Changing the guard

2008-09-26 00:00

The nation has woken up this morning to the realisation that it has a new president, Kgalema Motlanthe. This is a development few people would have predicted two weeks ago, but the pace of political events has been frenetic and their detail sometimes bizarre. South Africans will be looking now for a period of relative calm, particularly among world economic uncertainty.

Of the choices available, Motlanthe seems best able to deliver stability. His background lies in black consciousness, political imprisonment on Robben Island and the trade union movement, training grounds that have produced some of the country’s better leaders. He was nominated by both camps within the ANC before the Polokwane conference and is seen as a unifying figure.

Amid the recent bloodletting in the party he has emerged as a level-headed voice of reason and moderation. His reaction to political conflict within the ANC in the Western Cape was one of compromise, a trait together with due process and consultation he will need to exercise in the months ahead.

Above all, Motlanthe has stood apart in his clear commitment to the Constitution. This is essential for anyone aspiring to lead the country. Yesterday he ceased to be simply a high-level ANC official, and became the president of all the people of South Africa elected by their parliamentary representatives.

His appointment is widely assumed to be interim, that of a stopgap president until after next year’s general election. But he is entitled to ambitions of his own. If he proves a success and is popular with the nation as a whole, will he still be sidelined in favour of Jacob Zuma, a flawed character who increasingly looks more like a figurehead prone to manipulation than a true leader. Is the ANC, riven by factionalism, capable of acting maturely and courageously in the interests of the whole nation?

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