Book review – Kgalema revealed

2012-10-13 11:14

Secretive and private are not the same thing, Ebrahim Harvey says.

He has given it a lot of thought, having spent more than three years chronicling the life of Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.

It wasn’t easy because of Motlanthe’s private nature (some have accused him of being too secretive and scheming), but thanks to the book, Motlanthe is an enigma no more.

Harvey refers to Motlanthe by his first name throughout the book and tells of how he forgave his wife after she got pregnant with another man’s daughter while Motlanthe was on Robben Island.

The marriage broke down years later.

He also tells of how Motlanthe saved President Jacob Zuma when former president Thabo Mbeki was ready to expel him from the party.

But he had less success in convincing fellow leaders not to kick out ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.

The book also tells of Motlanthe’s love for football and walking long distances, and talks of his ability to make people laugh even in bad times.

One of the things that touched Harvey most about his subject was Motlanthe’s dignity in adversity, such as when there was an (incorrect) report in 2009, after Motlanthe became president in Thabo Mbeki’s place, that he had fathered a child with a 24-year-old.

“There was no bitterness from Kgalema’s side,” Harvey said with an admiration that also shows in the book.

“Kgalema displayed equilibrium within him and did not allow anything to disturb it.

“He is so different that I sometimes wondered if he is not from another planet!”

The chapter about Motlanthe’s imprisonment on Robben Island was one of the most difficult to write, Harvey said, because of the emotions involved.

It was also the chapter that historian Colin Bundy, one of Harvey’s expert readers, liked most.

Harvey had, among others, access to the love letters between Motlanthe and his wife, which the department of correctional services made available to him.

The chapter also “reveals what fellow prisoners on Robben Island had to say about him. You see, Kgalema is a serious guy, but you ain’t seen nothing yet.

“Several of his fellow prisoners on Robben Island, when I interviewed them, said ‘no, you don’t know Kgalema.’”

The serious, staid character that he is, we have seen another side of this man, a jocular and jovial side, and we welcomed it because it really kept our spirits alive against the brutally harsh conditions of Robben Island’.”

Harvey, who spent more than 180 hours in interviews with Motlanthe, said writing the book was a process “more rigorous than my PhD” and it was edited down considerably to 421 pages to make it more readable.

Although Harvey has a background in the trade union movement and understands the ANC from the inside, he said he expected the book to create a “storm” due to his criticism of the party.

Still, party elders hold the book in high enough regard to have attended its much-hyped launch at Wits University on Thursday night.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, a close friend of Motlanthe, agreed to talk at the launch, while Motlanthe himself also graced the occasion.

Sales have gone well so far with a second print run under way already – no doubt helped along by the imminent ANC conference in Mangaung.

Harvey, however, says the biography was not timed to coincide with December’s congress, but editing and the availability of his subject meant it could only be released this month.

Now that his subject is a prime contender in the leadership race, this is one political biography that’s become a must-read for all Mangaung pundits.

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