Several attempts to introduce a debate about Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s contentious views on the Constitution and the judiciary were scuppered during the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) meeting this weekend.
The spirited push to clip Sisulu’s wings could not take off, as the party’s top officials insisted that the matter was not to be brought into meeting agendas through the back door.
Instead, it had to go through the correct administrative processes.
The top six officials first had to discuss it and then leave it for the national working committee to decide whether to escalate it to the NEC. Attempts to haul Sisulu before the party’s integrity committee therefore failed.
The minister’s camp was also ready for anything, said a source close to her yesterday, adding that Sisulu’s critics “should buckle up for a roller coaster year in which she’ll continue to rock the boat without retreat”.
Sisulu has been punted as a possible contender for the ANC presidency at the party’s national elective conference in December, where President Cyril Ramaphosa is also expected to seek a second term as head of the governing party.
The controversial opinion piece she penned earlier this month was widely seen as the first salvo in her quest to position herself as having views different from Ramaphosa’s.
It elicited a broad backlash, including from acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, who felt that the article crossed the line of acceptable criticism.
Ahead of the ANC meeting, Sisulu upped the stakes when she publicly denied an official government statement that Ramaphosa had admonished her during a private meeting on Wednesday and that she had retracted her strong words against sitting African judges – whom she had labelled “house negroes”.
However, an ally of the minister’s claimed that she had been blindsided by the statement issued by the presidency on Thursday evening.
The source said that Sisulu had been called to a private meeting with Ramaphosa to discuss her controversial article, titled Hi Mzansi, Have we Seen Justice?, published by IOL.
Ramaphosa had apparently not seemed upset or aggressive in his approach to the matter.
The source: The mood of the meeting was said to be friendly, as the president showed no hostility during discussions.
Oddly, the meeting was attended only by Sisulu and Ramaphosa, suggesting that Ramaphosa had briefed the presidency staff before the Thursday statement was published.
During the meeting, City Press learnt, Ramaphosa mentioned that he had no issue with the minister’s controversial article, apart from sections where she made derogatory comments about the judiciary.
The source said that Sisulu had at no point agreed to retract her opinions. Instead, both she and Ramaphosa had felt that a mediator was needed to resolve the issue.
“That’s why she was taken by surprise when the presidency issued a statement on her behalf on Thursday evening, claiming that she’d conceded and apologised for her views,” said the individual.
“Things were heated on Thursday because she wasn’t expecting a statement to be issued on her behalf. She believed that the conclusion had been that a mediator would be brought in to deal with the matter.” The source said: Sisulu said she never mentioned anything about a retraction.
ANC head of presidency Sibongile Besani said he could not add to what had already been expressed in the presidency statement, which was issued by Minister in the Presidency Mondli Ngungubele.
The disputed statement said: “Minister Sisulu conceded that her words were inappropriate. Minister Sisulu retracts this statement and affirms her support for the judiciary.”
The statement quoted Sisulu as having 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.”
In response, Sisulu issued her own statement to the effect that she did not retract her stance. However, the presidency would also not budge on the matter. Instead, it issued another statement, claiming that it stood by its initial one.
Sisulu appeared to retreat from direct criticism of the president with a new statement on Friday morning, which blamed presidency media officials for the misunderstanding.
Ramaphosa has remained quiet since the storm broke on Thursday, amid speculation about whether he would finally be pushed to act against Sisulu.
However, some believe that firing Sisulu from Cabinet would elicit sympathy for her and help coalesce forces inside the ANC that do not want Ramaphosa to retain the presidency.
Sisulu criticised the Constitution, the rule of law and the judiciary, as well as taking a swipe at black judges.
“There is a need for an overhaul of a justice system that does not work for Africa and Africans. If the law does not sufficiently address the issue of the food fight, the law will fail and inevitably it will play out in the streets,” she wrote.
“We have a neoliberal Constitution with foreign inspiration, but who are the interpreters? And where is the African value system of this Constitution and the rule of law? If the law does not work for Africans in Africa, then what is the use of the rule of law?”
Another person who works closely with Sisulu said she had had her say on the matter, made her point and would not comment further.
The source said the minister was watching “with interest” to see what happened next, as she had written the article in her capacity as ANC chairperson of the social transformation subcommittee, but was surprised that an intervention by the president had happened at government level.
Who had escalated the matter to government, the source wanted to know.
The person added that Sisulu was not expecting any sanctions against her, as ANC national chairperson Gwede Mantashe had stated categorically that she had not brought the party into disrepute in writing the opinion piece.
“So why must she be disciplined?” asked the source, adding that, in the past, Mantashe, Helen Zille, Ngoako Ramatlhodi and even Thabo Mbeki had criticised the judiciary, but no one had called for action against them.