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Something stirs behind the dull eyes and zombie shuffle

Just occasionally one glimpses, behind the dull eyes and zombie-like shuffle of President Jacob Zuma’s disengaged administration, the values that sustained the African National Congress in the struggle years. It’s a briefly cheering reminder that all is not yet lost.

This week Kgalema Motlanthe, in an uncommonly frank Business Day interview, skewered the movement to which he has devoted his life. The ANC’s tripartite with the SA Communist Party and the Congress of SA Trade Unions was dead, he declared, and to believe otherwise was delusional.

The ANC blithely ignored its own constitution, as did Cosatu when it expelled its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA. The SACP and Cosatu had lost their independence and been subsumed into a single ANC entity, while the traditionally autonomous ANC Youth League was now also under tight control.

These are the headline-grabbing remarks. But it is Motlanthe’s analysis of what is causing the growing crisis that is more important.

The project of creating a non-racial, united democratic SA is faltering because of an absence of honest dialogue and because the ANC is paying “lip service to these noble ideals”.

An example was the way in which the presence of blacks in the Democratic Alliance is derided by the ANC in the National Assembly. “Is it the expectation that non-racialism is only going to happen through the ANC? If your policies are correct and influence society in general, why would you want exclusive claims for having brought that about.”

A united SA could only be built if ANC engaged with the differing views of others “as people who truly represent whatever views they represent”. If it continues to push legislation through “because we have the numbers”, minority alienation is inevitable.

“Now if for whatever reason you regard yourself as a minority on whatever basis and you watch that, the message you get is that that’s how you’re going to be dealt with because you don’t have numbers on your side.” It’s then not surprising that minorities started thinking that protections and rights “are going to be quickly whittled away … which is why the Afrikaner is drawing back into their laager”.

“The Constitution enjoins us to address the accumulated disabilities and heal those wounds caused by the past. But it says we should do it together, because it can’t be done by a section of the South African people. You have to mobilise the broadest cross section.”

Motlanthe then defends the corporate sector, a favourite scapegoat of the Zuma administration. “It is in the interest of government to ensure that the environment is conducive for business to thrive and to create more jobs so that there are less people dependent on social grants and charity, otherwise you will have social upheavals.”

“We have a crisis and people who understand that are the people in Treasury. Every week they have to go and borrow money from US asset managers … and so they know and deal with 23-year-old and 24-year-old asset managers who have no regard for sentiment.”

This is the voice of the old, pre-Zuma, ANC. The sentiments are remarkable only because they are in such jarring contrast with the rancorous and divisive public discourse of today, and because they come from a former ANC president of SA and deputy president of the ANC.

Nevertheless, despite being self-evident truths, Motlanthe’s assessments clearly rocked the government. The alliance Rottweilers were onto him in a flash, with the ANCYL labelling him a counter-revolutionary and a liar.

Unusually placatory and diplomatic was the ANC’s own response. It described Motlanthe as a “voice of reason always on the forefront of raising pertinent and thought-provoking questions … on internal challenges that if unattended could materialise as future problems”.

The importance of Motlanthe’s remarks is that they were unambiguously provocative and public. That he broke the disciplined cadre’s code of silence about “internal challenges” is a sign of his despair about what he describes as “a crisis” but the Zuma ANC assesses merely as possible “future problems”.

Until Motlanthe spoke out, the only high-ranking defenders of “old ANC” values have been former members of Mbeki’s cabinet, easily dismissed as bearing grudges. Mbeki himself, aside from the occasional veiled criticism, has remained silent.

Motlanthe, however, is not easily dismissed in the same fashion. After all, he was publicly supportive and close to Zuma during JZ’s rape and corruption trial traumas.

And he was specifically brought into the Mbeki cabinet after Polokwane by the pro-Zuma faction to protect their interests. In July 2008 Motlanthe was reluctantly drafted as minister without portfolio, in September of that year he became democratic SA’s third president, and by May of 2009 he had surrendered the job to Zuma.

Motlanthe has shown often enough in his career that he is not personally ambitious. That’s unfortunate, since SA desperately needs a leader with gravitas and a grasp of political nuance.

So, despite paranoid fears within the Zuma administration that he might be a stalking horse for some kind of anti-ANC movement, that is unlikely. His remarks may, however, be a sign of some kind of anti-Zuma movement beginning to stir.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye


  • William Saunderson-Meyer

    This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.