28 January 2022 | Story Prof Sethulego Matebesi | Photo Sonia Small (Kaleidoscope Studios)
Prof Sethulego Matebesi
Prof Sethulego Matebesi.

Opinion article by Prof Sethulego Matebesi, Academic Head of Department, Associate Professor: Sociology, University of the Free State .

In Teams of Rivals, author Doris Goodwin notes how former American president Abraham Lincoln created value by surrounding himself with people who have the capacity and the tenacity to challenge him. Despite many of the challenges he faced throughout his presidency, he managed to build a common cause with his cabinet to foster the interests of Americans. In a completely different text, Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud, Tom Mueller laments how people fail to act out of apathy, complicity, or fear. 

These two distinct texts raise the question of how leadership should react to criticism and the requisite degree of freedom of speech that public representatives should have. 

Similarly, the back-and-forth saga between Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and President Cyril Ramaphosa over whether she apologised for her opinion piece that criticised black judges, effectively drills home a longstanding historical lesson. This lesson is that political astuteness is a phenomenon as old as the history of politics itself.

Although the astuteness shown by Sisulu against critics from her political party may be puzzling, her public exchanges that a statement by President Cyril Ramaphosa was a ‘misrepresentation’ of their meeting are more puzzling. 
But why is this puzzling? What are we to do about what some call a show of unprecedented defiance and others assertiveness? We also need to ask whether Sisulu’s stance can be adequately explained by those who label her as being arrogant and who deserve to be fired by President Ramaphosa.

A political travesty to apologise on behalf of Sisulu

Public apologies are a common occurrence globally. They often come by way of assuming guilt, expressing remorse, and admitting responsibility. Thus, proper apology etiquette requires the ‘wrongdoer’ to deliver the apology. However, this was not the case with Minister Sisulu.

Sisulu acted in a very public way with her opinion piece and her response to the ‘apology in her name’ released by the presidency. Certainly, with her experience as a public figure, she was aware of the implications of her actions.

Furthermore, she was consistent with her narrative against criticism directed towards her. Yet, we do not know why the presidency saw the need to apologise on behalf of Sisulu. Perhaps it had unreasonable expectations that Sisulu would publicly accept what she disagreed with privately.

Notwithstanding the sincerity of the presidency in dealing with this matter, supporters of President Ramaphosa will, on the one hand, be disillusioned by this own goal. At the same time, those who support Minister Sisulu may be encouraged by her steadfast refusal to accept a coerced apology used as a shaming mechanism. She inadvertently represents a dynamic articulation of an alternative repertoire of contention within the ANC.

Lately, we have witnessed a surge of nationalism globally during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Economist referred to the narrative battle between China and the United States over the pandemic as a ‘new scold war’, threatening to tear the world apart. But, as this Sino-US relationship reminds us, what is at stake is less the tit-for-tat scold war between Sisulu and Ramaphosa that threatens to spiral out of control, than the subdued attempts to attain constituent support within the ANC.

Sisulu herself has never publicly indicated her availability to contest the presidency of the ANC at its next elective conference. By any measure, if she does have such aspirations, stepping forward and engaging politically is one thing, but open defiance of authority is another. Since there are no permanently privileged constituencies in political malaise created by regeneration projects such as the organisational renewal drive of the ANC, the struggle to articulate and establish the interests of those who are aggrieved within the party is an ongoing process.

But where does this leave President Ramaphosa?

Many commentators have noted that his long game is no longer effective. However, President Ramaphosa wants to upend the notion that robust debates within the structures of the ANC are not tolerated. He is wary of the propensity of ANC structures to support those who are victimised. And while the scold war is in full swing, others will join in trying to win the hearts and minds of ANC members.

Meanwhile, when failure to act decisively in the face of predictable situations facing the country, particularly during a crisis; we can then no longer talk about protecting the interests of South Africans.

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