The man behind the name

2008-09-29 00:00

There is an anecdote about incoming caretaker president Kgalema Motlanthe that goes like this: In December 1997, after being elected as African National Congress secretary-general at the party’s 50th national congress in Mafikeng, he was offered a salary equivalent to that of a cabinet minister.

His perturbed response was: “What am I going to do with so much money?”

At the time, Motlanthe was moving from a trade union background as secretary-general of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

“He point blank refused to take such a big salary,” a senior ANC member told The Witness this week.

“He was then offered the equivalent of a deputy minister’s salary, but he refused that too. He finally accepted a chairperson’s salary.”

The response to the news that Motlanthe will be at the country’s helm until next year’s election has been one of exhilaration, particularly from within ANC structures. He is known to be left-leaning and those who know him have described him as a solid man who avoids making enemies and steers clear of wild rhetoric.

“He was my first choice of president for this country,” said businessman and brother of the outgoing president, Moeletsi Mbeki. “He is the best person for the job at this time.”

Those who know him describe him as a hard-working, behind-the-scenes kind of man, who chooses to stay out of the limelight.

“He is going to be a great calming influence,” said political analyst Justice Malala. “He is a good choice. At a time when things are so uncertain, he is one guy who, over the past months, has endeared himself and shown ordinary South Africans that he can think beyond the confines of the Mbeki/Zuma split and that he actually thinks and cares about the country.

“His response to the outbursts by Julius Malema put him in a good light too.”

Malala continued: “He is always very considered when he speaks. He is quiet and shy, but very personable. If you ask me, if the ANC really wanted to cauterise the wound of the Mbeki-Zuma split, they should have got rid of both Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma in November and taken them both out of the leadership race — and then someone like Kgalema should have come through as a unifying force.

“Instead, those divisions will continue well into next year and that is a tragedy. If they had done this a long time back, it would have saved so much pain. Someone like Nelson Mandela should have gone to both of them and said, ‘Step down, you are hurting our movement’.”

University of Cape Town politics professor Robert Schrire also hailed Motlanthe as the person best suited to the job. “He is a unifying figure. Also, importantly, he is the only one who combines experience in both the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the ANC with experience in government. He is a conciliator and a man of judgment.”

ANC veteran member of Parliament Yunus Carrim this week described Motlanthe as “a wonderful man. I know him to be a very modest, relatively temperate man, who is not into power and positions or particularly concerned about material possessions. He can be quite self-effacing. He’s not flamboyant, but beneath the quiet personality is a very strong, sturdy character, and a person of considerable political and intellectual depth. Given the immediate need for unity in the ANC and country, he’s probably the most appropriate choice for president for now,” Carrim told The Witness.

Still close to businessman Tokyo Sexwale since their time together on Robben Island, Motlanthe (59) has followed a similar path to that of former trade unionist Cyril Rama-phosa, who preceded him as ANC secretary-general until 1997, when he retired from politics. Motlanthe has strong support across the ANC-led tripartite alliance, with many in the ANC describing him as an independent thinker who is not afraid to speak his mind.

He is understood to be favoured by Zuma to become his deputy should Zuma become president. If Zuma’s campaign fails, his supporters are said to be prepared to throw in their lot with Motlanthe.

Born in 1949, the youngest of 13 children, Motlanthe was inspired by the ideas of Black Consciousness Movement icon Steve Biko and became an activist for the ANC. In 1967, he was detained for just under a year by the apartheid government and, in 1977, aged 28, Motlanthe was arrested and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on Robben Island. It was while he was in prison that he built strong relationships with key figures in the ANC, ties which he has nurtured and kept.

Previous positions include work as a trade unionist for Cosatu, education officer for the National Union of Mineworkers (Num) in 1987 and secretary-general of Num in 1992. He served as ANC chairman for Gauteng from 1990 to 1991.

Motlanthe served as ANC secretary-general from 1997 to 2007. Last year, he was elected deputy president of the ANC at the party’s 52nd National Conference in Polokwane, defeating Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was the choice of the Mbeki camp. He was sworn in as Minister without Portfolio in the cabinet earlier this year, as a move towards a smooth transition from an Mbeki to a Zuma presidency, and also following pressure on Mbeki from Zuma supporters to appoint Motlanthe to the cabinet.

Motlanthe is a shareholder of Pamodzi Investment Holdings. Motlanthe, a long-time Zuma ally, has been the only ANC leader who has risked his political reputation by publicly defending Zuma — and insisting on his right to a fair trial — while Zuma has faced widespread allegations of corruption.

For nearly three years now, those who are aligned with the Zuma camps have been speaking about the possibility of Motlanthe as a compromise candidate for the presidency, amid fears that Zuma could be weighed down by fraud charges if and when he became president.

As Zuma has grown in support, so has Motlanthe.

Does this man with such a glowing CV have any flaws? “He can be slightly indecisive,” said one insider. “But this could be because he has always been subject to Mbeki’s authority.’’

Some insiders have pointed out that Motlanthe has not been empowered to shine in his position as secretary-general. “He was never able to carry his full political weight into his job, because Mbeki was so intrusive and interfering. He was completely overshadowed by Mbeki. There are many within the organisation who believe that now Mbeki is gone, he will begin to find himself, become more assertive and fulfil his true leaderhip more than when he was under Mbeki’s shadow.

“He was never able to be a great secretary-general, not so much because he didn’t have the skills or the potential, but because he was never given the space to perform. A lot of people are saying that, in the past seven or eight months, he has really begun to shine.”

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