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Tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu. File picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu. File picture: TREVOR SAMSON

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has been largely silent over a brewing controversy over the role of the judiciary that exposes divisions in the ANC ahead of its elective conference later in 2022, has faced off with his opponents.

Having finally made a pronouncement on the issue, though it was a cautious one that did not mention tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu by name, the president on Monday was at a meeting of the national working committee (NWC) that went late into the evening.

The national executive committee (NEC), the highest decision-making body between ANC conferences, is due to gather at the weekend.

The crisis was set in motion by Sisulu, who in a number of articles in Independent Media publications criticised the country’s constitution as not serving the needs of the poor. In comments that drew a rebuke from acting chief justice Raymond Zondo, she aimed particular fire at black judges who she described as “mentally colonised”.

The comments have positioned her as a de facto leader of the so-called radical economic transformation faction linked to former president Jacob Zuma, which may seek to unseat Ramaphosa at the party conference in December.

Justice minister Ronald Lamola wrote a reply at the weekend, while minister in the presidency Mondli Gungubele distanced the government from Sisulu’s views.

While not endorsing them explicitly, minerals & energy minister Gwede Mantashe said Sisulu’s utterances did not bring the party into disrepute.

Several ANC leaders who Business Day spoke to confirmed that the issue of ANC succession and the criticism of SA’s constitutional democracy will be raised at the NEC meeting, with Ramaphosa struggling to keep the focus on his efforts to reform a party that has been tainted by corruption.

In local elections held in November 2021, the ANC fell below 50% nationally, which has raised alarm about whether it might lose absolute power in national polls due in 2024.

While that performance may strengthen Ramaphosa’s opponents, they do not have a clear candidate of their own who could realistically unseat him and win a national election.

On Monday, in his first weekly letter of 2022, Ramaphosa said SA “should strengthen our resolve to defend the institutions of our democracy” including the judiciary but failed to mention Sisulu by name. This was 10 days after Sisulu’s article was published.

Bloomberg quoted independent political analyst Ralph Mathekga as saying the response was “so weak” given that Sisulu launched “an attack on what Ramaphosa stood for”.

People close to Ramaphosa told Business Day at the weekend that he was not inclined to fire her, as some civil society organisations have demanded. Both Ramaphosa and Sisulu sit on the NWC, but it was not clear whether they faced each other or whether the president raised the controversy with Sisulu.

“We need to protect our constitution, our democratic state and the electoral process from anyone who wants to weaken our democracy and deny the SA people their hard-won freedom,” Ramaphosa said in his newsletter. SA’s democracy and its institutions must be safeguarded against attacks “whether these efforts take the form of corruption in state-owned enterprises, the subversion of our law enforcement agencies, the sabotage of our economic infrastructure, or attacks on the independence and integrity of our judiciary”.

Ramaphosa’s opponents are also targeting the ANC’s step-aside rule that saw his long-term rival, secretary-general Ace Magashule, suspended from the party while he answers corruption charges. Speaking at a funeral that was also attended by Magashule, NEC member Dakota Legoete said that the rule must be scrapped and that the party was “focusing on things that do not help to unify the movement”.

This is in defiance of the ANC’s standing order delivered in the party’s January 8 statement that, even if members disagree, they are bound by the decisions of party structures.

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