Motlanthe book launch fires off ANC leadership race

"Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, honourable ministers Tokyo Sexwale and Trevor Manuel, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe …"

There was a pause as the audience waited for the introductory speaker, Sunday Times editor Ray Hartley, to do the requisite welcome. Instead he burst out with: "Can't you all just lock yourselves in a room and sort out this Mangaung thing?"

The Great Hall at Wits University exploded in a roar of applause, not least from the knot of supporters who had danced in the aisles singing pro-change songs relating to the ANC's elective conference in Mangaung in December and making the notorious "shower sign" in reference to President Jacob Zuma.

Kgalema Motlanthe: A Political Biography by Ebrahim Harvey was launched on Thursday evening after much speculation that the event would finally fire the gun on the reticent Motlanthe's presidential bid.

While official nominations opened last week for the ANC's top six positions after months of skirmishes, Motlanthe refused to comment on nominations in his favour for the top job, saying he would respond within proper channels once the process was concluded.

But Harvey insisted the book wasn't timed to be part of a campaign.

"There is a perception out there that this book was deliberately timed to coincide with Mangaung nominations," he told the audience. "Nothing could be further from the truth. There were numerous delays in getting this book out and it has nothing to do with Mangaung."

He mentioned that the country and the ANC were facing a social and political crisis.

"I think that timing for me is more important than this Mangaung mania."

He said the ANC's attempts to pretend there wasn't a crisis were "ridiculous", to applause.

Nonetheless it was all the publisher's representative could do to get the audience to calm down so that the launch could begin, so vocal was the singing and dancing in Motlanthe's favour. And when he stood up to address the audience, there were several minutes of singing and clapping to welcome him from a packed hall with a crowd of over 1 000 people. One song went "shawara ya re lapisa," or "the shower is making us tired" – again in reference to Zuma who once told the court during his rape trial that he took a shower after having unprotected sex to minimise the risk of contracting HIV/Aids – a comment that earned him huge criticism and is being used by his enemies against him.

Supporters in the audience would also break out into a drawn out bellow of the word "chaaaaange!". Indeed the term became something of a swear word at the event. Or a magic word that summoned enormous roars.

Motlanthe's attempt to tell an anecdote about a literacy and science programme in Italy, where he had just been on a visit, ran into a hurdle when he used the word in a sentence about the children. "They must learn the importance of change –" he didn't get any further as the audience roared in applause and approval. Motlanthe tried to quell the uprise but it we too good an opportunity for his supporters.

"This is science I'm talking about, not names of places." he said dryly. "I can see you are trapped in the geographical location on Mangaung, there are many important things about Mangaung rather than just an ANC conference."

Other audience members included George Bizos, Ahmed Kathrada and Matthews Phosa, who Motlanthe warmly welcomed along with others. The embattled ANC Youth League was also on the scene in the form of acting league president Ronald Lamola and ousted spokesperson Floyd Shivambu.

The Italy anecdote kept running into obstacles, as the audience used every opportunity to voice their support for Motlanthe or their disdain for Zuma. Motlanthe at one point spoke about how ANC cadres had to teach the illiterate among them to write, and how primitive it was. "The first step was to teach an adult how to hold a pen. The second step was to teach them how to draw a straight line. And the third step was to teach them how to draw a circle. And once that was done, that comrade was literate. That's because all letters in the alphabet are a combination of lines and circles and that was we taught many comrades how to be literate," he said.

The hecklers in the audience had a field day with that comment. Zuma was among illiterate who was taught to read and write during his time on Robben Island.

Mantashe gave a mixed introduction ahead of Motlanthe's address. A key Zuma supporter and ally, he is said to be close to Motlanthe too.

"Towards the end of my speech I will explain to those who shout 'change, change' a few things." joked Mantashe. Just before concluding, he said: "To all those shouting change, change, I can assure you I'll change you quite early."

He said he was honoured to attend the launch but had decided to not rewrite the book or do a big review "because I'm not a masters student at Wits," before he admitted to only having read five chapters – and not in order. "I go to those who attract my interest," he said to laughs.

He then commended Motlanthe for writing a book, taking the opportunity to boast of the freedom in the country to do so and then taking a dig at Sexwale and Phosa, who have been vocal in their criticism of the current ANC leadership under Zuma. "Don't just talk," said Mantashe. "Write, write, write."

Motlanthe has remained an enigmatic figure and the book is the first glimpse into the man who was briefly the country's president after the damaging Polokwane conference in 2007 which saw Thabo Mbeki unseated.

In the book, Motlanthe speaks about that period for the first time, saying he was unhappy with how Mbeki was treated and would have preferred to let him finish his term in office.

But Mantashe, in a swipe at the youth league and Motlanthe's support of their rehabilitation said: "Ill-discipline and disrespect is not a function of political education," and noted that leaders had to take responsibility for decisions they were part of making. "Once decisions are taken they are binding on everyone," he said.

Revelations in the book include hints by Motlanthe that Zuma could have been out in the cold if he did not take a stand for him when he was threatened with expulsion from the ANC in 2005.

"Let me tell you that if I did not take that stand – and he [Mr Zuma] knows it – those targeting him will have perhaps finished him off politically," Motlanthe told his biographer, Harvey.

Harvey, sitting near Motlanthe, glowed in his praise of the man.

He thanked Motlanthe for over 200 hours over three years of interview time, as opposed to what he said was Mark Gevisser's 45 hours over six years to write Mbeki's biography. He began the research a few months after Motlanthe took over from Mbeki. He thanked the deputy president for his commitment to the book, and said he hadn't used half the research he had gathered and was tempted to do a second book. He also referenced how it must have been hard for someone so discreet to talk so much about himself.

"I've had friends of his use the word secretive sometimes. So something I congratulate Kgalema about is that he decided to open himself up. Biographies are very intrusive," said Ebrahim. "The man is truly a biographer's delight."

Harvey spent time with Motlanthe while newspapers ran a damaging series of articles about a supposed affair with a 24-year-old woman in 2008. According to Harvey, Motlanthe hardly seemed down in this time and "showed amazing resilience and fortitude".

Motlanthe said he was persuaded to do the biography by a Zimbabwean friend who said it was never possible for political activists to make time to write books and the only way to do it was to make time for interviews that could be recorded and written down.

But he said he wanted the biography to be written by someone who was critical and would assess the work that has done. "I did not want to write a book that would just be positive. If it succeeds in generating debate, in mining our fixed positions, in nudging us and everybody else to question the underpinnings of our institutions as well as the positions that we adopt, that is what I want."

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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