Some clues to Mr Evasive
KGALEMA MOTLANTHE: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY by Ebrahim Harvey (Jacana)
When I first heard that Ebrahim Harvey was writing a book about Kgalema Motlanthe, I was immediately sceptical, knowing the fawning respect Harvey has for the deputy president. I had seen in several interviews he conducted with Motlanthe for the Mail & Guardian the obsequious line of his questioning. Some of these gems included:
• “I was struck by the fact that the day after a Sunday paper reported that some in the ANC leadership wanted to embarrass you, the Sowetan newspaper carried a story about your marital problems, which I thought was particularly invasive, derogatory and in fact vicious. What did you make of that story and continuing stories of that nature in newspapers over the past month?”
• “I think it is no mere coincidence that the recent newspaper stories of your love life – including the ones about a young women who claimed you impregnated her but subsequently denied it – come at the same time that you have been under sustained attack by some in the ANC. I think there is a conscious connection. Your response?”
• “What message do you want to send to your faceless detractors in the ANC, following the great deal of adverse publicity recently, some of which were attributed to unnamed sources in the national executive committee?”
On the basis of such interviews, I felt Harvey looked like no more than a fan, in the most cringeworthy way, parading as an objective freelance journalist. I also heard that he was pretty adversarial in interviews he conducted for the book, particularly with people who were critical of Motlanthe.
So when Kgalema Motlanthe: A Biography landed in my hands, I had mixed emotions: yes, we need a book on an ANC leader who looks impressive on the surface but is mostly an unknown quantity, but did it have to be Harvey who wrote it?
But I must conclude that it is a useful book — as long as you make peace with Harvey’s deep respect for Motlanthe. This is not a sin and probably explains why Harvey wanted to write the book.
At its launch, Motlanthe himself said he had agreed to the book being written because it would be critical and because he hoped it would generate debate and lead to “question[ing] the underpinnings of positions we adopt”.
He was responding to ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe’s comments to the effect that he was surprised Motlanthe had even consented to letting a book be written about him, given that he has never wanted to draw attention to himself.
The book contains important biographical information about this man who may be a future (as well as being a past) president. Basic information about where he grew up and his family lineage will dispel notions once peddled to political reporters that he was not really South African.
The public has also wondered whether he had a wife or children and, if he did, where they are – and Harvey answers these questions. Until a year ago, when he appeared in public with Gugu Mtshali, he had never been seen with a partner – not even at his inauguration in 2008, an auspicious occasion. He held the presidential fort for eight months after Thabo Mbeki was forced out by the ANC.
Unfortunately, the timing of the book’s publication will raise the suspicion that it was meant to coincide with the ANC’s Mangaung conference in two months’ time, which will have a great bearing on Motlanthe’s future in South African politics. Harvey denies it, of course.
But the best part is that Harvey assesses the man at each important period of his life and does his best to lay out the facts.
Commended and criticised
Despite his admiration for his subject, Harvey does not gloss over embarrassing episodes in Motlanthe’s life. These include controversial decisions he took, including the firing of national director of prosecutions Vusi Pikoli, the refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a visa, his involvement in the Oilgate scandal, the ANC hoax email saga and many others.
Motlanthe gave Harvey 180 hours of his time for interviews and each chapter contains his voice, indicating that he wanted his story told. And the book delves into his mannerisms and leadership style, which are both commended and criticised. These chapters should interest those who are trying to gauge his mind on Mangaung and to work out what kind of leader he would make if he were given a term as South Africa’s president.
There is no doubt he is self-effacing, but the question is whether that is a strength or a weakness. On the weakness side, some interviewees in the book say it means he was indecisive at crucial times, too soft and that, during his term as ANC secretary general, he was thus dominated by Mbeki.
On the plus side, it means he is not driven solely by ambition to occupy important positions, he does not take decisions in a populist way and, frustratingly for his opponents, will not be coerced into a leadership deal. As the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked: “No man had ever a defect that was not somewhere made useful to him. Every man in his lifetime needs to thank his fault.”
In the final analysis, Motlanthe is a leader who is extremely difficult to predict. He is a pragmatist who takes what he sees as the “right” decision each time, which will be frustrating for those lobbying for him as well as for outsiders looking for signs of what policies he might adopt.
Harvey’s book is a good start in unpacking Motlanthe’s thinking.