As calls increase for a female president, Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, alongside her former cabinet colleague Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, have emerged as the two front-runners, genderwise that is, to take over the reins of the African National Congress (ANC) from the increasingly unpopular Jacob Zuma.
The Sisulu name is regarded as royalty in the ANC – with the late struggle stalwart and the presidential candidate’s father, Walter Sisulu, having been imprisoned with his close friend Nelson Mandela. Sisulu was a popular figure in the struggle against apartheid, with Mandela once describing him as a simple, humble man “who pushed forward people like Oliver Tambo and myself and remained in the background”.
Sisulu was released from prison in 1989 and was later elected ANC deputy president, a position he held from 1991 until South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.
Walter was married to Albertina Sisulu, a prominent anti-apartheid campaigner in her own right and affectionately known as Ma Sisulu, for 59 years, and between them they had five children and adopted four more.
Daughter Lindiwe Sisulu, now 63, had herself already long been involved in anti-apartheid activities, being detained between 1975 and 1976, and later joining the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe.
In 1990 she would join Zuma as his personal assistant in his then position of head of ANC intelligence.
Sisulu was elected an MP in 1994, ascending to deputy home affairs minister just two years later, before becoming part of then President Thabo Mbeki’s cabinet as Intelligence Minister.
After the 2004 elections, she became Housing Minister, where she was lauded and criticised in equal measure for housing delivery for millions of South Africans who still suffer the indignity of living in a shack.
Prior to the 2007 ANC elective conference, Sisulu played a key role in Zuma’s campaign to succeed Mbeki. When Zuma became president in 2009, Sisulu was appointed to the key portfolio of defence and military veterans.
Despite being in charge – politically that is – of the men and women in uniform, Sisulu remained in her civvies, always stylish, in bold colours, and elegant heels. If ever there was a politician who could pull off cheeky with pizzazz – Lindiwe Sisulu would fit the bill.
Her exchanges with David Maynier of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) often led to raucous laughter in the National Assembly. Sisulu’s brother, Max Sisulu, who was Speaker at one stage, once had to call the House to order when his sister told Maynier to “take your flea-infested body and sit down”.
Maynier took issue with what he called her frequent flights with VIP jets costing millions of rand. She denied she took 203 flights, insisting it was only 53.
She cheekily sent the opposition MP a calculator for Christmas.
When Sisulu was part of a cabinet reshuffle in 2012, becoming Public Service and Administration Minister, Maynier reciprocated, gifting her with a pink satin blinged-out comfort collar for her to wear around her neck aboard commercial flights on the national carrier, South African Airways.
After the 2014 election, she returned to the housing portfolio, now called human settlements.
She has remained in her post through several reshuffles, even after she severely criticised the man she helped ascend to power – Zuma. In September, she called on the ANC to discipline her boss, repeating it as a mantra at various campaign stops across the country.
Sisulu reportedly rejected an offer by various branches to contest the ANC elections as deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s running mate.
Last week, she slammed slate politics, taking a swipe at Ramaphosa who had announced Naledi Pandor as his running mate and had made pronouncements on his preferred candidates for the ANC top six postions.
While Sisulu has been saying all the right things, especially about the state of the ANC and its need to return to its founding values in order to revive the party, especially at grassroots level, analysts are questioning why now, with some suggesting that by saying nothing for years in Zuma’s cabinet she has been complicit in the rot that has beset government.