What’s Lindiwe Sisulu up to?

Human settlements, water & sanitation minister Lindiwe Sisulu is the closest thing to a celebrity politician in today’s ANC. But her high profile exposes her to more intense scrutiny than less famous ministers.

In recent weeks she has come under fire for her appointment of former spy boss Mo Shaik and former prosecuting authority head Menzi Simelane to her ministerial staff. This controversy came hot on the heels of her decision last November to elevate former social development minister Bathabile Dlamini to the chair of the interim board of the social housing regulatory authority.

The appointment of former spooks, liars, and incompetents to positions of power is far from unusual in the contemporary ANC, but it is just too obvious that Shaik and Simelane are not water and sanitation experts. The relentless political ambitiousness that has marked Sisulu’s career has inevitably led to claims that a “leadership bid” lies behind her recent actions.

As the daughter of ANC giants Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Lindiwe has always been liberation movement royalty. She rose through Umkhonto we Sizwe as an intelligence specialist, and eventually as a key assistant to top spook Jacob Zuma. She served Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki as deputy home affairs minister, keeping a wary eye on her senior, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. She was briefly rewarded with the position she craved, that of intelligence minister, but Mbeki quickly moved her sideways to housing. Zuma brought her back to international relations before shuffling her to public administration and then back to housing (now more grandly called “human settlements”) where she remains uncomfortably confined.

In the ANC she has “seniority”, but she also has a very long history of misjudgments for a presidential hopeful. Her notorious extravagance, most memorably her solo trips on air force planes, is out of step with our more austere times.

In October 2017, in the run-up to the Nasrec conference at which she hoped to be elected president, she became embroiled in a slanging match with Gwede Mantashe, questioning his record as secretary-general and asking “where was he when we were fighting for this freedom in exile and in jail”. This claim that exiles were superior to mineworker organisers such as Mantashe confirmed to many that she was out of touch and arrogant.

It is little wonder that the water “master plan” she launched hurriedly in 2019  was widely greeted as a personal vanity project.

Sisulu has long considered herself presidential material, but since she is 65 years old — part of Ramaphosa’s generation rather than deputy president David Mabuza’s or ANC treasurer Paul Mashatile’s cohort — there is no credible strategy for her to ascend to the throne after two Ramaphosa terms.

This leaves an ambitious politician with only long-shot avenues to power. She could position herself as a “third-way” compromise candidate in the event of a 2022 challenge to the incumbent from Mabuza and Mashatile. Or she may be contemplating a more direct presidential run in 2022, resuscitating the “time for a woman” campaign that failed Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma so dismally.

Last May, she ostentatiously joined the ANC Women’s League, of which Bathabile Dlamini is president. Dlamini warmly embraced her, observing that “she is coming to be part of a big family that is here to stay”. ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule has littered recent speeches with condemnations of “patriarchy”. Anti-Ramaphosa forces may seek to make gender a battleground, possibly resurrecting the failed smear campaigns they undertook so ineptly before Nasrec.

Another scenario is perhaps more plausible. Sisulu may have gotten wind of potential legal obstacles to deputy president Mabuza continuing in office after 2022. Such a development would leave the position of deputy president open for contestation, and gender could become a decisive determinant of the outcome.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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