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Kgalema Motlanthe: Real change or more of the same?

Verashni Pillay

Kgalema Motlanthe's incredible reticence lets his supporters believe whatever they want - a lot like they did with Jacob Zuma, argues Verashni Pillay.

Kgalema Motlanthe's incredible reticence lets his supporters believe whatever they want - a lot like they did with Jacob Zuma, argues Verashni Pillay.

Kgalema Motlanthe is a lot like a supermodel. 

No, not skinny and vacuous with a penchant for the three Cs: carrots, cocaine and crappy boyfriends (though we're not mad about his choice in partner, to be honest).

Rather, Motlanthe reminds me of a supermodel in how all really great models are never really anything at all. They're just an expertly blank canvas upon which one can create an idea or conjure up a fantasy. They are the perfect mirror for our own desires – or that of the designer they're working for. 

Can anyone really say what Motlanthe stands for? He is being touted as a replacement to the weak and compromised Jacob Zuma come the ANC's elective conference in December and, if he wins, the country's future president: hence our current obsession with him. But there have been no strong statements of leadership renewal or policy plans from his corner. Instead, Motlanthe has repeated one mantra every time the ANC's succession race is discussed: he is a servant of the party and will do as he is required to.

Granted, this is the official line from any of our ruling party's clever politicians: they echo the once noble philosophy of the liberation movement that long ago sincerely put the collective ahead of the individual.

But these days it is just a convenient political tool that lets loyal ANC cadres off the hook. By invoking the mantra, they never have to commit to a single action or opinion. It's all about processes and collective mandates and blah blah blah. Just try pinning down Zuma on anything tricky and you'll see what I mean. Everything is at the will of the amorphous and unknown party.

But it's not that simple. It can't be. Lobbying for individuals is the only way that those within the ANC, and us outside watching and waiting, can change the direction of the ruling party, and thus the direction in which the country is going.

And so, we had the election of Zuma in 2007 when people got properly tired of Thabo Mbeki. But, as many have pointed out, a lot of those votes weren't really for Zuma but against Mbeki. And accordingly, after Zuma became president, he soon appeared to be an expert at saying whatever his audience wanted to hear. 

Five years later I can't help but wonder if we're in the same position. Do people really know what they're getting with Motlanthe? I don't.

I attended the launch of his biography, which was touted as his clearest indication yet that he would challenge Zuma at the end of the year. 

The audience and some of the speakers were clearly convinced that the launch was to be an election rally but if you listened objectively, Motlanthe was careful to give very little away. Unless you had your mind made up, as much of his audience did. For example, most of his speech dwelt on a long and somewhat boring anecdote about a literacy project in Italy. Boy did his supporters read all sorts of things into that. They heard the code word of "change" repeatedly, saw hidden references belittling Zuma, watched and absorbed with glowing eyes as a rapturous speech of great intent was made by a mighty leader. Me? Call me crazy but I heard a long and somewhat boring anecdote about a literacy project in Italy.

Afterwards I left the venue and bumped into former ANC Youth League presidential hopeful Andile Lungisa. He had that shiny look in his eyes and there was no expensive whiskey around so I quickly realised he had heard the rapturous version of the speech, not the prosaic one my brain conveyed to me. 

"Did you hear that," he asked breathlessly. And then the decoding began: the anecdote about teaching illiterate adults how to read and write was a brilliant dig that had completely undermined Zuma's credibility. The use of the word "change" throughout the speech was the work of a tactical genius. And the crowning glory of it all: his quote at the end of his speech was nothing less than a resounding statement of intent that he would stand as president. The phrase was up there with Yes We Can and I Have a Dream.

What is the quote, you ask? It was this: Motlanthe closed his cryptic speech by saying that, should a tombstone be erected on his grave, he would want the words "others made suggestions and he implemented" engraved upon it. 

And really, that is it in a nutshell. Motlanthe's ANC backers support him because he, or rather his campaigners, promise them change, which is just as good as a holiday. Or something. Either way, it's better than Zuma and the disappointments he's meted out to them.

Middle-class South Africans dig him because he's a bit more palatable, what with that smart goatee, lack of multiple wives and dignified air. Or silence. Again, either way, it's better than Zuma and his cringe-inducing statements.

The ANC Youth League, Motlanthe's most vocal supporters, have that manic fanboy thing going that they perfected for Zuma, which smacks just a little of absent-father issues. (When that wears off, you'll notice the teenage rage they'll direct his way when he dares to let them down – just ask Zuma.)

Meanwhile Motlanthe smiles and nods, and says remarkably little. Forget the worrying statements he's made in the past, about ARVs, "gullible whites" or Zimbabwe's politics. These have been neatly glossed over by his biographer and we're left with a shiny surface on to which we can project all our hopes, wishes and desperate dreams for our country. But, if Motlanthe is bent on implementing the suggestions of others, he may well be paralysed by the sheer weight and diversity of those suggestions. Again, just ask Zuma.

So don't expect too much change should Motlanthe be elected. Beside general platitudes, we have had very little from him to indicate it won't be more of the same from a party largely running out of ideas and integrity.

  • Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G Online. You can read her column here, and follow her on Twitter here.

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