Jeremy Gordin wonders how the minister's notorious attack on black judges came about
Preparing for this column, I asked someone – though someone not especially interested in “politics” [i] – what she would like to read about this week.
She replied: “Other than Novak, I’d say Lindiwe.” By the former, she meant Novak Djokovic the tennis player; by the latter she meant minister of tourism Lindiwe Sisulu [ii].
What, I wondered, could I write about Djokovic? Seems to me that the story is over for now; verby. All I can think of remarking is that when it comes to tennis, the Australians really know how to return a Serb.
Regarding Sisulu, I knew her late brother Zwelakhe pretty well and I have met her three or four times – once (I think) at Jacob G Zuma’s 2009 coronation and once before that at some sort of 2008 toenadering arranged in Cape Town for so-called senior Independent Newspapers editorial staff and selected government head honchos [iii].
More relevant for present purposes, however, my learned friend Andrew Donaldson has just written in his inimitable style about the struggle princess’ “controversial attacks on the Constitution and on the integrity of the judiciary” which are held to be an indication “that she has thrown her hat into the ring for leadership of the ruling party”.
Donaldson is not the only person to have written in reaction to, and/or about, Sisulu’s notorious opinion piece. Many others – such as, say, Douglas Gibson – have also remarked that Sisulu, by virtue (or vice) of her article, “was clearly claiming a place in the faction led by Jacob Zuma, Ace Magashule and the so-called RET (Radical economic transformation) forces opposing President Ramaphosa,” and so on.
So, what more can I say about Sisulu’s article? [iv] Well, might I be permitted to highlight the following quote from the article?
“[W]hat explains the sudden astronomical wealth of so-called ‘liberators’ over such a short period of time? How did some become multi-millionaires and billionaires overnight while a third of their fellow citizens languish on social grants? ... [L]ike Mzansi Magic [v], we have some socialism-spouting ‘liberators’ draped in flags, transformed and co-opted into the capitalist class and leafy suburbs.
“In 1994, they struggled to put petrol in their cars. Some didn’t even own one [vi]. And yet when it is election time, you will hear them spouting, ‘Our people, our people’. Surely, this was not the vision of the real liberators. Those whom we revere as the ‘Struggle Stalwarts’. They have gone to their graves, with a dream deferred [vii], their life’s work besmirched, and their sacrifices spat upon. What happened to us?”
Might I also be permitted to point out that those are sentiments that neither you nor I would have been ashamed to have written?
The difference, however, between you and I and the article-writer (whom we’ll get to) is the rather bizarre next step taken in the article. Instead of blaming the next generation of “liberators” for their greed and corruption [viii] (not to mention certain political steps taken by the ANC, such as cadre deployment, etc.) – the writer blames a lack of land [sic], the Constitution, and above all the judiciary for the appalling state of affairs in which we find ourselves.
Full disclosure from JF Gordin: in my impressionable youth, I came across an apothegm by one Franz Kafka: “Most men are not wicked. Men become bad and guilty because they speak and act without foreseeing the results of their words and their deeds. They are sleepwalkers, not evildoers” [ix] .
We could argue ad nauseam about the wisdom or accuracy of that dictum [x]; anyway, it appealed to me; and it became the basis of my unshakeable penchant – many would say my very unfortunate penchant – for believing that more things, especially in Seffrica, happen due to droll accident and stupidity than to planning. This does, alas, often lead me down the ad hominem path; but, well, let’s not forget that it’s hominems with whom we mostly have to deal.
I have noted with interest that Sisulu has a relatively new (December 2020) spokesperson, one Steven Motale. I should mention that I know Motale, a person who is generally good company, with whom I have sunk (in my youth) a fine single malt or three, not to mention many a not so fine one [xi]. Motale is a former editor of the Citizen and Sunday Independent.
While Citizen editor in 2015 Motale issued an apology to Jacob Zuma on behalf of the entire SA media. (Whatever gets you through the night, as we hippies used to say.) Then Motale was fired by the Citizen in 2016, for penning some rather, er, odd stories, such as one headlined “Jonas is a Liar,” relating to former deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas.
Motale challenged his dismissal and “won” [xii], but in the end went away (presumably with a nice payout) and was appointed editor of the Sunday Independent, where owner Dr Iqbal Survé has always provided a home for truth-seeking journalists.
It is no secret that there Motale would have made the acquaintance of, and worked with, one Piet Rampedi, now editor of the Pretoria News (as far as I know), another brave journalist whom readers will recall for his startling stories and investigations regarding the Tembisa decuplets.
In short, having carried out a complex and painstaking forensic, semantic, and ideological analysis of the article attributed to Sisulu, I do not find it outlandish to think that at the start of this year or end of the last, Motale resolved that it was high time he fulfilled with more, er, vigour one of his mandates as Sisulu’s spokesperson – i.e., that she appear more often in the “news”, especially as what I believe is called a “thought leader”.
Consequently, perhaps having hashed out the issues with his spiritual colleague Rampedi[xiii], Motale put fingers to laptop, or got someone else to do so – and lo and behold, the stirring article “Hi Mzansi, have we seen justice?” was born. (I don’t believe for one moment that Sisulu herself wrote the article.)
“Wait a minute, hold the phone,” I hear you cry – “Sisulu agreed to have her name put to it, doesn’t she bear responsibility for the article?”
To be sure, she does. But let’s think, with our knowledge of how newspapers and spin doctors operate, a little more closely about this article – or rather the production thereof.
