South African president Cyril Ramaphosa said tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu apologised for a series of articles criticizing the nation’s judiciary. The minister denied the president’s statement.
The public spat comes as politicians in the ruling African National Congress begin positioning themselves before the party elects its leaders in December. Ramaphosa is widely expected to seek a second term as head of the ANC, while Sisulu has previously sought the top position in the party.
The presidency said Ramaphosa met Sisulu earlier this week and “admonished” her over comments that censured the judiciary for what she said was its failure to sufficiently address the legacies of apartheid. In one article, Sisulu referred to the nation’s top judges as “mentally colonized.”
The minister “conceded that her words were inappropriate,” retracted the comments and affirmed her support for the judiciary, the presidency said in a statement on Thursday.
Sisulu said later that she had not committed to any retraction or apology and stood by what she wrote. She will issue a more detailed statement on Friday, her spokesman Steve Motale said by phone.
The presidency said it stands by its own statement and has nothing to add.
The actions of Sisulu, who has been a member of parliament since the end of apartheid and held several ministerial portfolios, have been seen as a direct challenge to Ramaphosa. The president has staked his presidency on rooting out the corruption that decimated the country’s institutions during the scandal-marred rule of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.
Sisulu penned the opinion pieces soon after an almost four-year judicial commission of inquiry into state corruption under Zuma released the first of its findings. Its report outlined the depth of corruption within government, placing Zuma firmly at the center of the malfeasance and urging the prosecution of several of his allies.
By criticizing the judiciary, Sisulu effectively put her hand up as a potential challenger, who could be backed by Zuma’s allies, to Ramaphosa for leadership of the party at a conference scheduled for December.
Justice minister Ronald Lamola and minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele were the only senior cabinet members to criticize Sisulu’s statements. Gwede Mantashe, the powerful chairman of the ANC who is normally seen as an ally of Ramaphosa, said Sisulu’s comments were merely personal views.
She has been criticized by opposition leaders and the acting chief justice Raymond Zondo, who described her comments as “an insult.” Some civil society groups have called for her removal from the cabinet.