Decoding Kgalema: Enigmatic pretender to the throne
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s left-leaning politics, policy positions and fitness to govern have come under scrutiny since he recently informed his confidants in the ANC that he was ready to challenge Jacob Zuma for the party’s highest position in Mangaung at the end of the year.
Motlanthe remains an enigma and not much is known about him, his ideological approach on issues, or his position on the democratisation and socioeconomic transformation of South Africa.
Motlanthe, whose politics are rooted in the internal mass democratic movement that challenged the powerful state during the last days of apartheid, has so far not publicly announced his plans to challenge Zuma. But his close allies have indicated that he will enter the race when the ANC officially opens nominations by the branches in October.
The ANC Youth League is leading a campaign to replace Zuma with Motlanthe and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe with Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula.
The anti-Zuma voices on the ANC national executive committee and national working committee that are calling for leadership change include the party’s treasurer general, Mathews Phosa, NEC member Tony Yengeni and Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale.
Motlanthe’s supporters in the party argue that he should succeed Zuma because he is worthy to hold the highest office, given his history as a unifier and a strategist of note, and his being without equal in terms of his ability to resolve conflict among warring factions in the alliance.
But there have been controversies tainting his otherwise good reputation both inside and outside the party.
Motlanthe has been closely associated with the ANC front company Chancellor House, which the Mail & Guardian first exposed in 2006.
He has repeatedly insisted that the company will not do business with the government, but it continues to benefit from its partnership with Hitachi Power Africa, which won the contract from Eskom to supply crucial components to the giant Medupi power station currently being built. Critics point out not only the conflict of interest this represents, but also the delays in the construction linked to Hitachi Power. Chancellor House has also operated in regulated industries, notably mining, where it may well be able to secure preferment from the government without contracting directly with the state.
Motlanthe was central to the efforts to secure oil allocations from Saddam Hussein for ANC donor Sandi Majali and has never fully answered questions about his role in the apparent corruption surrounding the United Nations’ oil-for-food programme.
But his numerous supporters list a number of qualities they believe make him the ideal person to lead South Africa beyond the Zuma years. They say he is not a demagogue, populist or careerist and abhors anarchy, unprincipled behaviour, patronage, palace politics and the factionalism afflicting the party today.
According to ANC senior leader and former Mbombela mayor Lassy Chiwayo, Motlanthe is one of the few leaders in the ANC today who can straddle with ease all classes and sectors that constitute the broader movement. Chiwayo worked with Motlanthe during the turbulence of the early 1990s.
He said: “As ANC regional chair, he played an instrumental role in bringing [together] the different strands of ANC members drawn from returned exiles, political prisoners, underground operatives, mass democratic movement structures, the trade union movement and self-defence units, from which he commanded admiration, respect and support.”
Although influenced by leftist theories, Motlanthe’s comrades say he is not an outright leftist in the mould of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. One ANC leader close to the deputy president likened him to Neil Kinnock, the former British Labour Party head who gave Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher sleepless nights during her reign.
“He is a product of the left and could be best described as a social democrat,” said Chiwayo. “He definitely sees transformation and democratisation beyond the confines of capital.”
Former ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama, who worked closely with Motlanthe while the latter was still ANC secretary general, described him as sober, profound, a voracious reader and a deep thinker.
“He is not someone who blows his own trumpet,” said Ngonyama. “He is always reluctant to push himself on issues. People ignore him because he is modest.
“He does not put too much [of a] label on himself as a Marxist-Leninist or something. He puts more effort [into] people.”
Ngonyama believes that Motlanthe could fix the current crisis facing the ANC as it enters its second century and faces the possibility of losing power at some point in the future.
Many in the ANC and outside the party believe the disciplinary action against ANC Youth League leaders would have been handled differently if Motlanthe had been at the helm. It is understood that he favoured a political solution to the youth league impasse rather than disciplinary action.
Ngonyama, who defected to the Congress of the People after the recall of former president Thabo Mbeki, said Motlanthe did not believe in the politics of factionalism as the practice was destroying organisations.
“Even when we concluded the youth were [being] destructive, he would insist we should give them time to speak,” said Ngonyama. “He believes in correcting issues before he takes action. He believes discipline should not be punitive.”
Matlala, who was chief negotiator for the National Union of Mineworkers when Motlanthe was the union’s general secretary in the early 1990s, said he was a good listener.
