Guardian Africa Network
Guardian Africa Network

Kgalema (anyone but Zuma) Motlanthe

By David Smith

There are two gestures now essential to understanding South African politics. One is a rolling hand motion as practised by football fans when calling for a player to be substituted. The player they want yanked off is the president, Jacob Zuma.

The other is the cupping of a hand at a downward angle to represent a shower head – a mocking reference to Zuma’s six-year-old gaffe about showering after having sex with an HIV-positive woman, of which the cartoonist Zapiro constantly reminds him.

Both these gestures were prominent, accompanied by much singing and stomping, at Thursday night’s launch of the authorised biography of Kgalema Motlanthe, Zuma’s deputy and his only credible challenger in an African National Congress (ANC) leadership contest in December.

Indeed, this was less a book launch with wine-sipping literati than a raucous anti-Zuma rally attended by top dissidents Tokyo Sexwale, Mathews Phosa and rebels from the ANC youth league. In the absence of US-style presidential debates in South Africa (Zuma v Thabo Mbeki a few years ago would have been an amusing clash of styles), this was the closest thing the rank and file could get to a proper look at Motlanthe.

For it could be argued that Motlanthe’s principal strength in the presidential race is that he isn’t Zuma. The 63-year-old is a private man and opaque politician; few voters would be able identify a clear Motlanthe agenda. He is the tabula rasa on to which the “anyone but Zuma” campaign can project their hopes and, perhaps, wishful thinking.

The publication of his biography, therefore, risks letting in daylight upon magic. At the launch in the great hall at Johannesburg’s Wits University, Ray Hartley, editor of the Sunday Times, said: “I think this book does introduce South Africa to Kgalema Motlanthe for the first time.

“It does give us our first detailed picture of the deputy president. Those of us in the fourth estate have been scratching around to try to work out who is the man who was the third president of South Africa.”

Third president? Yes, Motlanthe was a kind of caretaker president for seven months after Mbeki was ousted and before Zuma won the 2009 general election. But president he was. The record will always show that he wore the crown and so does my memory. On my first day covering Africa for the Guardian, I attended a press conference with President Motlanthe specifically for foreign journalists (more than three years later, we are still waiting for Zuma to do the same).

In fact, South African journalists mining advance copies of the biography are yet to come up with a blockbuster revelation. There have been tales about Motlanthe saving Zuma from expulsion from the party, Motlanthe disagreeing with the decision to expel the youth leader Julius Malema and Motlanthe expressing discontent over various government failings. But still little to fire up voters either way.

“The man is truly a biographer’s delight,” the author, the former trade unionist Ebrahim Harvey, told the audience on Thursday night, implying that Motlanthe will not be losing much sleep over its contents.

Harvey said he had spent almost 200 hours with the politician over three years (adding that Mbeki only gave his biographer 45 hours). “He decided to open up his mind both personally and politically in this biography,” he said. “It was a very courageous step.”

Motlanthe is a man with nothing to hide, he continued. Even when a newspaper falsely claimed that Motlanthe was having an affair with a 24-year-old, not once was he “morose, dejected, looking troubled”, but instead showed “amazing fortitude”.

Harvey insisted that the timing of the book’s publication, just two months before the leadership election in Mangaung, was pure coincidence. But then he took a swipe at the ANC over its response to the deadly unrest sweeping the country’s mines. “The ANC pretence that we don’t have a social crisis in this country is quite ridiculous. In that respect the timing for me is much more important than Mangaung.”

Next up was the man himself – like Zuma, a former inmate on Robben Island. Motlanthe was, as ever, charming and cerebral but not exactly charismatic. “I thought a political biography has got to be written by someone who is going to be critical and make an assessment of the work we do, the positions we adopt and so on,” he said. “I did not want a book that is only about positive issues.”

He then told a story about a trip to Italy where he was impressed by a new teaching method. “Things are always changing,” he observed innocently, prompting the biggest roar of the night from a crowd that could see only the subtext of leadership elections.

