Johannesburg - The back and forth battle between President Cyril Ramaphosa and his senior member of Cabinet, Lindiwe Sisulu, continued on Friday with no end in sight.
Analysts believe that now, no matter how Ramaphosa decides to approach Sisulu (or not), he would be on the back foot.
The gloves came off this week after the Presidency issued a statement that Ramaphosa had “specifically admonished the minister” about her attack on the judiciary and suggested that Sisulu had retracted her “unsubstantiated, hurtful comments” about the judiciary.
But, Sisulu’s quick response to the released statement branded Ramaphosa a liar. She denied the statement.
Sisulu said, in that Wednesday night meeting, Ramaphosa had shared his challenge with one aspect of the article on the judges.
“Under no circumstances did I commit to any retraction or apology since I stand by what I penned.”
Sisulu added: “The content of the president's statement in its current form is unfortunate as it is not what we agreed on. In this regard, I wish to distance myself from such,” she said.
Then, later on Thursday evening, Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele issued a second statement saying that the Presidency stood by its statement, and it had nothing further to add.
But again, on Friday, Sisulu issued a statement on the matter, this time hitting back at the president's media team, claiming they misrepresented her meeting with Ramaphosa.
In that statement, Sisulu said she respected the Office of the Presidency and the president but was “troubled” by the media team’s “deliberately mischievous” actions.
She said the president took issue with her expression relating to the judiciary and he proposed that a third person or intermediary assist the particular and solitary line he found an “offensive expression”.
“We had a mature and sensible meeting and thus concluded on good terms. In fact, yesterday, Thursday, the president called me and read the specific sentence as redesigned that he had found offensive. We ended our discussion on an amicable basis,” Sisulu said.
She said that as was an accepted and lifelong practice, she respected the Office of the Presidency and the president. However, she wanted to place on record that she was troubled “that the president's media team was deliberately mischievous”.
“… at no point in the conversation was (the minister) firstly admonished or secondly expressed regrets resulting in agreeing to withdraw or apologise for her article, but agreed to reconsider the particular line relating to the judiciary which the president had raised issue with and was to share with her,” read the statement issued by Sisulu’s spokesperson, Steve Motale.
Political analyst Professor Sipho Seepe said that while he understood Ramaphosa was trying to do damage control, he underestimated Sisulu’s determination
Seepe said the tit-for-tat between the two senior members of the ANC was indicative of a party that lost touch with its people.
“They are no longer concerned or dealing with service delivery, but rather about personal issues,” he said.
Seepe said that following the back-and-forth public argument on who said what, Ramaphosa was in checkmate.
“Whatever he does now, he cannot win. If he chooses to fire her, questions would be raised on whether he was threatened by her presidential campaign. If he chooses not to do anything, his grip on his Cabinet members would be brought into question. Sisulu has checkmated Ramaphosa,” Seepe said.
Bheki Mngomezulu from the University of the Western Cape said the manner in which this saga played out was unnecessary and resulted in many politicians making mistakes.
Mngomezulu said it would have been better if Ramaphosa had spoken in private to Sisulu and then issued a joint statement “showing they were reading from the same script”.
“Either the president does not have the right-thinking advisers, or he acted out of emotion and responded to the national pressure of addressing Sisulu publicly.
“Whatever it is, (Ramaphosa’s) has jeopardised his image and leadership,” Mngomezulu said.
The ANC's National Executive Committee started a crucial four-day this week where the party was expected to finalise a roadmap for its policy and elective conferences in June and December this year and the party's input into Ramaphosa's State of the Nation Address to be delivered on February 10.
The spat between Sisulu and Ramaphosa is expected to heighten tensions within the ruling party and is expected to be a subject of discussion at the meeting.