Frontline Africa Advisory

The Sisulu Debacle: Ramaphosa faces a permanent reputational risk

The Sisulu Debacle: Ramaphosa faces a permanent reputational risk

Since the now much talked about opinion piece by Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu titled “Hi Mzansi, have we seen justice?”, which she penned in her capacity as a Member of the National Executive Committee of the governing African National Congress, President Cyril Ramaphosa has been on the backfoot for a number of reasons. 

Firstly, the opinion piece and the debates it has generated reveal the depth of cracks, at least at the perception level, within the national executive that Ramaphosa leads. Secondly, his silence on the issue, amid calls including in his own circles for him to censure the Minister, suggests, again at the perception level, that he is not a strong leader. Thirdly, the unity mantra that he has been proselytising within his own party is hollow, to the extent that he is not the glue that he would like us believe he is. Fourthly, when the Union Buildings finally issued a statement on Thursday night conveying a purported apology by Sisulu, the scrawny communications machinery in the Presidency was laid bare. 

Ramaphosa is the incumbent. He is an embodiment of the aspirations of both his party, the ANC, and the Republic. He not only needs to be in charge but must also appear to be in charge. History, even our own, is awash with examples of how presidents have asserted their authority in the national executives they lead, especially during times of uncertainty. 

Thus, there was no reason for Ramaphosa to send the Minister in the Presidency, Mondli Gungubele, to issue a reaction to the opinion piece by a minister that accounts to the President directly. It is also unclear why Ramaphosa waited two weeks before summoning the Minister to address his and government’s concerns. Gungubele, while enjoying primus inter pares access to the President, is a Cabinet minister and therefore Sisulu’s colleague ex aequo. If Sisulu’s opinion piece was as grave and hurting to the Constitution and the judiciary as Thursday’s statement by the Presidency made us believe it was, the President ought to have immediately called in his Minister and expressed his disapproval. 

Ramaphosa went silent for a while, letting the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola to do his, government’s and possibly the judiciary’s bidding, to which Sisulu responded. By then, alarm bells should have rung that all was not well in his government. Once again, the President missed the opportunity to assert his authority. To the South African public, he appeared more as a spectator than a leader who naturally should be immensely invested in a matter affecting the cohesion and coherence of the national executive he leads. The first statement from the Presidency about Sisulu’s apology was not only late, but it further lent credence to the suggestions that the President is unable to take firm decisions. 

As if that was not enough, his office deemed it necessary to react to Sisulu’s response that the statement was a misrepresentation of her meeting with the President. As things stand, the public is not certain who is telling the truth between the President and his Minister, just like South Africans were twice left confused when then Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula repudiated Ramaphosa’s characterisation of the July 2021 unrest as a failed insurrection, and when Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe contradicted the President on the country’s approach to renewable energy. If anything, Ramaphosa’s attempt to project himself as a process man, with a cavernous consultative leadership style, has backfired.
Ramaphosa has also scored an own goal in his party. While unity may be sacrosanct in the ANC – whatever that means – he still has the responsibility to lead and demonstrate that he is indeed leading. There is a reason why the ANC Constitution provides for the position of President who is, in the end and in essence, the ultimate face of the party. While the ANC has a long tradition of ‘collective leadership’, the party still expects him to lead. 

The whole brawl between the President and his tourism Minister takes place during an election year in the party where Ramaphosa is expected to seek re-election. His loyalists and lobbyists have already thrown down the gauntlet, suggesting that the party needs stability and continuity, and that he has managed to keep the party together. This is verifiably untrue.

If anything, divisions in the party are more pronounced today than they otherwise might have been. Some in the ANC still feel that the legal matters involving former President Jacob Zuma should have been handled with party unity in mind. The party’s step aside rule, whose major victim has been Secretary-General Ace Magashule, has widened the gap between the victors of Nasrec and the vanquished forces. Sisulu’s opinion piece, crafted in revolutionary speak and slogans, has not only lent a shoulder to the vanquished forces but has also added salt to the wound, as it were, rendering the whole unity project inoperable.

Thus far, Ramaphosa has been unable to counter the antics of those who want him out come December. Although Sisulu has repeatedly stated that her now infamous opinion piece has nothing to do with the next national conference of the ANC, by poking holes in the ANC leadership, she is effectively decampaigning Ramaphosa. She knows that, while not singling him out by name, Ramaphosa is the leader of the collective that she alleges to have failed to deliver to the soaring expectations of the ANC rank and file and the general populace. The question then is: why is Ramaphosa so obdurate in pursuing unity with malign actors keen on wrestling power from him? Is he oblivious or fragrantly politically unsavvy? These are some of the questions members of his own party are asking themselves as they think about the upcoming national conference. 

If Ramaphosa has any wishes of being re-elected in December and deliver himself and his government to the Union Buildings in 2024 he must show the courage of conviction to lead. The act of leading is defined not just by isolated instances of bravery, such as sanctioning a minister, but by deliberate and sustainable transactions on the power-politics grid. There is no inverse relationship between exercising power and being consultative. Oscillation, however, is a dereliction of duty of the highest order. 

Written by Zamokwakhe Somhlaba

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