ANTHONY BUTLER: Why we should pay attention to Sisulu’s ambitions
Though her chances of becoming ANC president are slim, the terrain she has chosen to fight on is significant
First published in BusinessLive 13 January 2022
Lindiwe Sisulu’s supposed presidential leadership bid should be taken seriously, not because she might win — she won’t — but because of the terrain on which she has chosen to fight.
It is a tall order to evict an incumbent president after a single term in office. This requires a nationwide coalition and huge financial and political resources. There are not many countries in the world in which a minister of tourism can launch a campaign for the highest office in the land.
The odds lengthen still further when Sisulu’s age is considered. She is no spring chicken: in May 2024, when she hopes to be sworn in as president for the first time, she will turn 70.
With age, it might be argued, comes experience. But, as the wisest Marxist of all (Groucho) once observed, “anyone can get old … all you have to do is live long enough”.
Daughter of ANC giants Walter and Albertina Sisulu, she has often been accused of exile elite arrogance, most notably when she asked in 2017, of then secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, “Where was he when we were fighting for this freedom in exile and in jail?”
The high point of her career thus far has been an unsuccessful 2017 challenge for the deputy presidency of the ANC. This came after an abortive campaign for the top job, fought on the basis that the time for a woman president had come.
Her popularity among some of the party faithful should not be underestimated though. After her defeat to David Mabuza in 2017 she came second in the elections for the national executive committee.
Sisulu may once again settle for a shot at a lesser position, such as deputy president, as the 2022 conference draws near. It is more likely she already senses that she will be cast onto the scrapheap of history and would rather go down fighting — if not for something she believes in, then at least as a grandiose pseudo-revolutionary gesture.
It is for this reason that her choice of the terrain of battle — the law — is so significant. A rambling piece to which she put her name last week described the constitution as a “palliative” and decried “the co-option and invitation of political power-brokers to the dinner table, whose job is to keep the masses quiet in their sufferance while they dine on caviar with colonised capital”.
The writers of the piece also complained that our most senior judges are “mentally colonised” Africans, “confused by foreign belief systems”, and “happy to lick the spittle of those who falsely claim superiority”.
These contentions have drawn predictable calls for Sisulu to be sacked, which was presumably her intention. After all, it is virtually impossible to be demoted from the humble tourism portfolio to which Ramaphosa humiliatingly appointed her in August.
The fear must be that Sisulu and her advisers are merely “useful idiots”, manipulated by others with a wider political strategy. After all, they have drawn acting chief justice Raymond Zondo, figurehead of the state capture inquiry, into a regrettable — and arguably political — public condemnation.
This comes at a difficult time for the judiciary, with attempts by the ANC’s national deployment committee to interfere in the appointment of judges recently revealed in minutes of Luthuli House meetings.
Hostility towards liberal constitutionalism is not motivated solely by the kind of miscreants whose conduct has been documented by the Zondo inquiry. There is also a close relationship between those who decry the rule of law as a foreign imposition, and those who may refuse to accept the outcomes of properly conducted national and provincial elections such as those that will be held in SA in 2024.
• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.