Motlanthe paused. Against whoops and whistles, he continued: “For me the irony is already lost because I’m talking about … this is science. It’s not about names of places. I can see that you are trapped within the geographic names of Mangaung (where the leadership election will take place). There are many other important things about Mangaung than just the ANC elective conference.”

He ended on a somewhat sombre note. “I’ve told my comrade Trevor [Manuel, the planning minister], in my will, I leave very clear instructions when I pass, my obituary or tombstone – if anybody believes I deserve a tombstone – should say: ‘Others made suggestions and he implemented.’ “

Which, in the ranks of political epitaphs, is never going to challenge Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill. That apart, we still didn’t learn much about the man who would be king (again). The wild cheers seemed to be driven more by out-with-the-old desperation than desire for the new.

“More bloody riddles from the masters of spin, smoke, mirrors and obfuscation,” remarked one journalist on the way out. “What does this guy really stand for except ABZ – anyone but Zuma?”

David Smith is the Guardian’s Africa correspondent.

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    • David

      @ Tofolux. I don’t understand this statement: “The irony does not escape me when these CEO’s earn more than any of our Presidents post 1994″. Are you saying that a CEO should earn the same, or possibly less, than the President of a country? So someone who represents either his or her own risk capital, or those of shareholders, cannot make more than someone elected to public office?

    • Tofolux

      @David, maybe you should read it again, it might help.

    • Graham

      @Tofolux, maybe you should try answer his question, it might help.

    • David

      @Tofolux. I’m trying to understand your point. It’s called honest engagement. Something you ask of others, but apparently don’t apply to yourself. Actually, forget it. Asking you to explain any of your points / arguments is a futile exercise. A waste of kilobytes. It’s like dealing with a petulant teenager.

    • Chaka Lemba

      @ Tofol:
      “Just as well, cos looking at your ”issues” one is correct that what is at issue here, is something else”. — What on earth are you talking about?
      Amidst all your thumbsucks and pulling straws out of a hat to come up with any sort of credibility to give to the ANC, one presumes that you agree that Cape Town would be considered ‘a world class city’? So how do you feel about the ANCYL threatening to make Cape Town ‘ungovernable’? (you can send your answer straight to the department of tourism) Will Nkandla also be a world-class destination? … Oh no, It’s a kind of ANC super-secret super-exorbitantly expensive hide-out for our president, isn’t it?
      Also, who said anything about a ‘wh dominated society’? Nobody was or is talking about anything like that. But if you prefer domination by ANC thieves, incompetents and liars, you’ve got it!

    • Tofolux

      @Chaka, if this country is so wrong for you, if this country is so bad and if this country is the worst there is, then why havent u moved to yr mother country? eg Here we have a debate on the table and a considered response to the debate should suffice. What you have done is disrespected the person who has put the debate and imposed ALL side issues to this debate. What you have also done is conflate ANC with govt. At some point, you cannot ignore that we live in a democracy where robust engagement should be normal. But to confuse robustness with insults indicates that the level or no challenge to a debate So in future, try a little harder to challenge what is put. But let me say, in the Western Cape we have seen the most service delivery protests in the history of our democracy. There is maladministration in WCED and after an investigation the secrecy law imposed to avoid public scutiny of the report. Also, you should make yourself aware of the late deliveries of text books in western cape schools, you will be shocked. Also,the tender processes has been called into question when a service provider in cape town doin ordinary maintenance left a hole in the roof of a high school as big as a bakkie. Also, a matric student reported that she was registered to write exams for subjects she never took. Look at the housing debacle in wcape. The list is long hence this song of wcape & DA is fallacious,dishonest and incorrect. This cheap politicking is a side-show much like yr input.

