Justice Malala: How Motlanthe lost Mangaung
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe will soon have a bit of time on his hands and, given that he loves reading, he might want to turn his mind to penning a book. It should be a book on political strategy and on how not to run a political campaign.
President Jacob Zuma’s emphatic victory on Tuesday is not just about what Zuma did. It is largely about what Motlanthe and his ineffectual band of supporters did not do.
Faced with a scandal-wracked opponent, they failed to capitalise on the jelly of weakness before them. They hummed and hawed, they prevaricated and feinted. They know nothing about going for the jugular. They failed signally in their quest, and university professors will now have a field day using them as an example of how not to just lose, but also how to give it away on a platter.
Lesson 1: You have to want to win, and want to win badly. Motlanthe has again and again been given a chance to come out clearly and pronounce that he was standing. He gave vague answers most times, refused to answer during the rest of his opportunities and stood and bit his nails. His supporters claimed that he was doing this on principle; that he did not want to go out of the precepts of the ANC. This is nonsense. An election was on, Zuma and his faction were campaigning, and there was absolutely no reason for Motlanthe not to declare. He came across as weak, indecisive and not deserving of the position. The highlight of this was that when he declared his bid for presidency, with just days to go till the electoral conference, he was still “agonising” over the bid. Imagine what that said to his support base inside and outside of the party.
Lesson 2: Choose your friends well. The noises around Motlanthe as a future ANC president were started by the loud and politically immature ANC Youth League and its now-expelled president Julius Malema. From June 2010 these political “brats” became the face of the Motlanthe campaign.
They hurt him. They printed T-shirts in his name; they sang songs in praise of him. Many sober ANC members looked at all this and refused to have anything to do with a candidate whose foot soldiers were the likes of the rude Malema and his even ruder spokesperson Floyd Shivambu. They might not have liked Zuma, but to go with an ANC under Motlanthe in which Malema was emboldened was a bridge too far.
Lesson 3: Never underestimate your opponent. Jacob Zuma is not to be trifled with. He is wily, strategic, scheming and, most importantly, he is acutely aware that he must preserve and protect himself at all times - failing to do so could see him land up in front of a court of law on corruption or other charges. He will not swat off a challenge. He will crush it.
One of Zuma’s masterstrokes throughout this campaign was to identify the fact that he needed a big, legitimate player on his slate to win over the middle-class, educated, elite within the ANC. If the sober and respected Motlanthe was not going to run with him, then he would find himself another candidate. He found Cyril Ramaphosa, a man wounded by Thabo Mbeki in the past and now a darling of the business world – and he convinced him to be his running mate. Many in the Motlanthe camp would happily work with Ramaphosa, and so they thought: “Zuma cannot be so bad after all”.
Lesson 4: Don’t get the starting blocks out early but don’t leave it too late either. We only really knew that Motlanthe was running against Zuma days before the conference. By then Zuma had gathered a sizeable group of delegates on his side and was in the last, intense round of his campaigning. Motlanthe woke up as the result was being announced.
Lesson 5: Focus. Motlanthe’s grouping campaigned as though it was running in a general election. He has become popular in South Africa’s general populace, but the branches are not with him at all. This is simply because he did not focus on the branches. It is a fatal mistake to make in ANC politics. Mbeki did the same thing in 2007, when he thought the scandals around Zuma would make him unelectable in the ANC. He was wrong.
Lesson 6: Run a tight team. It was clear that the Motlanthe team would be humiliated when Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa split their own side and contested against each other for the deputy president’s position. Ramaphosa beat them so humiliatingly the result was embarrassing and exposed them for their lack of judgment. This was because they did not have a team, just a loose bunch of ambitious leaders.
Lesson 7: Have a consistent message. What was the difference between Zuma and Motlanthe’s message? Zuma’s was “continuity”, an old ANC mantra, and Kgalema’s supporters spoke about a change of leadership, nothing else – and not consistently.
For this reason the delegates punished them. Voters at every level do not like empty suits, no matter how flashy they are.