A man called Buddha

2012-10-22 00:00

KGALEMA Motlanthe stands at the threshold of either victory or defeat. In politics nothing is guaranteed until the last vote is cast.

Until all the votes are tallied at the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung in December and the name of the person to lead the organisation is announced, the man they called “Buddha” on Robben Island will wait in line with his eyes fixed on the ticking clock.

According to a new biography, Kgalema Motlanthe: A Political Biography by Ibrahim Harvey, Motlanthe never saw himself as a leader, although everybody around him did. Every single former Robben Island prisoner interviewed by Harvey saw him as a future ANC leader. He seems to be a favourite with the “Anything but Zuma” faction and, if successful, would be the country’s president-in-waiting, unless Zuma is recalled before he finishes his term, like Thabo Mbeki.

Murphy Morobe, who spent five years on the island with Motlanthe, said: “I can guarantee that just about everyone who had the opportunity to engage with him not only learnt a lot, but saw in him a future leader of the ANC.”

Morobe said the man is not easily given to rhetoric and not easily flustered. “And having met ANC leaders of substance, my sense was that Kgalema measures up excellently to what a typical ANC cadre should be”.

Morobe says people like Motlanthe are a special breed. But Motlanthe has a kind of humility that endears him to many, seeing himself as a cadre serving the organisation rather than leading it. “We did not regard ourselves — certainly not I nor the group I arrived with on the island — as leaders of the ANC,” he says in the book.

“No, real leaders were those in B section, who were the leaders of the ANC before being arrested, which we were not. I was very clear in my mind of such limitations, even when I was asked to go and strengthen the NUM [National Union of Mineworkers]. I went there to do just that and never at any point aspired myself to lead the union or later the ANC.”

He says he always saw himself as a “servant” of the two organisations. “… It was an embedded notion [that] I thankfully derived from the time that I served the Anglican Church. I have no regrets about what others may call my self-effacement,” he says.

This is true of the Motlanthe I knew back in the nineties as a labour writer for the Star and later the Sowetan. He was president of NUM then and always made time for journalists and whoever else needed his ear. Gwede Mantashe, who was general secretary, was the complete opposite — he hasn’t changed a bit.

Motlanthe seems to be more of a thinker and strategist. Some even go as far as comparing him to Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela.

His personality is vividly captured by a comment from fellow Robben Island prisoner Paul Langa, who shared a cell with him: “Even when we once had a hunger strike, we had to force him to represent us. He would argue with us and say that though he appreciates the trust we place in him, he is not the right person and that there must be people stronger than him.”

Always measured in his decisions and actions, Langa adds: “He stood up during the strike and said that there was no problem to go on strike, but to do that may threaten the concessions we had already won, especially because it wasn’t properly planned and we needed to think of its effects on the elderly and sick.

“He is very open-minded when it comes to tactics and strategy — he can analyse a problem brilliantly and make you think about things that were furthest from your mind,” says Langa.

Motlanthe made such an impression soon after arriving on the island that he was given the task of welcoming, debriefing, orientating and integrating new prisoners. His approach was to “give people from other organisations the space to be themselves and not for the ANC to impose their integration into existing ANC structures”.

Like Julius Malema, the man whose expulsion he says was a mistake, Motlanthe also studied carpentry on the island in 1984. Unlike Malema, who reportedly got an F in woodwork, Motlanthe passed.

Despite being a soft-spoken man with a friendly demeanour, Motlanthe can be confrontational when dealing with injustice. In the book, S’bu Ndebele recalls an incident at the island where one prisoner continually bullied others. “When Kgalema could not bear it any longer, he challenged the man to a fight. The bully walked away but then changed somewhat and was less aggressive towards others after his embarrassing public retreat.”

Some interviewees said Motlanthe tended to “over-consult” when urgent decisions did not allow for such a luxury. But he defended his strong quest for facts before action by saying over-consultation was better than under-consultation.

His partner, Gugu Mtshali, says Motlanthe never allows external circumstances to dictate his actions. She said Motlanthe was upset when former president Thabo Mbeki said he was “too soft” to be able to confront people when necessary, but did not give Mbeki the reaction he wanted. “… He was in fact upset when Mbeki said that about him. But I don’t think he is soft at all. He is more shrewd than soft. I also think that Mbeki said that, not because he really believed it, but because he wanted to obtain a particular outcome. But Kgalema will never do something that he does not really want to do or be party to something he does not believe in and accept. Every decision is weighed up carefully,” she says.

Harvey’s book has been greeted with interest. The launch at the Wits Great Hall recently attracted over 1 000 people and was described as the “book event of the year”, but it is not a riveting read. The anecdotes are the only interesting parts and the rest reads like a desperate attempt to sell him to South Africa as the next president. At the end, you still don’t know who the real Motlanthe is.

• Kgalema Motlanthe: A Political Biography is written by Ibrahim Harvey and published by Jacana.

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