President's challenge

2008-10-02 00:00

In his televised broadcast on Sunday President Kgalema Motlanthe sought to reassure the nation, after 10 days of surprises. The fact that he was speaking to the nation as president was in its way as big a surprise as any of the others.

Did he succeed in his aim? Yes, he almost certainly did. Perhaps particularly notable in his positive and sensitive speech was his pledge to maintain a vibrant constitutional democracy, his eloquent tribute to Thabo Mbeki, and his sober recognition of the tasks that lie ahead — in tackling unemployment, poverty, crime, service delivery and HIV/Aids and other diseases. There was also a nice inclusiveness, not always noticeable in speeches by his predecessor:

"[The] Government’s vision … is all-encompassing. It does not exclude any single South African. Nor does it allow that any person has any greater claim than any other to being an integral part of the nation. Just as we all have an equal claim to this country, we all have an equal obligation to build."

Mbeki deserves a sincere tribute. He achieved a great deal, particularly in the economy and on the international scene. But he made many important mistakes and his rather hurried exit, although very sad, was not unjustified. The widespread relief and joy at the removal of Manto Tshabalala-Msimang from the post of Minister of Health is in itself an indication that some aspects of the Mbeki regime were deeply unjust and embarrassing. His legacy has been seriously marred by his irresponsible and absurd ideas about HIV and

Tshabalala-Msimang, his alter ego in these matters, made a fool of herself on the global stage by suggesting that anti-retrovirals, which everybody knows to be extremely effective, could be replaced by various common or garden vege-tables.

Motlanthe spoke of "the durability of our constitutional order", but for many of us what seemed to be precisely a rejection of the constitutional order in the last few weeks by certain prominent spokespeople of the African National Congress (ANC) has left a sour taste in our mouths. Motlanthe himself criticised Julius Malema in one of his earlier statements, but there can be no doubt that Malema and the ANC Youth League represent a problem for the ANC. His threats of killing people for political reasons and of shrugging aside the Constitution by undermining the judiciary disturb and annoy many South Africans and fill otherwise sympathetic overseas observers and analysts with despair. Senior ANC spokespeople have spoken indulgently of the over-exuberance of youth (although Malema is far from being a teenager) and they have assured us that, whatever Malema might claim, the decisions of the ANC are not dictated by the Youth League. One knows that the ANC has always tended to let its wilder members have their say rather than create pockets of discontent by silencing them and this is usually a wise policy. There is also the problem that by stifling people one is in danger of restricting freedom of expression, which is so important in a lively and robust democracy.

Yet surely something needs to be done. My own sense is that the ANC should tighten up its discipline a little. There must be some ANC rule, written or unwritten, that ANC spokespeople may not praise apartheid and express a preference for it above the democratic set-up that we have now. In the same sort of way ANC people might surely forfeit their membership if they publicly attack the Constitution, which is in many respects the final outcome of the liberation struggle.

Motlanthe has only been president for a few days. We can’t yet judge him. But present indications suggest that he might turn out to be a strong and effective president. He is firm but modest; he appears to be thoughtful without being pedantic and he seems to be genuinely dedicated to service. He is prepared to lead but has displayed little self-centred ambition: he has indeed the remarkable good fortune of having been placed in the top chair by forces over which he himself had little control. What is more, he has no known blots on his copybook.

What will happen if by the time of the next election the ANC and South Africa as a whole have come to admire Motlanthe, to accept and respect him as their leader? Could there be a problem? Might it be difficult, in the eyes of many South Africans and in the eyes of the ever watchful world, to unseat him in order to enthrone Jacob Zuma, with all his qualities and all his baggage?

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