Sisulu vs. Ramaphosa: the ANC’s war of (stolen) words

This year has got off to a fiery start, and I’m not talking about the inferno that ripped through parliament late in December. Instead, it’s been the tongues and pens of the ANC’s Lindiwe Sisulu and President Cyril Ramaphosa that have ignited public discourse this January.

In my database of 102 of January’s top online news articles from News24, TimesLive and IOL, the most common keyword was “ANC”, appearing 214 times, followed by “Ramaphosa” (184 times) and “Sisulu” (131 times). This is how these news outlets neatly map out the battle lines in the ruling party after Sisulu published an opinion piece in IOL on 7 January attacking the Constitution and the country’s black judges among other perceived enemies of “economic reconciliation”.  After she was castigated for this article, she wrote a verbose reply on 12 January blasting her critics. The ensuing stand-offs have been aired in the media, and Sisulu has recently been called before the ANC integrity commission to explain her original article.

An analysis of Ramaphosa’s January news coverage reveals a president under attack from multiple angles by the fightback faction in the ruling party and needing to tread carefully. In an ANC lekgotla held shortly after Sisulu’s articles were published, Ramaphosa acknowledged, “Divisions and factions in the ANC are becoming a threat to our democracy.” The same News24 article in which this was reported adds, “Ramaphosa did not outline how the ANC planned to deal with the ill-discipline that has affected the party.” The verb “outline” was one of the words statistically most strongly associated with Ramaphosa’s name in January’s news; the other thing he still needs to “outline” is “the government’s plans to implement the recommendations of the [state capture] report.” He has plenty of consequence management to put his mind to.

Ramaphosa has also had to deal with calls by ANC MP Mervyn Dirks that he be summoned to the standing committee on public accounts (Scopa) over an enigmatic leaked audio recording where it sounds as though he is advocating a cover-up of public funds spent on internal ANC political campaigning. Dirks was suspended from the party.

Virtually all the words most closely associated with Ramaphosa’s name in January’s news relate to this saga. Most prominent among them are the verbs “summon”, “summoned” and “summoning”.  The others include “leaked” and “recording”, referring to the president’s controversial audio clip. Scopa has decided not to summon the president just yet but has sent him a set of written questions to answer within 10 working days. It will be good when they are answered; Ramaphosa’s enemies may be using the recording against him, but the public deserves to know the real context of this recording.

Two other words closely associated with Ramaphosa’s name are “allies” and “faction”, speaking directly to the divisions in the ANC. In the articles four past or present ANC leaders have “allies”: Ramaphosa, Sisulu, Jacob Zuma and suspended secretary general Ace Magashule. All of the latter three are linked to what is called “the anti-Ramaphosa faction”, “the faction that wants change in the ANC leadership”, the “fightback faction” and “the RET [radical economic transformation] faction”.  Sisulu’s mentions of “economic reconciliation” in her first opinion piece seem like a thinly-veiled attempt to align herself with this faction.

Meanwhile, coverage of Sisulu focused on the fact that she was caught copying in her second IOL opinion piece. One of the words most strongly associated with her name in January’s news is “plagiarised”. Another is “Turnitin”, the text-matching software that News24 used to check for plagiarism in the piece. The name of Steven Motale, Sisulu’s spokesperson, is also strongly associated with her name. Motale denied the allegations of plagiarism, saying that she referenced in full Lord “Tom” Bingham’s book The Rule of Law.  What he neglected to respond to is the fact that the words surrounding the Bingham quotation came from a speech by UK attorney general Dominic Grieve.

As a university lecturer who is all too familiar with using Turnitin, my assessment is that Sisulu committed a common student trick. She lifted a passage that cites a source, complete with its in-text referencing, and then claimed that she had referenced fully when the passage that cites the source has not been referenced. In addition, she copied two other smaller chunks of text from Internet sources instead of paraphrasing them and acknowledging their sources.  

On top of that, News24 says that according to Turnitin, “4% appears to have been copied from previously submitted university papers”. This is a bit misleading: Turnitin checks wording against a large database of submitted university papers from around the world, but in most cases it is improbable that the author would have gone out and borrowed assignments from far-flung places to copy them to contribute just 4% to the text. It is most likely that both these university assignments and Sisulu’s text match some other common source, and without seeing the actual wordings that match, it is impossible to tell whether this 4% was likely to be plagiarised. Nevertheless, the cumulative evidence of plagiarism in the article is compelling and if she were in my class, she would be penalised. 

It is ironic that Sisulu accuses her critic, Mavuso Msimang, of employing “the hallmark of intellectual laziness” in the very sentence before one of the plagiarised portions of her article. If anything is the hallmark of intellectual laziness, it is plagiarism.  

I have been asking myself what Sisulu aimed to achieve by publishing these articles. If she was trying to position herself as the most significant anti-Ramaphosa figure in preparation for an ANC presidential campaign in the December elective conference, she has succeeded momentarily, at least as far as attracting news coverage goes. But December is a long way away from January, and she will have to pin her hopes on evading tough disciplinary action from her party. If she is disciplined and plays the martyr in December, that is also a doubtful strategy.  The RET faction has many candidates to choose from, including Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and the “already martyred” Zweli Mkhize.

We need robust and open discussion about South Africa’s transformation, including how best to transform the economy. What we don’t need is ham-fisted attempts at political posturing, which add fuel to interpersonal fires and call our judges names. How about some dialogue that tackles the real problems we face, not the people that stand in the way of your faction?

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Ian Siebörger
Ian Siebörger is a senior lecturer in the department of linguistics and applied language studies in the faculty of humanities at Rhodes University

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