“This is why it is easy to associate with him, irrespective of your cluster,” said Matlala. “He remains ordinary when he is with the poor and the rich.”
Ngonyama said Motlanthe’s leadership style had earned him a lot of respect, even among opposition parties in Parliament. “This is because he answers questions [from the opposition] not in a dismissive manner. He is not a man of grandstanding.”
Although Motlanthe appears to enjoy wide support, his detractors question his lack of judgment in the Oilgate scandal, the Pamodzi Investment Holdings’ R12billion loans scandal and his role in the hoax emails scandal.
Former director in the presidency Frank Chikane, who thinks highly of Motlanthe, wrote in his book Eight Days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki that he had tried twice to warn Motlanthe that the emails were false: “The language used in my name in official communications was so outrageous that no one could ever believe them. In fact, the emails were like cut-and-paste texts.”
Motlanthe’s detractors say he upset a lot of ANC leaders after he distributed copies of the email at an NEC meeting, giving them credence.
The involvement of his romantic partner, Gugu Mtshali, in a scandal—after she allegedly solicited a R104-million “bribe” to obtain government support for a South African company trying to clinch a R2-billion sanctions-busting deal with Iran—raised concerns about his reputation as a man of integrity.
However, his supporters pointed out that he acted with integrity when he immediately asked the office of the public protector to investigate any wrongdoing in
Motlanthe’s critics have also dismissed him as “inefficient, indecisive and lacking a backbone”.
An ANC leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the M&G that Motlanthe had not been the best ANC secretary general and accused him of being responsible for the collapse of branches during his term in office.
A political life in brief
Kgalema Motlanthe was born on July 19 1949 in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township.
As a student activist, he was influenced by the ideologies of the Black Consciousness Movement and its leader, Steve Biko. He was detained for 11 months for furthering the aims of the ANC and was again arrested in 1977 and sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island.
Motlanthe is a former ANC chairperson of the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging area (now Gauteng), former secretary general of the National Union of Mineworkers and former ANC secretary general, succeeding Cyril Ramaphosa.
Among the leaders who inspired Motlanthe are Rivonia trialist Govan Mbeki, radical ANC leader Harry Gwala, South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani and former president Nelson Mandela.
Motlanthe in his own words
On the ANC’s relationship with the Bretton Woods institutions:
“It is very fashionable for people to say that the macroeconomic policy of the country was dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.”
“No, no, it’s not going to happen.”
On the economy:
“Contrary to the view that there must be less state involvement in the economy, the lessons from the recent economic crises corroborate our enduring position that more state involvement is sought to secure [the] orderly socioeconomic development of [South Africa’s] citizenry.”
On the party:
“Among others, the ANC must studiously avoid substituting itself and its leaders for the people. Instead, it must be a vehicle for the people’s aspirations.”
On the party’s future:
“No organisation is guaranteed eternal life based only on its historic achievements alone, or merely because it fashioned the course to freedom. Organisations are sustained through long-term visions resulting from conscious actions taken today in the interest of present and future generations — The reason for this is that the masses of our people still trust the ANC to carry out its historic mission in a manner that upholds its founding principles, while at the same time keeping tabs on epochal imperatives that beset it.”
On the youth league:
“We need the youth league to be militant, determined and creative. It is that kind of youth league that we need. This dynamism of the youth league will allow the ANC to remain on its toes as it moves to accelerate socioeconomic transformation.”
On the national democratic revolution:
“But comrades, revolution is deliberate. Revolution is never by accident—revolution is deliberate and it is methodical. And so it is important that we must always test whether we are organised correctly to advance the revolution.”
On the party’s renewal:
“An organisation is only relevant to the extent that it is radical.”
On the ANC’s 100 years:
“Thus the success of the next 100 years of the ANC will be judged on our ability to raise a new generation of South Africans that has equal access to opportunities and development resources to build a prosperous nation.”
On the land question and its expropriation without compensation:
“You will not have that outside of the law.”
“From a national standpoint, the enviable rents from these resources should be used to develop the economy as a whole, not to profit a handful of mining companies.”
On global leadership:
“There is therefore a dire need to question age-old doctrines that have occasioned nothing but untold misery for people in the developing South so that we begin to reimagine a new world—a new humanity—by values other than greed and sheer rapine.”—Charles Molele, Matuma Letsoalo and Michelle Pietersen