JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The ruling African National Congress (ANC) on Sunday labelled reports that top ANC officials, including former President Jacob Zuma and the party's secretary-general, were plotting in secret to unseat Cyril Ramaphosa as party leader as "shameless gossip".
The Sunday Times newspaper said earlier on Sunday that Zuma held a clandestine meeting with staunch backers including ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, former North-West premier Supra Mahumapelo, ANC Women's league secretary-general Meokgo Matuba and ANC Youth league KwaZulu-Natal secretary Thanduxolo Sabelo on Thursday.
"The meeting is believed to have discussed a fightback strategy that involves court action to challenge the outcome of last year's ANC national conference, which elected Ramaphosa party president," Sunday Times said, citing witnesses and senior ANC leaders.
The paper said the first action from the group was a letter sent to Magashule on Wednesday from regional executive committees in the North West, challenging the ANC's highest decision-making body for its decision to disband the Mahumapelo-led provincial executive committee.
In a statement, ANC spokesman Pule Mabe refuted the report, saying the ANC rejects attempts to link Magashule to the alleged plot to oust Ramaphosa.
"It is clear that this malicious gossip is calculated to cast aspersions on the integrity and commitment of our Secretary General to the unity and renewal project of the African National Congress," Mabe said.
Ramaphosa narrowly defeated Zuma's ex-wife and preferred successor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in a leadership vote at the party's national conference in December. The ANC then ordered Zuma to step down as president in February.
Since taking office, Ramaphosa has been prioritising rooting out corruption as he strives to put the sluggish economy back on a sustained growth trajectory. Such measures led to the forced resignation of Mahumapelo as North West leader.
As bold as some of Ramaphosa's decisions have been, he still maintains a cautious leadership style as he and some ANC officials know the power that Zuma loyalists retain within the ANC, Africa's oldest liberation movement.
The ANC Women's League also rejected the report, saying in a statement it will "defend the unity and integrity of the ANC."
(Reporting by Nqobile Dludla, editing by David Evans)