South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu are headed for a showdown after she publicly refuted his claim that she apologised for criticising the judiciary, an altercation that’s exacerbating long-standing tensions in the ruling party.
Sisulu, who has made her presidential ambitions clear, drew criticism from Justice Minister Ronald Lamola and Acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo for accusing the nation’s top judges of failing to sufficiently address the legacies of apartheid and referring to them as “mentally colonised.”
On Thursday, the presidency issued a statement saying Ramaphosa met Sisulu earlier this week and “admonished” her for the comments, which she had conceded were inappropriate and agreed to retract. Sisulu fired back with her own statement, saying she stood by her assertions, had no intension of apologising and accused the presidency of misrepresenting what transpired.
The standoff comes 11 months before the ruling African National Congress is due to elect new leaders. Ramaphosa, 69, who’s widely expected to seek a second term, will now have to decide whether to fire Sisulu for her open defiance — a move that could provide the impetus for a campaign by his detractors to have him replaced and have her appointed in his stead.
While cabinet appointments are the sole prerogative of the president, the ANC leader typically consults with the other top five party officials about changes. Its secretary-general Ace Magashule, one of Ramaphosa’s main detractors, is currently suspended while he faces trial on graft charges and his deputy, Jessie Duarte, is on sick leave. Gwede Mantashe, the party’s chairman, has defended Sisulu, while ANC Deputy President David Mabuza and Treasurer Paul Mashatile haven’t taken a public stance.
The issue may feature at a meeting of the ANC’s National Executive Committee scheduled for this weekend. Irrespective of how it is dealt with, the dispute bodes ill for the party, which saw its share of electoral support slump to a record low of 46% in last year’s municipal elections and needs to present a united front heading into a national plebiscite in 2024.
Ramaphosa is currently the clear favourite to win the ANC leadership race in December. Sisulu’s 2017 bid for the top post failed to gain traction and she dropped out of the race to become Ramaphosa’s running mate, but lost the contest to become his deputy to Mabuza.
Sisulu, 67, who trained as a teacher, is a member of one of South Africa’s most illustrious political families. Her late father, Walter, was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela for his opposition to apartheid rule, her mother Albertina was a political luminary in her own right and her brother Max is a former speaker of parliament. Prior to being appointed tourism minister, she held several other cabinet posts.
Sisulu’s criticism of the judiciary comes at a time when Ramaphosa is pressuring the ANC to take a tougher stance against graft, which became endemic during his predecessor Jacob Zuma’s rule, and implement a judicial panel’s recommendations to safeguard taxpayer funds.