    • Chaka Lemba

      All one can ever expect and one gets from Tofol, are assumptions, protests, thumbsucks and the usual gobbledegook
      1. This IS my mother country. That’s why we are so concerned about it going downhill so fast under the ANC. 2. We are all aware this is supposed to be a democracy, not an ANC Monocracy. 3. All she says (or endlessly repeats with all rest of her words) is completely false propaganda. What she keeps bleating about the virtues of the present ANC is old indoctrination and completely out of touch.

      An open letter to the surviving Rivonia Trialists by Kay Sexwale (daughter of Tokyo Sexwale) who is a talk-show host and communication strategist in Current affairs and post-apartheid experiences, end like this:
      ” To not vote at all in 2014, as many are threatening, will be to dishonour the memory of my uncle, Lesetja Sexwale, and his many fallen comrades who died in combat for my right to vote. It will be to disrespect the struggle for which men and woman such as him, men like yourselves, sacrificed their youth. … I don’t know who I will vote for. All I know is that Zuma will never again hold office with my consent
      I know uncle Lesetja and uncle Chris would not view my choice as a betrayal of their sacrifices. … I choose South Africa.

    • Chaka Lemba

      And back to the topic ….The tide continues to turn despairingly away from the ANC .
      Some lines taken from a letter by Dr. Lucas Ntyintyane of Bloemfontein (Business Day 11 Oct 2012) …
      “Senseless violence is tainting everything. Former world boxing champ Corrie Saunders, killed for what? Violence and the daily errors by political leadership are symbolic of a deeper malaise …. the ostrich approach adopted by the Dept. Of Public Enterprises to the resignation of SAA CEO Siza Mzimela … the bumbling SABC, failure to launch SAA, a blind Dept of Justice, the Malema circus, the new republic of Nkandla … ” (he has not even mentioned departments such as Health or Education or the Police etc.)
      “Commentators and analysts all point to the lack of political leadership.. In an ideal world, Mr. Zuma should have been banned from entering the Union Bldgs. He is not fit to lead this country. Neither are Kgalema Motlanthe, Thabo Mbeki, Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa. They are part of the problem and offer no viable leadership solution.”
      And finally: “Mr. Zuma and the ANC: You don’t own the country. You manage it on behalf of the electorate. This means responsible, answerable leadership.”

      Despondency over the what the ANC has done – or not done – and the mess the country is in, prevails.

    • ntozakhona

      Chaka talk about old indocrination is rich coming from an apologist of a system and political alignments that has over centuries led to the enslavement, kaffirnisation and bantusation of the overwhelming majority of South Africans. Though the lexicon may have changed to suit the political correctness of the times, the agitators becoming terrorists and now the corrupt the indocrination remains.

    • Chaka Lemba

      @ ntozakhona
      I speak specificaly about the present and failed ANC leadership. What are you on about? … Actually, if your response is as up-in-the-clouds as your last comment, don’t bother to explain. Rather tell us what you are smoking.

    • ntozakhona

      And I am talking about the indocrination that created you.

    • Mr. Direct

      Oh my, seems everyone is fighting about who made a mark on the carpet in the train speeding towards the abyss.

      Our (negotiated) democracy gives us a choice of political parties, but who can we trust with all the propoganda in the press? Nobody it seems.

      So, anybody that is happy with the current government’s progress, vote for a continuation of their services. For anybody that is not happy, vote for someone else.

      No matter how many fancy words we string together in one sentence (Tofolux, et al), it all comes down to the fact that the popular vote wins.

      With all of the opposition parties standing together to table a motion in parlament of no confidence in Mr. Zuma, surely this has to mean something outside of the propoganda. If it were only the DA, or only COPE, or only the Crazy Looney Party, I would say it was just cheap politiking, but if we gave all the political parties one vote, the ANC would be slightly outnumbered in thier support for Mr. Zuma.

      With all the difference of opinion in our great democracy, having everyone (bar one) agree on a topic should really be considered groundbreaking, as well as thought provoking.

    • ntozakhona

      Mr Direct, the opposition parties are engaging in desperate gimmicks. They do not even enjoy the support of 40% of the population,