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Motlanthe and the challenge of democratic governance

As South African President Kgalema Motlanthe commences work in his new office this week, the air will still be thick with the smell of briar pipes and the backroom political intrigue so favoured by his predecessor. While Thabo Mbeki may have left the Union Buildings, his 15-year tenure in the presidency has profoundly shaped South African politics. Mbeki nurtured a culture of ‘democratic centralism’ that has seeped through party and state. It was the intense desire to control power in such complex machinery that was also his downfall. While he came to office as the managerial president, he left with a mixed legacy tainted by the apparent desire to manipulate power. While not personally corrupt he became increasingly aloof and controlling. Perhaps he had spent too long shuttling between his offices — one perched on a hill overlooking Pretoria and another aboard the presidential jet. However, while attempting to give expression to his mandate to transform South Africa into a modern African state – he failed to be the transformative leader the country most needed.

Pity President Motlanthe in the weeks ahead. His job is to pick up the pieces following the palace coup. To make matters worse he has been designated the task of clearing the way for the man known as the unstoppable tsunami – Jacob Zuma. While apparatchiks within the ANC see him as the caretaker, the people who voted the ANC into office have expectations that his government is mandated to fulfil. Motlanthe, as head of state, now faces four key governance challenges which he must grapple with. They are:

Visible leadership: while he is the new face of government, the public is right to wonder who really holds the levers of power. Is it the president and his cabinet or are they merely instruments of the ANC National Executive and its President Jacob Zuma? This apparently humble politician, who those close to him describe as displaying a deep sense of personal integrity and commitment to democracy, will have to use all the skills honed as a trade unionist to outsmart his toughest opposition within the party. If he is seen to become too popular he is most certain to draw flack from those around Zuma who favour their own version of democratic centralism. There is little to suggest that Motlanthe’s sole objective is to take orders from party leaders. His record of high office in the ANC and trade unions suggests that, while part of a collective leadership, he is his prepared to assert his own ideas. Proof of this has been his recent offensive against the likes of ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema following attacks on the independence of the judiciary. He represents what some describe as a silent majority of ANC leaders who are repulsed by the recent brazen attacks on constitutional democracy. With the exception of party elders such as Zola Skweyiya and Kader Asmal, most are afraid to speak out. Motlanthe will have to move quickly if he is to assist such leaders in asserting their voice – and be prepared for the backlash that awaits. This political battle is inevitable if Motlanthe both sees a future for himself in government and wishes to preserve his own integrity. It will define him as a leader in the eyes of his people and is a worthwhile legacy to leave regardless of his length of tenure as president.

The politics of patronage: over the past few years Motlanthe has been a vocal critic of patronage dispensed by the State and private capital to the favoured few. He has fingered local party disputes as too often linked to a fight for an access to resources. He has equally been critical of ‘narrow-based’ black economic empowerment that has made a few people exceedingly wealthy. There is little to suggest that Jacob Zuma will be the president who will decisively deal with these legacies of Mbeki’s leadership. He has surrounded himself with benefactors who no doubt see great opportunity that awaits them once their patron takes office. Possibly a case of the king posing a lesser threat than his courtiers. It is crucial that Motlanthe starts to lead from the front on these issues, moving the country’s stalled anti-corruption drive out of the realm of the technocrats and matches this with leadership which speaks decisively on such issues. One important step, albeit unlikely, in the right direction would be the appointment of an independent judicial commission of enquiry into the arms deal.

The politics of ideas: one of the greatest threats facing governance in South Africa is the paucity of debate on key policy issues. While the ruling party made important policy decisions at its mid-2007 conference, the focus has since shifted almost exclusively to the political future of one man. An enormous amount of political energy has been spent on ensuring Jacob Zuma’s ascendancy to power. Strangely this has happened without any real debate of what kind of alternative ideas he offers South Africans. If this slide is allowed to continue there is a risk that policy debates will largely be replaced by that of personalities. Motlanthe and his team need to shift the focus back to the politics of ideas in order to engage both the left and the right on issues such as the economy, industrial policy and service delivery. When the battles politicians and bureaucrats are involved in start to exclude ideological positions, they risk being replaced by patronage and brute force.

Service Delivery: following the resignations of cabinet members and Premiers, the unspoken question within the civil service is ‘who is next’? Motlanthe’s cabinet must move quickly to ensure stability within the public service. While underperforming officials must go, a potential mass of resignations will further destabilise service delivery, which has been the most visible casualty of the recent battle between political elites. The message must be sent that while political power is contested, there is an expectation that the bureaucracy does not get caught up in factional politics.

These are tall orders for a man who has been promised a little more than half a year in office. However, President Motlanthe and his cabinet have a historical responsibility to ensure that interest groups do not capture the business of governance. While he has in the past favoured democratic centralism he now needs to assert himself as a supporter of progressive democratic governance. If he manages to get this right he may wish to leave office; however, the electorate may have other plans for the president.