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South African Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo attends the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, where former president Jacob Zuma was summoned to face a state corruption inquiry, in Johannesburg on Feb. 15, 2021.SIPHIWE SIBEKO/Reuters

South Africa’s judiciary, one of the strongest pillars of its postapartheid democracy, is struggling to defend itself from mounting attacks by an influential faction of the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress.

The campaign to discredit South Africa’s court system has emerged as a central strategy for the dissident ANC faction as it manoeuvres to challenge President Cyril Ramaphosa for the party leadership. The attacks escalated this month when a cabinet minister launched a scathing critique of the judiciary, triggering an extraordinary backlash from a senior judge.

The minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, ignited a national uproar by describing Black judges as “mentally colonized” and “house negroes” who serve the interests of wealthy capitalists. Deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo responded with an hour-long press conference last week, saying her comments were insulting and unacceptable. Analysts said Ms. Sisulu was clearly positioning herself for a run at the ANC’s top leadership.

The battle for control of the ANC has become increasingly destructive. It flared into violence last July in a massive looting and arson rampage that caused more than 340 deaths. Tensions are rising again now as the dissident faction, loyal to former president Jacob Zuma, seeks to regain its grip on the ANC. The feud is likely to dominate the party’s next elective conference, scheduled for December.

Key members of the Zuma faction, including Mr. Zuma himself, are facing a long list of corruption allegations in the courts or in public inquiries led by judges such as Justice Zondo. By accusing the judiciary of bias and assailing its legitimacy, the faction hopes to remove a major obstacle to its return to power.

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The turmoil within the ruling party boiled to the surface again this month when Mr. Ramaphosa faced political chaos and suspected sabotage in Limpopo province at the ANC’s annual anniversary celebrations.

He was met by a large crowd of ANC protestors at one event, and faced security threats at other events, with bodyguards whisking him away from one venue for security reasons. At a gala dinner, his speech was interrupted by a power outage. The Police Minister, Bheki Cele, called it sabotage.

In another incident this month, a man with a hammer attacked the headquarters of South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, causing extensive damage. And when the national Parliament was torched in a major fire in early January, some members of the Zuma faction celebrated the event on social media.

Police and security services have seemed powerless to prevent the destruction. Mr. Ramaphosa announced recently that he will prolong the deployment of 2,700 soldiers for domestic security duties, extending a military mission that began during the July looting and rioting.

An unemployed man has been charged with arson and terrorism in connection with the Parliament fire this month. But one cabinet minister, Blade Nzimande, said the hammer attack and the parliamentary fire were linked to the same “counterrevolution” that had fuelled the July violence.

The destruction in July was spearheaded by the Zuma faction to protest against Mr. Zuma’s imprisonment on contempt-of-court charges for refusing to testify at the Zondo inquiry into state corruption. Since then, Mr. Zuma has been released from prison on medical parole, and his supporters are aiming to take back control of the ANC leadership at the December conference.

They believe Mr. Ramaphosa is vulnerable to challenge after the ANC’s poor showing in local elections in November, when it fell below the 50-per-cent mark for the first time in its history. Rising unemployment and a stagnant economy are denting the ANC’s popularity and emboldening the campaign by the Zuma faction.

Even if Mr. Ramaphosa’s opponents fail to oust him, they hope to surround him with a new executive that would take control of party policy. “They will most likely tolerate him at the helm and then flood the top structures with their own people so that he is totally under siege,” South African political commentator Mondli Makhanya said in an analysis published on Sunday.

There are growing signs that the bid to topple Mr. Ramaphosa could be fronted by Ms. Sisulu, one of the ANC’s longest-serving cabinet ministers and a member of one of the party’s most famous families. She is the daughter of Walter and Albertina Sisulu, revered heroes of the anti-apartheid liberation movement, and has served 21 years in cabinet, holding the foreign affairs ministry and other key posts.

In her controversial attack on the judiciary, Ms. Sisulu echoed many of the buzzwords of the Zuma faction, which is often called the “radical economic transformation” faction because of its leftist rhetoric and its demands for resource nationalization, land expropriation and the rewriting of South Africa’s liberal constitution.

Analysts have pointed out that Ms. Sisulu and Mr. Zuma failed to take action on most of these issues during their many years in power, but the ideology serves as a useful weapon against Mr. Ramaphosa, a wealthy businessman before he became President in 2018.

Ms. Sisulu’s critique of the court system was similar to earlier attacks by Mr. Zuma and ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, both of whom are facing trial on criminal charges for alleged corruption. Mr. Magashule has been suspended from his ANC post because of the criminal charges.

Mr. Zuma’s allies rushed to support Ms. Sisulu after her attack on the judiciary. Many of them – including his daughter, Dudu Zuma-Sambudla – tweeted photos of Ms. Sisulu and heaped praise on her, while blasting Justice Zondo for his response.

Ms. Sisulu also received praise from South Africa’s third-biggest political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, which largely supports the “radical economic transformation” ideology, despite its hostility to Mr. Zuma in the past. Analysts have often speculated about a possible future alliance between the EFF and the dissident ANC faction.

A government spokesman, Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele, criticized Ms. Sisulu’s comments as “reckless” and “an attack on the rule of law.” But another minister, ANC chairperson Gwede Mantashe, said the ANC has “no issue” with what she said.

Ms. Sisulu has refused to apologize, and Mr. Ramaphosa has declined to dismiss her from his cabinet. The factional fighting is expected to continue for the rest of this year, damaging the ANC government’s ability to find consensus for policy reforms.

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