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Lindiwe Sisulu leads a campaign without a cause

The minister seems to be chief strategist, chief administrator and chief cheerleader of her own campaign. This is not a winning strategy

Lindiwe Sisulu. Picture: Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo
Lindiwe Sisulu. Picture: Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo

I can imagine Steven Motale, around New Year’s Day, drafting an op-ed for tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu. Motale is a former editor of the Sunday Independent, which published Sisulu’s “Hi Mzansi, have we seen justice?” open letter on January 6. He is now one of the strategists in Sisulu’s ministry, having moved with her from human settlements, water & sanitation.

Sisulu earned the wrath of many across society and offended the top echelons of the justice system, getting a stinging rebuke from acting chief justice Raymond Zondo.

Having spent a year in a political office, coupled with years as a watcher of our government, I have an idea of how political aides can help or destroy a politician. I wonder, for example, how some of the phrases in the open letter passed the advisory team’s supposedly critical eye. Sometimes this happens when the politician is stronger than their team.

That creates a situation where there’s no “danger awareness” – where people are not aware of potential pitfalls. Or where a sycophantic culture takes root and the aides are just mandarins who carry the politician’s bags and fear saying no or voicing different views.

With her open letter, Sisulu and her team painted themselves into a difficult corner, as the minister lives out her ambition of leading the ANC and SA.

She has been on the campaign trail for more than five years, having tried (and failed) before the 2017 ANC elective conference to garner support. She failed to pick up decent numbers then and ended up folding into Cyril Ramaphosa’s ticket.

She got outplayed by Paul Mashatile and David Mabuza, Gauteng and Mpumalanga kingpins, who conjured up a deal that created the ANC top six leadership we have now. But Sisulu clearly has not given up. 

She is the most active of the potential challengers so far. This is not a bad thing. What is a bad thing for her is that she is the campaign, campaigner, chief strategist, chief administrator, chief cheerleader and probably chief finance manager too. This barely ever works.

Where there is no legitimate cause, the person becomes the campaign. That creates the need to write open letters that earn the campaign more negatives than positives. She is screaming for attention in a murky campaign environment.

Her screams have apparently endeared her to the “radical economic transformation” (RET) faction, previously anchored in former president Jacob Zuma’s politics. This is not a good platform to inherit, as it is discredited and incoherent. The RET crowd will make it easy for Ramaphosa to win a second term in December unless it gets a torchbearer more coherent than the current lot. 

What would boost Sisulu’s chances are alliances with former provincial kingpins like Mabuza and Mashatile and the new faces that might emerge in the party’s provincial election rigmarole now under way. Provinces like KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape are sites of fierce competition that can introduce new faces before December.

Spending time in these areas, at this stage, would be more fruitful for Sisulu than intellectualising on justice. It’s not like the Ramaphosa faction is itself active in the trenches.

My reading is that the provincial bunfight at this stage is about control of the provincial governments and access to provincial tenders, rather than any national programmes or serious politicking. So, an op-ed about the judges would appeal to the RET faction – which was defeated five years ago and continues to suffer – but it would not appeal automatically to the guys running provincial governments.

Any campaign without Mashatile and Mabuza, or strong support in KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, Gauteng and Limpopo, is just a waste of time. 

Oh wait, did you see the article supporting Sisulu’s open letter, written by Thami ka Plaatjie, a former apparatchik in her office? The fact that Sisulu’s message needs the likes of Ka Plaatjie (who has no standing in ANC politics) as endorsers shows how thin the campaign message is.

Sisulu is being blinded by ambition and a lack of strategy. As the incumbent, Ramaphosa and his supporters have a lot of advantages (despite lacking vigour) over her campaign.

But let’s see what the ANC’s provincial elections will produce in the next few months in terms of the politics of the provincial players.

Mkokeli is lead partner at Mkokeli Advisory

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