Kgalema Motlanthe hits the sweet spot
Kgalema Motlanthe has finally found his groove and is playing a more influential role in our society
But it helps to have at the helm people willing to take advice and listen to the voices of others
● At the ANC’s 53rd national conference in Mangaung in 2012, Kgalema Motlanthe ran against Jacob Zuma for leadership of the ANC. History could have turned out differently for South Africa had he won and gone on to be elected president.
It is difficult to say, however, what kind of president Motlanthe would have been had he served a full term in office. It is not in his nature to posture or beat his own drum.
It was only last weekend that Motlanthe articulated a vision for the country, not as president but perhaps as “elder brother president”.
Opening his foundation’s inclusive growth conference in the Drakensberg, Motlanthe emphasised the need for “collaborative thought, action and investment in the advancement of our democracy, towards the occasioning of a new epoch”.
He said: “Above all else, it is my distinct and sincere hope that this conference will inspire us to devote our energies and creative abilities towards bringing forth practical ideas that will propel our nation forward. Through sharing ideas, building consensus and developing implementable action plans, in collaboration with existing initiatives, we can ensure that the potential and goals of the next decade are met.”
Motlanthe has never before defined himself as someone who could marshal society to intervene to get things right. He has always worked within the
ANC collective and was mindful not to be seen as ambitious.
He was a rather reluctant candidate for the ANC presidency in 2012, not really in it to win it.
At the Mangaung conference, Motlanthe lost the presidency to Zuma and then declined to contest the position of ANC deputy president. He did not want to run against Cyril Ramaphosa, who went on to win the position.
In the hurly-burly of South African politics, politicians rarely have deference for one another. But there seems to be a genuine affinity between Motlanthe and Ramaphosa.
This is probably due to the fact that they have never competed against each other but instead have been playing a game of tag for around three decades.
Motlanthe referred to some of their role-swapping history when he introduced Ramaphosa as the keynote speaker at last weekend’s retreat in the mountains.
Their relationship goes back to 1987 when Motlanthe was released from Robben Island after a 10-year term. Ramaphosa, then general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, hired Motlanthe as the union’s education officer.
When Ramaphosa left the NUM to take up the position of ANC secretary-general in 1991, Motlanthe filled his seat at the union in an acting capacity. He was later formally elected as NUM general secretary.
Ramaphosa resigned as ANC secretary-general in January 1997 to head for the private sector. That December, Motlanthe was elected ANC secretarygeneral. Ramaphosa remained in the ANC national executive committee, receiving the highest number of votes at the 1997 conference.
High-level musical chairs
In 2007, at the ANC’s 52nd conference in Polokwane, Motlanthe was elected deputy president. Five years later, Ramaphosa joined the Zuma ticket and replaced Motlanthe as the ANC’s second-in-command.
It is not only in the ANC that the two have been following in each other’s steps. Both stepped up to become president when the ANC recalled the incumbents, Thabo Mbeki in 2008 and Zuma in February this year.
Motlanthe was South Africa’s president from September 2008 to May 2009, and then served as deputy president until 2014.
Ramaphosa’s ascent had a more logical sequence. He took Motlanthe’s place as deputy president in 2014 and was elected as the country’s fifth democratic president four months ago.
From the time he left government in 2014, Motlanthe has kept a low profile. The ANC’s undertaking that he would be running political education in party structures turned out to be an empty promise.
Motlanthe has been restless about the state of the ANC and the government for some time. In his secretary-general’s report at the Polokwane conference, he rang the alarm bells about how factionalism and leadership contestation were corroding the ANC, and the debilitating effect of patronage on the functioning of the government.
“The possibility of division between elected structures of the movement on the one hand, and government appointees on the other, is very real. The movement is then utilised as a power base from which to undermine the effective functioning of government, to create conditions for access to resources for those who perceive themselves to have been excluded. On the other hand, access to resources on the part of cadres deployed to government is utilised through the mechanisms of patronage to win particular outcomes within the structures of the movement,” Motlanthe said in 2007.
The warning went unheeded and by the time he left the ANC leadership in 2012, the state had been captured by the Guptas and the party was in the grip of the Zuma network.
Like many ANC veterans, Motlanthe became alienated from the ANC, particularly after expressing concern about corruption and immorality and the movement’s state of decline.
Motion of no confidence
In November 2015, Zuma taunted Motlanthe for his comments that the tripartite alliance was dead and existed in name only.
“I read something in the newspapers where one comrade, who has been respected for a long time, said that the alliance is dead. People are exposing themselves that they are politically bankrupt. They are now sitting at home lonely,” Zuma said at the ANC provincial conference in KwaZulu-Natal.
He turned the criticism on Motlanthe.
