In very strange ways Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe has been chastised for his reluctance to accept the poisoned chalice of the ANC leadership.

In fact he has been unjustifiably condemned as indecisive and, in not so many words, called a coward for not stating whether he will run against President Jacob Zuma for the number one position.

Instead all that Motlanthe has confessed is that he has been “agonising” over it.

If he became the first man to openly run against Zuma, Motlanthe would probably not only have contradicted himself but become part of the problem he has spoken and fought against: putting individual self-interest before that of the country.

He would certainly have played into the hands of those who fuel a culture of deadly rivalry and competition among comrades who have become notorious for being preoccupied with position, power and status to gain access to state resources.

Much as some people refuse to acknowledge it, Motlanthe is one of the greatest thinker-leaders to emerge from the liberation movement in the last 50 years. He is not only self-effacing but genuinely humble and committed to principle.

I would vouch for any man who understands and promotes the view that in modern society leadership is not about a position. There are far too many men and women who hold top positions in politics, government, church business and civil society, for instance, but are not leaders. Motlanthe does not seem to fall into that breed.

He knows that to be a leader, you do not need to hold a so-called influential position where you use power to get your way because you have surrounded yourself with yes-men. In most instances, it (leadership) is not only through imposing your will but marginalising those who do not agree with you.

When pressed to put his plans on the table, Motlanthe has said “I believe I will always do my humble work at whatever level. I do not have to be in a position of leadership. I am not a professional politician”.

A leader is someone who not only understands himself but knows what he is not. And Motlanthe understands the distinction between leadership and position. Also, he has made it clear that he is not a professional politician. His real job is to be a servant of the people.

So, as the country braces itself for what will happen at the ANC’s 53rd national conference, there is no blood on the floor. Yes, shots have been fired but, most importantly, there is no blood on the hands of those contesting for leadership. In African politics, men are willing to kill their own brothers and comrades just to occupy positions of power.

Motlanthe may be the first leader in the history of a liberated South Africa to renounce the most powerful position in the country.

In fact we live in a society that is so obsessed with position that we categorise and class people according to their status. Even at a funeral, it is your position that determines the seat you will occupy and how the bereaved family must be happy that you attended.

We need more men and women who are not power drunk because of the positions they hold. What Motlanthe has made our country, the continent and the world to experience is a calibre of leadership that is neither self-serving nor delusional. As a leader, you are what you are because of your willingness to carry out the mandate of the people.

Even the Freedom Charter says “no government (leader) can justly claim authority (legitimacy) unless it is based on the will of the people”.

Motlanthe redefines the relationship between the people and the leader when he says: “If we fail to stay on our toes because of the cries of our people, then we don’t deserve to hold these positions of responsibility.” A responsible leader is intuitively connected to the aspirations and material needs of his people. He does as they say.

But over the last few months Motlanthe has been vilified and judged for his determination not to promote or entrench rivalry in the race for ANC leadership. This is a tragic development, indeed. That a man who is not ambitious in the sense of personal interest has been dismissed as a fool.

But, in many ways, this is the calibre of leadership that will, ultimately, make South Africa one of the greatest nations of earth. Leadership is not a position but a willingness to do your best to make this a better country than it has become.

Senior managers in government and other leaders in other sectors of society must closely study the significance. His decision to forgo position to pursue selfless service is the new definition of leadership. In fact, it has been a hallmark of the ANC for years until Nelson Mandela stepped down.

But Motlanthe has reset the template for African leadership where, irrespective of our position, rank or status, we do the best we can to make this world a better place by putting the interests of the country above our own.

Motlanthe has made the first footsteps in the sands of history to give an example that should be enduring in our self-understanding and history. These footsteps will be vanishing into the wind unless we all pause to ask ourselves: Why would an African male refuse to run for the presidency of the most powerful country in the continent?

But now that Motlanthe has defined the true meaning of leadership, we cannot claim we do not know the answer. In fact we cannot stand silent as he is condemned by people who not only misunderstand what he is doing but distort it because it will not spill more African blood.

Perhaps Motlanthe wants to live a quiet life as he does not seem to be a man who loves the glitterati. If he chooses not to run for the number one position, then he must be allowed to leave the stage.

After all leadership is not a position, it’s what you are willing to do for the people, irrespective of your station in life.

This article first appeared in City Press.



Sandile Memela

Sandile Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic, columnist and civil servant. He lives in Midrand.

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