If recent media speculations are anything to go by, it could be time to bring up to date a line in the song titled Shibobo by “celebrated South African musician” (read soccer player) Benedict McCarthy — a song co-produced with South African kwaito music group TKZee: “Kgalema in the 18 areaaa!” Eighteen yards from the goal posts is the distance from which a shot at goal can be taken with a very good chance of success in a soccer match.
While I was away at a conference in Europe, Deputy President Kgalema Montlanthe decided to visit the township of Nkowa-Nkowa near Tzaneen where he addressed an ANC Youth League centenary celebrations rally. My eventful teens were shared between the townships of Meadowlands (Soweto) and Nkowa-Nkowa near Tzaneen. So I took more than a passing interest in the event at “my township in my stadium, among my people”, to recall the infamous words of one erstwhile homeland leader. Montlanthe was on my stoep!
Incidentally, though born in Alexander, Montlanthe also hails from Meadowlands. According to a vibrant Meadowlands legend, in his younger days our deputy president was a football dribbling wizard with an amazing knack for scoring goals. If he could dribble through a forest of opposition players on the football pitch, he was nevertheless unable to dribble through the tight and vigilant network of the apartheid police and their spies. The latter soon caught up with him and sent him to Robben Island from where he plied his soccer trade for 10 years (1977 to 1987). The police had known for some time what Motlanthe’s Meadowlands soccer fan club hardly suspected, namely that this son of a mineworker was an active member of the banned Umkhonto we Sizwe.
Fast-forward to Saturday September 24 2008. On this day, Kgalema Motlanthe is elected president of South Africa — a post which, for reasons we know all too well, he holds onto for the next eight months. Fast-forward again to Sunday March 25 2012 when the ANC and country’s deputy president walked with ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, Limpopo premier Cassel Mathale and Minister of Sports Fikile Mbalule into a packed Nkowa-Nkowa stadium to thunderous applause.
The picture of Motlanthe, Malema, Mathale and Mbalula walking side by side whilst bathing in the warmth of the adulation of the Limpopo crowds, defiant speeches of Mbalula and Malema, ‘Motlanthe for President’ T-shirts and anti-Zuma songs were enough to make many observers conclude that this was the launch of Motlanthe’s bid for the ANC presidency. But were these sufficient basis upon which to suggest that Motlanthe was throwing his hat into the ring for the country’s top job? If Nkowa-Nkowa was indeed the moment was this the best time and space to launch a bid for the ANC by Motlanthe? More importantly, is Motlanthe truly what the ANC needs?
We should not read too much into who walks with who into lecture halls and/or stadiums, methinks. We should also resist finding people “guilty” for mere sharing of stage with Malema. In the course of performing their duties, holders of political office do not always have either the prerogative or the power to choose whom they share the stage with. The authors of political-rally T-shirt slogans seldom consult with the persons who pictures or names they put on the shirts.
In his own speech, did Motlanthe say anything that suggests that he is launching a bid for the ANC presidency? I am not entirely persuaded. Yes, he did talk about the need of “the youth league to be militant, determined and creative”. Yes, he did suggest that the youth league was autonomous and was free to ‘take your decisions, embark on campaigns, and do as you deem fit’. But he also said that if you go astray, the ANC has a responsibility to “grab you by the ear and we turn it around and we twist it and as you follow the pain, we drag you back into the straight and narrow”. His rebuke for those wearing the “Kgalema for President” T-shirts was as clear as it was firm. “Politically it is incorrect. We must glorify the ANC, we belong to the ANC. We don’t belong to individuals,” he said.
In saying the above, I am not suggesting that I have indisputable proof that Motlanthe has no intention to use his considerable political dribbling to gravitate towards the helm of the party and the country — after all he has tasted the power of the highest office in the land for eight months. Indeed the points I used above to argue how circumspect Motlanthe was at Nkowa-Nkowa could paint the very picture of a man carefully trying to appear reasonable, rational and measured in order to set himself up for the presidency of party and country.
On the other hand if Nkowa-Nkowa was the moment which he chose to show his hand and if what happened and was said there was all part of the rituals of launching his campaign I would question his timing, his campaign strategy and his choice of campaign allies. The angry and bitter contents of the speeches of both Malema and Mbalula would not help his campaign. In a party which has elaborate traditions of campaigning for positions by pretending not to be campaigning; eight months ahead of an elective conference is way too early to launch an election campaign. It is especially too early to launch a campaign against so wily, so canny and so thorough a political opponent as President Jacob Zuma within the context of current ANC politics.
The demise of Malema, while significant for Zuma’s bid for a second term, may not provide enough fuel for the long haul to Mangaung. It could directly and indirectly also signal the beginning of the loosening of Zuma’s grip on the ANC steering wheel — after all, Malema and Zuma were a united team not so long ago. There is growing evidence of growing pockets of dissatisfaction with the leadership of Zuma in certain sections of the ANC. Much of the speculation about Motlanthe’s appetite for the ANC presidency position is less about Motlanthe himself and more of a function of growing sense of unease with Zuma’s leadership in some quarters of the ANC. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on where one stands, the sense of fatigue with the leadership of Zuma remains largely a palace revolt which has not (yet) translated into a popular revolt across the organisation.
But what is the basis of Zuma’s leadership fatigue? It is dissatisfaction with a leadership trajectory that started when Mbeki took the helm and has been continued (rather clumsily most of the times) by the Zuma administration — something I have called, elsewhere, the MbeZuma model of governance and leadership. Can dribbling Motlanthe take Team South Africa beyond the MbeZuma model? Motlanthe has strengths and impeccable credentials, but I have my doubts about his ability to bring a fresh vision and new impetus to country and party. If talks of attempts to woo the likes of Ramaphosa back into the leadership race are anything to go by, then I might not be alone in my doubts. But Ramaphosa has chickened out before, has he not? And Motlanthe would rather coach Bafana Bafana, right?