“If the ANC is weak, they weakened it when they were in the leadership of the ANC. Why do they have wisdom now, when they are sitting out there? When they were inside, we did not see that wisdom,” Zuma said.
The message was clear: shut up and stay out of it; the ANC is mine to destroy.
In April 2017, I interviewed Motlanthe at his foundation offices in Johannesburg. The country was raw and hurting at the time. It was a few days after Ahmed Kathrada’s funeral and Zuma’s midnight cabinet reshuffle when he fired Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas.
Motlanthe had received a standing ovation for his eulogy at the funeral, during which he read sections of Kathrada’s letter to Zuma imploring him to step down as president.
A motion of no confidence had been scheduled against Zuma and ANC MPs were being threatened with disciplinary action.
Motlanthe dared to fly very close to the sun.
He said MPs who voted against Zuma would not be committing an act of misconduct in terms of the ANC constitution.
I asked him if he would have voted in favour of the motion if he were still in parliament.
“Yes. Yes I would.”
New Dawn, new role
South Africa is another country now and Motlanthe has a different relationship with the serving president. In the New Dawn, Motlanthe is able to step up to the role of elder statesman without his successor being threatened or resentful.
Ramaphosa instead embraced the initiative by Motlanthe’s foundation to gather together many of the country’s foremost thought-leaders, business people, academics, civil society leaders and veterans to help chart a course out of South Africa’s economic paralysis.
Speaking at the conference last Friday, Ramaphosa said the forum was important and timely to realise “the South Africa we dream of”.
He added: “It will not be achieved without appropriate policy choices, effective planning, clear evidence, sound data and broad collaboration. It will not be achieved without political will, courageous leadership and the mobilisation of all social forces behind an ambitious programme of economic and social transformation.”
Better leaders at the helm
South Africa had not yet turned the corner, Motlanthe said in an interview during the Berg gathering. “But it helps to have at the helm people willing to take advice and listen to the voices of others.”
Motlanthe positioned his conference to delve into the state capture project, which he refers to as “the high-spirited mischief that occasioned the present South African reality”.
He said: “We needed to understand the gravity of the challenges that we face. That’s why it was necessary to restate what has gone wrong, wrap our heads around what needs to be done to move forward.”
Tackling the delegitimisation of the state required leadership as well as “ensuring that wrongdoing leads to consequences”, Motlanthe said.
“People will know and the message will spread right across society if they see that wrongdoing is not countenanced, it is not going to be tolerated. That in itself will be a wonderful starting point.”
Motlanthe would like his foundation to make the inclusive growth conference an annual event, because he believes the way for South Africa to extricate itself from its present muddle is to bring people together to collaborate on a common vision.
“Once people have the faith that this is our country, this is our economy, we have to make it work; once they have faith that all the major stakeholders will play their role and put their shoulders to the wheel, things will happen.
“I think what President Ramaphosa has been calling for is precisely that people must come up to the plate. But where there is deep-seated mistrust among the major stakeholders, including government itself, you need the thawing of the ice and that can only be achieved through dialoguing,” said Motlanthe.
A driving force behind the work of the foundation and assembling of the Berg meeting is Motlanthe’s wife, Gugu. While he draws people through his quiet dignity and gravitas, she is a vivacious go-getter who charms people into joining the crusade.
Gugu, who was previously a staffer at the ANC headquarters Luthuli House when Motlanthe was secretary-general, is a businesswoman and trustee of the Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation. She is all about hands-on efficiency and was responsible for putting together the three-day conference.
The couple married in 2014, but she had been a solid force beside him for several years before that.
Role for ex-presidents
South Africa has never really found the right role for its former presidents. Apartheid South Africa’s last survivor, FW de Klerk, works the speaking circuit and intermittently enters the national dialogue on issues affecting white people and to criticise the government. The hypocrisy often offends.
Nelson Mandela loomed large after his retirement because of his iconic status. Not everyone in the ANC and the government embraced this, particularly when he challenged his successor’s Aids policy.
Mbeki withdrew from domestic affairs and busied himself with international duty. His knowledge has been lost to the country but he is not amenable to working with a collective, particularly when he is not in charge of it.
Zuma is hoping to do outside the government what he did inside it: stir chaos and fight legal battles.
But the quintessential gentleman of South African politics has now found his place. A reluctant president, a caretaker who stepped in to steady the ship and gracefully retreated to a lesser position, a custodian of democratic values and elder statesman, Motlanthe has now offered his shoulders for his successor to stand on.
Ramaphosa will know that among his peers and comrades, there is none more dependable than the man who has been walking beside him for over 30 years.
Former president Kgalema Motlanthe has long had a strong relationship with President Cyril Ramaphosa, and is building on it to try to help South Africa achieve inclusive growth.
Kgalema Motlanthe and his businesswoman wife, Gugu, work as a team at Motlanthe’s foundation in Johannesburg.