The article was published by Independent-on-line on January 7. This suggests that plans for publication of the article took place just after New Year, if not before (Motale would have had to talk to whomever was responsible at IOL, and so forth). Do we think Sisulu would want to have her end-of-year rest time interrupted by having to read an article by Motale?
Sisulu might, of course, be one of those Duracell bunnies – though I’ve never heard any report to this effect. But if she is, then presumably she has far more important business than an article to take care of; during the last two years, tourism has, you might have noticed, been well and truly kicked in the proverbials.
So, if Motale had called her and said, “Can you take a look at this piece I’ve written on your behalf?”, she’d probably have said, “If you’ve written it, Steven, I’m sure it’s fine.” Alternatively, she might have skimmed an email, seen that it had (as far as she was concerned) its heart more or less in the right place (“stand up for the poor,” etc.), and said, “Send it in”.
Personally, I would tend to think the following. Ministers of state and ANC bigwigs are – or rather think they are – very busy people. Sisulu has been around a long time – she’s been an MP since 1994 – and she’s seen journalists and articles come and go. Moreover, she’s only a couple of years younger than I am – and, well, you know, once you pass the age of 65, you get even more jealous of your personal time, as well as bored with all these little brouhahas, especially the journalistic ones, and I little doubt that she said to Motale, “Yes, yes, Steven, send it in, send it in, the grandkids are visiting now”.
In short, I don’t think that Sisulu would have signed off on the article (however she did it) if she’d have had the faintest inkling of the kind of uproar it would cause.
Does this mean, though, that she has not thrown her hat into the ring for leadership of the ruling party?
Could be she has – she did announce her intention to run for president during the last ANC presidential elections; she has, as best one knows, remained “close” to Zuma; maybe she wants a “new challenge” in her life; and who knows what blandishments she’s been offered by the RETs (who don’t, it sems to me, have any other potential candidate with her pedigree)?
But whether I’m correct or not about how the original article came to be produced – and whether or not it has anything to do with Sisulu throwing her hat or wig into the ring – what did seem to emerge last night was that when it comes negotiation and peacemaking, Sisulu doesn’t seem to hold the state president in any great esteem.
Last night, Thursday evening, after I’d finished this article, the Presidency issued a statement saying that, during a meeting between the President and Sisulu on Wednesday night, he had “admonished” her for her attack on the judiciary and she had conceded her words were inappropriate.
“Minister Sisulu retracts this statement [presumably the one about judiciary] and affirms her support for the judiciary,” said the statement from the Presidency. “I retract unequivocally my hurtful comments ... and regret the hurt I have caused the judiciary”.
Whereupon, about an hour later, Sisulu issued a statement (seemingly not written by a graduate of Waterford-Kamhlaba school in Swaziland, let alone the University of York): “I wish to categorically disown this statement in its entirety as a misrepresentation of the said meeting I had with the president.
“In such a meeting, he shared his challenge with one aspect of the article on the judges. The president proposed an intermediary that would focus on the one line about the judges to resolve that. I awaited such to be communicated, which would do nothing to the entire article.
“Under no circumstances did I commit to any retraction or apology since I stand by what I penned. 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.”
The Presidency then replied: “The Presidency stands by its statement earlier this evening, 20 January 2022, on a discussion between President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of Tourism Ms Lindiwe Sisulu. The Presidency has nothing to add to the earlier statement.”
All feels a bit like Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin talking about Ukraine, doesn’t it ...? You can choose which is which.
Or what’s that famous ending to Animal Farm? “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
[i] Which is a silly qualification to make because, whether we like it or not, we are all, especially in Seffrica, involved with “politics” – even those of us who don’t want to be.
[ii]Funny, isn’t it, how we feel we can be familiar with sports stars, even if we’ve never met them and probably never will; and how some of us feel we can be familiar with politicians, even if we’ve never met them and even though they might, for all we know, be not such nice people.
[iii] I can’t remember what the point of the meeting was (ah, the imprecations of aging), but I do recall that Charles Nqakula was there qua minister of defence so it must have been in 2008 when Lindiwe was housing minister.
[v] I’ve always thought “Mzansi Magic” is a South African digital satellite and general entertainment channel created by Multichoice, run by M-Net's local interest division, broadcast on DStv, and owned by Naspers – but perhaps we should allow a little poetic licence here ...
[vii] Borrowed no doubt from Mark Gevisser’s biography of Thabo Mbeki, but I guess everyone has a right to quote Langston Hughes’ well-known poem, on which Gevisser’s book is inter alia an extended riff.
[viii] I was wondering, by the way, if Ms Sisulu would be willing to allow for an examination and audit of all her bank accounts, shares, property ownerships, and so forth?
[ix]Conversations with Kafka: notes and reminiscences by Gustav Janouch (1953).
[x] Kafka died in 1924; i.e., he never encountered the Nazis as, unfortunately, his sisters did.
[xi] This is not intended as a criticism of Motale or me.
[xii] Unfortunately for the Citizen management, it decided it couldn’t argue during various labour court hearings that bizarre and unacceptable articles werethe reason for firing Motale, probably because it would have been considered to be “undue editorial interference” – and so Motale’s declaration that he was unfairly dismissed was confirmed by the Labour Appeals Court on 27 January 2017.
[xiii] Though whether Rampedi was around or not is not a major issue – it’s merely that I detect some of his astute ideological flourishes.