Though Kgalema accepted Jacob Zuma's offer to serve as his deputy after the 2009 elections, as a loyal cadre of the ANC, he had many serious concerns with much that happened since the December 2007 Polokwane Conference, during the eight months he was president, and after Zuma's administration came to office in 2009.
Kgalema had grown politically and personally in his time as president, short though it was. Most of all, he says, it made him see the strategic goal of the ANC more clearly: the creation of a united, non-racial and non-sexist democracy. "It compels you to take a much broader view of matters and from the vantage point of the presidency you can actually pursue that goal more effectively, like on national days you talk to the whole country and get to know and understand the general situation much better."
Kgalema was acutely aware at the start of the Zuma administration in 2009 that government is so complex and multifaceted, new cruxes arise even for the most experienced.
For him they are a constant feature of governance, especially in South Africa where, important as non-racial political democracy is, there is a yawning chasm between it and the true social justice still seriously lacking for millions of poor people. The shortfall is compounded by the lack of requisite skills, education and experience, as ANC rule since 1994 has made all too evident.
Kgalema's hopes for the new Zuma term were dashed in several major respects, but he does not try to distance himself from the problems. The situation for the poor majority, relations between the ANC and its allies (especially Cosatu) and the state of affairs within the ANC itself are all on the whole very much as they were under Mbeki. For the poor, in fact, it is arguable that conditions have worsened, mainly through the growing economic crisis starting in late 2008 and the results of some of our own economic and social policies.
While acknowledging the positive changes that Polokwane ushered in, Kgalema's biggest hope was that the new administration would once and for all settle several major problems afflicting the party and government. He certainly did not expect that the new leadership would end up doing some things they had accused Mbeki of: witch-hunting and behaving with an overbearing triumphalist arrogance (from the power that Polokwane had given the victors) and even a sense of vengeance. He is convinced that the central theme of renewal to restore the ANC's decades-long stand on values and principles of unity, solidarity, comradeship and selflessness was not realised after Polokwane, and thinks this was because many of the victors there had not grasped what the main problems were in the Mbeki administration. If they had, he believes, many of the troubles in that regime would not have been repeated after the 2009 elections.
On how people behaved in top positions, he had hoped that his discussions with the rest of the ANC leadership while he was president would help to correct those who were abusing their powers in the party and especially in government. Here he was disappointed. At a time when many ANC leaders can be particularly self-seeking and arrogant, his hope is still to cultivate a much more considerate, sensitive and respectful leadership to serve the ANC and the country. His wish is to see the emergence of leaders with the qualities of Walter Sisulu, who for him best embodied the values of the ANC. He is totally unimpressed by egotistic and pompous leaders.
Kgalema has been seen as something of a role model too. It was with his integrity in mind that Lord Robin Renwick said of him: "There is no South African leader since Nelson Mandela who is more highly respected overseas, as he is seen to embody the best virtues of the old guard of the ANC". Clearly Kgalema himself is not a seeker after power. When he does acquire it, he exercises it with caution, sensitivity and respect for others, whether he is dealing with ordinary voters or workers, his staff, a minister or a visiting president. He will accord the same respect to members of the chief opposition, the DA, that he gives to ANC members, for example. He conducted himself like that when he took over from Mbeki and he still does so as deputy president. Unsurprisingly, Adriaan Groenewald of Business Report found him deeply respectful of 'all people'.
The country is still grappling to settle the relationship between the three arms of the state (the executive, legislature and the judiciary) and their individual powers, especially the role of the judiciary. Here Kgalema calls for less heat and more light in discussions. As we have seen, he deplores labelling the judiciary – and anything else – as counterrevolutionary (an expression of siege mentality among many in the ruling party).
Other concerns for Kgalema are the continued abuse of state organs for political ends; a lack of unity and trust among top party officials; a destructive preoccupation with succession issues and less with services to people; a steady departure from the fraternal, unitary and renewal themes at Polokwane; a corrosive factionalism and careerism that has become rampant. His hope was that with time these things would improve. Instead they have got worse since Mbeki's time in office.
He is truly committed to the need for the ANC to be the real centre of power and is disappointed that, despite his efforts to strengthen its position so that it would control the government it elected more effectively, Cabinet still appears to have the upper hand over Luthuli House. In fact it seems that since 1994 the executive has been far more dominant and even domineering.
Kgalema is deeply unhappy to see leftists from Cosatu and the SACP go into government with the intention of transforming it into a more effective instrument for emancipation and then, all too often, from one administration to the next, being sucked into the corrosive vortex of incumbency. He believes that precisely because of this trend it is the duty of the ANC to intervene and put an end to such domination by the executive.
He is of the view that corruption in government, which has certainly increased since 2009, has much to do with a serious problem in the ANC itself:
If you are in a position of power in the ANC you are also in a position to influence major decisions regarding tenders and decisions on all kinds of things. The system as a whole, the capitalist system, operates on the basis of buying its way through. So there will be many people who bring this and that present to you. Sometimes they don't want anything in return and yet the point is that they are opening doors. Some day they may knock on your door and say 'You remember …' That is how the system works. It consumes you if you are not very careful.
A main point for him is that, since it is the ANC that wins elections and deploys people to various state institutions, it is the party's responsibility to ensure not only that policies adopted are implemented in government but that problems in government that pose a threat to its policies and interests are speedily and effectively dealt with.
It is not enough simply to blame Zuma, any more than it was to blame Mbeki in the past. Matters are much more complex, with so many factors involved. It is true, though, that the buck stops finally with the head of state.
Three years into the Zuma administration and after many disappointments, Kgalema still cherishes the hope that things could change to move the country out of a pervasive sense of crisis and paralysis in government on many fronts. Cosatu's Vavi sums it up: 'We will not get out of this crisis, comrades, while there is paralysis at the top.' A great deal of damage has been done since 2009 that cannot be fixed quickly. Debilitating factionalist campaigning is already evident in the run-up to Mangaung. It is thus very unlikely that much will change substantially for the better in the rest of this presidential term, either in the ANC or in government. It is this state of affairs that gives Kgalema sleepless nights rather than what happens at Mangaung.
- Kgalema Motlanthe: A Political Biography launches this week