Kgalema Motlanthe: Man of the moment

By William Gumede in Johannesburg
Posted on Monday, 26 January 2009 12:07

When South Africa’s parliament endorsed Kgalema Motlanthe as the country’s interim president in September 2008, the leader of a minority party told a parable about a group of Afrikaner trekkers who mistakenly harness a lion to their wagon.

“The ANC harnessed Mr Motlanthe as a lion today in the dark and current crisis, and we wish him well with that,” said Freedom Front leader Pieter Mulder. “Does the ANC also know how to unharness a lion, should it be necessary?” As South Africa gears up for national elections that will take place in March or April, many have begun to ask whether the controversies swirling around the ruling party’s chosen presidential contender Jacob Zuma might not make Motlanthe a safer bet for the party’s survival.

Profile: Kgalema Motlanthe

The quiet man makes his mark
Read more.

Since his election, Motlanthe’s quiet, self-effacing style has impressed supporters of the ANC and opposition alike, offering an alternative to the flamboyant Zuma, still facing charges of corruption that could taint a future presidency with the threat of legal proceedings. The Supreme Court of Appeal’s decision on 12 January to set aside last year’s controversial High Court decision by Judge Chris Nicholson – which threw out the corruption charges against Zuma – creates more problems for the ANC. This ruling allows state prosecutors to reopen the case against Zuma in the run-up to the elections in which he is standing as the ANC’s presidential candidate.

Publicly, Zuma’s supporters say this ruling changes nothing and Zuma must remain the ANC candidate; privately there are discussions about a ‘political solution’. Above all, the Zuma loyalists reject any notion that their man should give way to Motlanthe.

Disquiet about Motlanthe among Zuma’s allies in the ANC leadership reached a head early in December when party bosses summoned the senior executives of the public broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), to Luthuli House, the ANC’s Johannesburg head-quarters. The SABC executives were read the riot act and instructed to cut down on the ‘positive’ airtime they gave to Motlanthe and to increase coverage of ANC president Jacob Zuma. “We were asked to reduce our coverage of Motlanthe and focus on putting out a better image of Zuma,” said an SABC insider.

ANC bosses complained that Motlanthe was presented as dignified, statesman-like and trustworthy, while Zuma was shown singing and dancing to the militant ANC anthem, ‘Bring me my machine gun’, which has become a trademark of his public appearances.

A message for every man

Zuma’s detractors argue that Motlanthe has inspired public confidence by setting up emergency teams to cushion job losses, proposing international solutions to the global financial crisis and actively encouraging racial and political reconciliation at home. They say that Zuma has appeared to be more inconsistent, tailoring his statements to fit his audience. While reassuring foreign investors that South Africa’s economic policy will remain unchanged, Zuma is equally quick to adopt the language of his trade union allies, promising a ‘developmental state’ with centralised planning capacity and a restructured cabinet. “We are proud of the fiscal discipline, sound macroeconomic management and general manner in which the economy has been managed. That calls for continuity,” Zuma told the United States Chamber of Commerce in November. Two days later he told an ANC meeting in Kempton Park that South Africa needed to build “an effective, developmental state” with “strengthened capacity to plan throughout government by means of a planning entity and a new cabinet system”.

Insiders tell The Africa Report that the decades-old ANC coalition of trade unionists, youth leaders, leftists and nationalists is split between those who want Zuma elected at all costs and those who fear that a continued Zuma campaign may further divide the ANC and damage the party’s electoral prospects.

Hard-line Zuma supporters have long been suspicious that Motlanthe is manoeuvring to outfox Zuma just before he is crowned president. They argue that Motlanthe has deviated from the main-stream ANC on three major issues:

  • He has been faint in his criticism of the splinter party, the Congress of the People (COPE) and has instead talked about post-electoral alliances;
  • He has failed to sign legislation disbanding the Scorpions, the elite investigative unit attached to the National Prosecuting Authority, which was responsible for building the legal case that led to the corruption charges against Zuma;
  • He has taken a strong stand against aspects of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), while Zuma’s campaign is reliant on the generous subsidy of several BEE oligarchs.

While the BEE oligarchs have lavished Zuma with money to safeguard the stream of government tenders and contracts, Motlanthe wants only one BEE deal per company or oligarch. This has outraged the BEE leaders funding Zuma’s campaign, including Zungu Investments Company’s chairman Sandile Zungu, Matodzi Resources’s CEO Sello Rasethaba, and information technology billionaire Robert Gumede, the chairman of GijimaAST. Gumede, a lawyer, has donated R10m ($1m) to the ANC, as has billionaire Tokyo Sexwale. Vivian Reddy, a long-standing business supporter of Zuma, gave R2m.

The compromise candidate

Motlanthe was not the ANC national executive’s first choice for interim president when the leadership forced out former President Thabo Mbeki in September. Rather, they hoped to elect National Assembly speaker (and current deputy president) Baleka Mbete, a more pliant Zuma ally, whom they hoped could smooth the path to his ascent.

Motlanthe timeline

19 July 1946 Born in Alexandra township,
Johannesburg, after his family moved from
Bela Bela, in what is now Limpopo Province.
The youngest of 13 children.

1977 Sentenced under the Terrorism Act to
ten years on Robben Island

1990 Responsible for re-establishing the legal
structures of the ANC in what is now Gauteng
Province and elected its first chairperson

1997 Elected ANC secretary-general under
party president Thabo Mbeki

December 2007 Elected ANC deputy president
at Polokwane, defeating foreign minister
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma by 2,346 votes to 1,444

25 September 2008 Elected by parliament as
interim President of the Republic of South Africa

However, such was the backlash over the indig-nity of Mbeki’s removal that the ANC leadership faced an internal explosion. Even Zuma militants agreed that appointing Mbete or a close Zuma ally would have added fuel to a raging fire.

