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The quiet man makes his mark

By William Gumede in Johannesburg
Posted on Monday, 26 January 2009 12:28

“Being president… please, no thank you,” he said. Far from being the usual ambitious politician, Motlanthe is almost the opposite of the populist (and popular) ANC president Jacob Zuma. The contrast is also seen in his reflective style and his quiet private life.

After attending an Anglican missionary school in Alexandra township, Motlanthe had considered becoming a priest before being influenced by the student uprisings and the Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970s.

Born in July 1949, Motlanthe later acquired the nickname ‘Mkhuluwa’ (the Elder One) in deference to his apparent wisdom and seniority — although he is not much older than other ANC leadership contenders. He joined the ANC in his early 20s while working for the Johannesburg City Council.

His role in sending ANC recruits for military training outside the country earned him a ten-year prison sentence on Robben Island in 1977. There he quickly established a rapport with veteran ANC leader Walter Sisulu.

On his release in 1987, the ANC leadership asked him to strengthen the trades union movement. As a senior member of the National Union of Mineworkers, Motlanthe gained a reputation as a cool-headed negotiator, pioneering a deal in the late 1980s that linked wage increases to productivity and commodity-price cycles.

As interim national president he has rounded on ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema and has defended the constitution and judiciary against political manipulation.

Motlanthe has generally kept his distance from South Africa’s new oligarchs, but he has been asked about business deals with which his name was linked – involvement on behalf of the ANC in the ‘oil-for-food’ programme for Iraq in 2001 and a stake in the food company Pamodzi Investment Holdings, which received a controversial R800m loan from the Land Bank in 2006.

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