cabinet members to criticise Sisulu’s statements. Gwede Mantashe, the powerful chairman of the ANC who is normally seen as an ally of Ramaphosa, said Sisulu’s comments were merely personal views.
She has been criticised by opposition leaders and the acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, who described her comments as “an insult.” Some civil society groups have called for her removal from the cabinet.