The ANC leadership chose the person they thought ANC members trusted most to hold the party together. Motlanthe, ANC secretary general for a decade before he was elected deputy president of the party in December 2007, quickly proved to be a steady hand.

He made some shrewd appointments to his cabinet, moving controversial health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (widely known as ‘Dr Beetroot’) to a largely administrative post and replacing her with the competent Barbara Hogan, a former chair of the parliamentary finance committee. He also appointed a new minister for safety and security, promising to move swiftly on rampant crime.

Motlanthe’s every move has been watched by the Zuma camp. Since September, differences in opinion between the two leaders have emerged on several issues. While Motlanthe acknowledged that the formation of COPE showed divisions in the ANC and called for negotiation, Zuma (in Equatorial Guinea at the time) denied the party was in crisis and referred to the dissenters as “charlatans”.

Zuma has remained silent about the disruption of COPE meetings by ANC members, while Motlanthe offered a swift rebuke: “When you create chaos and anarchy deliberately, you undermine the confidence of the people of South Africa. I would really appeal to all those concerned to calm down and act in a responsible manner.”

The lines that divide

However, the dividing lines between the camps are anything but clear. Motlanthe’s stance on BEE has won him some kudos on the left, where some union leaders are nervous of Zuma’s promises of economic continuity. Similarly, Motlanthe’s decision to axe Vusi Pikoli, the former director of public prosecutions, marks him as a party man, answerable to his constituency rather than public opinion.

Importantly, Motlanthe’s backers argue that he would be the ANC’s best defence against the break-away COPE party. With Motlanthe as leader, they say, COPE’s electoral strategy would collapse like a deck of cards, with ANC-doubters more willing to vote for a party without Zuma at the helm.

Zuma, however, has made it clear he will not drop his ambition to become the president of the country, even if he were to be charged by the courts. “There is nothing that says that if you’re charged you cannot take responsibilities. In the ANC the matter does not arise,” Zuma told South African editors at a lunch in November.

Zuma supporters now want the general election to be staged as early as possible, preferably in March, before a possible trial or court hearing. Motlanthe, meanwhile, endorses his right as national president to set a date in consultation with the Independent Electoral Commission, and would most probably settle for a date sometime in April.

Meanwhile, some South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) leaders are quietly hinting their preference for Motlanthe, with his long track record as a unionist. Others are worried about COPE’s apparent success in leaching ANC support by attacking Zuma. There has been talk of trades unionists opposed to Zuma forming a new trades union movement within COPE.

SACP leader Blade Nzimande and Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi deny having held meetings within their organisations criticising Motlanthe for allegedly wanting to displace Zuma, but the reports persist about such machinations.

As 2009 began, the interim president’s ‘state of the nation’ address, which marks the start of the political year in February, became a tussle between pro-Zuma leaders and pro-Motlanthe groups in the ANC leadership. The pro-Zuma groups fear that the occasion will highlight Motlanthe’s presidential credentials, while diminishing Zuma. Pro-Zuma groups want the state of the nation address cancelled and replaced by a political overview by Zuma.

Motlanthe also raised hackles by insisting that ex-president Thabo Mbeki be treated with dignity. He joined his predecessor on a public platform on 16 December, Reconciliation Day, rather than at the official ANC celebrations with Zuma.

Motlanthe outraged Zuma supporters before Christmas when he agreed to consider a request by businessman Hugh Glenister to put legislation disbanding the Scorpions investigation unit before the Constitutional Court.

He also riled Zuma supporters by insisting that although he opposed Mbeki’s centralism, he believed in his economic and diplomatic policies. The pro-Zuma group also criticised Motlanthe’s line on Zimbabwe, which appeared to follow closely that of his predecessor.

Motlanthe chairs the ANC’s powerful Deployment Committee, which appoints ANC cadres to positions in government. Pro-Zuma militants fear he is in a powerful position to catapult allies to key positions in the party and government. These include the Mbeki allies former environment minister Valli Moosa and finance minister Trevor Manuel, whom Motlanthe also appointed to the Deployment Committee. The Zuma camp suspects they are ‘moles’ who will move over to COPE if Zuma does not stand aside for Motlanthe.

Defections to COPE are important in terms of the ANC’s two-thirds legislative majority, required to affect constitutional changes, such as granting Zuma immunity. Several ANC leaders also fear losing their sinecures if the party’s electoral majority is reduced.

However, Motlanthe doesn’t deviate from the party line on the $6bn arms deal signed with European companies in 1999, which lies behind so much of the trouble in the party leadership.

Ghosts and anniversaries

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and former South African President F. W. de Klerk launched a fresh campaign in December for a formal commission to investigate the arms deal. The two sent Motlanthe a petition signed by activists from across the political spectrum demanding an inquiry to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Motlanthe demurred, echoing Mbeki’s claim that the deal was not compromised by corruption.

A deciding factor may be the likely performance of COPE. Motlanthe’s supporters say that the break-away party’s momentum could be halted if Zuma withdrew from the presidential race and allowed Motlanthe to continue. At its most recent meeting, the ANC National Executive Committee discussed omitting Zuma’s face from the official paraphernalia of the ANC’s election campaign.

Zuma is very unlikely to stand down – so the quarrelling between the two camps looks set to continue unless there is some sort of deal. Zuma is said to have told Motlanthe that he would be president for one term only and that Motlanthe would succeed him. One key question is whether that timetable will survive intact.

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