The he-said-she-said battle of words between President Cyril Ramaphosa and a senior member of his cabinet, Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, has left the head of state in a precarious position.
Analysts believe that now, no matter how Ramaphosa decides to approach Sisulu (or not), he would be on the back foot.
Political analyst Professor Sipho Seepe said that while he understood Ramaphosa was trying to do damage control, he underestimated Sisulu’s determination.
The gloves came off on Thursday evening 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.
“Minister Sisulu conceded that her words were inappropriate. Minister Sisulu retracts this statement and affirms her support for the judiciary,” the Presidency said.
“I retract unequivocally my hurtful comments. I recognise that many women and men judges past and present have served their country in the judiciary with dedication and patriotism and, some have made sterling sacrifices in the fight against apartheid and colonialism.
“I apologise for and regret the hurt I have caused the judiciary.”
But Sisulu’s quick response to the released statement branded Ramaphosa a liar. She categorically disowned the statement in its entirety “as a misrepresentation of the said meeting I had with the president”.
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.
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.
Political analyst Bheki Mngomezulu 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 emotions 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 meeting yesterday (Thursday) where the party is 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.
*This is a developing story.