I’M AS TOUGH AS THE NEXT MAN
A passion for politics & a desire to fix the ANC
RIDICULOUS. That’s what she thought when people first started suggesting she throw her hat into the ring and enter the race for ANC president. She wasn’t going to do this, she told herself. She’d just buried her husband and, with very little time on her hands, a campaign trail was the last thing she needed.
But as time went by the idea of having a woman at the helm of the ruling party began to excite her. “I think we’re ready for it,” she says. “South Africa is the kind of democracy that would take easily to a woman president.”
Lindiwe Sisulu is sitting in the living room of her ministerial residence in Pretoria, a stone’s throw from the Union Buildings. It’s a home as stylish as the fashion-forward minister of human settlements, adorned with bowls of flowers and family photographs.
Sisulu herself is as groomed as ever in a linen suit, black polka-dot stockings and gold-plated stilettos. She’s just returned from a trip to Cape Town and her assistant serves her a cup of tea (with two teabags) but she becomes so engrossed in conversation she doesn’t lift the cup once.
The 63-year-old mom of five has been outspoken in her criticism of the rot within the ANC and surprised many when she came out in support of outspoken MP Makhosi Khoza’s decision to leave the party she’d dedicated her life to.
Khoza lamented the “kleptocracy” within its ranks and said the current ANC felt “alien” to her.
“I wish she hadn’t resigned,” Sisulu commented at the time. “I feel guilty I couldn’t offer her the support and comfort she needed. I wanted to, but I’ve been too caught up in my own situation. We’ve lost a strong person who would be able to stand up to power and say, ‘not in my name’. It’s people of courage who are able to tell us when we go wrong. It’s people of courage who brought the ANC to where we are.”
It was Sisulu’s passion for the ANC that spurred her on to accepting the challenge of running for president – this and the fact a prominent ANC veteran invited her to his home and added his voice to those urging her to enter.
“There was no way I could’ve said no to this particular person,” she says. “It dawned on me that it wasn’t individual choice but up to those who love the ANC to try to restore it.”
Her decision wasn’t welcomed straight away by everyone though. Her brother, former parliamentary speaker Max Sisulu, was worried about her.
“His attitude was, ‘Oh, my little sister, this is a rough game’. But then he thought, ‘She’s a tough one’.”
And it’s true, she says. “I’m as tough as the next man.”
THE ANC is going through “a rough patch” and South Africans need someone “who’ll restore it to what it meant to the people”, Sisulu says. She has an impressive portfolio: she’s been in government since 1996 and has served in many ministries, including intelligence, housing and public services and administration.
“The only time I’m reminded I’m a woman is when someone says first female minister of this or that.”
She announced her candidacy in July and has been on the campaign trail since, preaching unity and healing. Sisulu concedes people have been hurt by the ANC, which is why the party suffered at the polls during the local elections last year.
It’s not easy being a candidate and “it takes a lot of sacrifices”, she says. “But I decided I’m going to count among those who say, ‘This isn’t the ANC we fought for’.”
The Gupta Leaks email scandal revolving around allegations of state capture made her despondent. “I thought, ‘We should be dealing with this as the ANC – we shouldn’t have to wait for the processes of law’.”
She’s disheartened by how corruption has become the norm and likens it to an insidious disease. “By the time my husband [Professor Rok Ajulu] died of [pancreatic] cancer in December last year, the disease was so advanced there was little that could be done to reverse it.
“I understand now why they call corruption cancer – because it spreads so fast. This is why I don’t regret taking up this great responsibility. Somebody has to clean this mess up.”
SISULU still has faith her battered party can pull together and champion change and she’d love to see an economy that produces more jobs, the redistribution of land and free healthcare for all. But for this to happen a change in leadership is sorely needed. Sisulu was once one of Zuma’s backers but she wants him to go now. “The ANC needs to be reinvigorated and if we don’t change it now we would’ve missed a golden opportunity.”
She’s one of about seven candidates vying for the ANC presidency, the race currently being led by Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
It’s good that there are so many candidates, she adds. “We don’t want people to settle for the least there is but the best.”
There’s no bad blood between her and the other candidates. “For me, they’re all my friends although some are closer than others. Sometimes I find myself listening to somebody and I think, ‘Hey that’s what I said the other day’.”
Sisulu’s kids – Ayanda, Ntsiki, Olindi, Che and Mitchelle – have grown used to sharing their mom with her career.
“They do throw a tantrum now and again and say, ‘Mommy, you haven’t called, you’re not here’ and I’m like, ‘Sweetie, I love you from here to eternity’.”
As the child of struggle stalwarts Walter and Albertina Sisulu, she knows what it’s like having parents who are wed to politics. “But this country wouldn’t be free if it wasn’t for people like them. In sacrificing me, they liberated all of us.”
When she does have the rare free moment she reads, goes to the mall or walks around the estate. But mostly she works. It wasn’t easy losing her husband last year and she thinks being on the campaign trail is a blessing in disguise. “I’m busy and it’s good.”
She describes her late husband as life itself, an extrovert who was “louder than thunder”.
“There wasn’t a sport he didn’t excel in – he was an extraordinary man, an intellectual, a good cook.”
Sisulu will be eternally grateful that, before he breathed his last, he encouraged her to try for the ANC presidency.
Go for it, he told her. “You’d be good at the job.”
RIGHT: Minister Lindiwe Sisulu lost her husband, Rok Ajulu, in December last year.