Manuel and Motlanthe's Criticism Is Too Late

2014-04-01 15:24

Kgalema Motlanthe, left, and Trevor Manuel, right, shake hands after Manuel replied to tributes made to him in the National Assembly (

Edmund Burke, born in 1729, was a writer, politician and political philosopher. He is often credited with the saying that ‘all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ While it is debated that he is actually the wit who came up with this oft-quoted and varied phrase, the observation is still tellingly true.

This past fortnight in our politics is no different. Take the following two examples:

First is Trevor Manuel. Manuel is the outgoing Planning Minister who has served in every democratically elected Parliament and Cabinet since 1994. He is hailed variously as a powerful policy wonk within the ANC, a sterling finance minister and the best President we never had.

This week he and, his soon-to-be-former colleague, ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe got stuck into each other in a public spat over Manuel’s supposed ‘ill-discipline.’

Mantashe had no shortage of sharp words for the illustrious Cabinet Minister, accusing him of effectively undermining Jacob Zuma’s authority and bringing the good name of the ANC into disrepute. This was in response to an article penned by Manuel in which he stated that ‘democracy was failing.’ These comments come at a critical time for the ANC in light of the Nkandla scandal.

Not to be outdone, Manuel shot back at Mantashe indicating that the ANC – and Manuel’s membership of it – was larger than the Secretary-General himself and that Mantashe was powerless to ‘put him out of the ANC.’ Manuel was responding directly to Mantashe calling him a ‘free agent’ now that he is on his way out of politics.

The second example is that Kgalema Motlanthe. Like Manuel, he has been praised by his allies and opponents alike. As a former Cabinet Minister, President and soon-to-be Deputy President of South Africa, Motlanthe’s prominence, though short, is an achievement that has earned him the respect of many. Though it is questionable what his record in government actually is, he is no doubt held in high regard by many, not least for the role he played during the struggle.

He has, of late, made two interesting remarks for a soon-to-be ex-ANC politician. One concerned Nkandla (Motlanthe urged the government to take responsibility for it and implement the recommendations of the Public Protector – whatever that means) and the other concerned regional courts and their jurisdiction. Motlanthe’s comment on the latter issue was that the ICC is a crucial institution but that Africa should possibly have its own court. This was, ostensibly, so that issues of regional focus can be righted and so that African states can feel more involved in the process of administering justice internationally.

Manuel and Motlanthe’s comments are to be welcomed. They have picked up on important issues and the more people within and outside of the ANC agree that these issues need resolving, the better for South Africa domestically and abroad. However, the timing of their comments, especially when measured against the track-records, leaves me more irritated than grateful to them.

However, both men have actively participated in and/or been part of administrations that are guilty of what they complain about.

Manuel, for example, was one of Mbeki’s key lieutenants and happily served alongside him despite Mbeki’s Arms Deal, AIDS and re-racialisation sagas – to name a few. Mbeki’s contempt of Parliament and for the Opposition – active components of a functioning and healthy democracy – is a trait that Manuel has been only to happy to emulate. And the further erosion of Parliament’s integrity which has occued under Zuma has not rankled Manuel – until now.

Motlanthe is equally not so free from scrutiny. His position on the importance of international courts, even if it meant creating an African-styled ICC, is wholly irreconcilable with the Zuma administration’s participation in the demolition of the SADC Tribunal. The Tribunal, which concerned itself with significant human rights violations, generally, including those perpetrated by the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe specifically, was effectively shut down. Despite South Africa’s early push for the Tribunal’s creation, our government was nowhere to be formed when political support of the court was needed. Thus, Motlanthe’s sudden fondness of international courts seems even more hollow – when he had the chance to influence our policy about these institutions he, and the government, were found wanting. That’s even setting aside the role that Motlanthe himself played in facilitating Zuma coming to power and the mess which ensued.

It seems strange that both these men would now seek to be critical patriots when they are on their way out. While I completely disagree with Mantashe’s ideas about discipline – namely to ensure that no critical debate can be had between members of the ANC in public – I do agree with his sense of irritation: both these men had ample opportunity to make political points when they were actively involved. Now that they are on their way out – and thus beyond reproach – their sudden willingness to engage in such issues is confounding.

It may be cynical for me to suggest that the only reason these Ministers – and other has-beens who have now positioned themselves as the nation’s moral compasses – are finding the strength to speak up is that their political careers are now finished. It regrettably comes across as being rank political hypocrisy.

Motlanthe’s time was up after he decided to stand against Zuma at Mangaung. That he lasted this long was itself incredible. But it was clear, especially after the release of the ANC’s lists and the more prominent role the Cyril Ramaphosa has been given, that Motlanthe was on his way out. Manuel’s story is similar: after losing the prized Finance post and being relegated to what should have been, but definitely is not, a super Ministry, where all his recommendations and major policy contributions are left in shreds due to Alliance politics, his sense of isolation has only increased. And his advice and wisdom have thus decreased in value too.

It is unfortunate that both these well-respected figures should choose to speak out as they are about to exit the nation’s stage. They were once more powerful and more able to effect the change that they now complain is lacking. The truth is that while they had skin in the game – and both their futures were at stake – they were seemingly happy to be complicit in the dubious actions taken by the various governments they served in, of which they now complain. Had they truly cared and truly been moved by the issues they now speak of – they would have acted boldly and without hesitation to inflict the most political damage on Zuma, specifically, in order to save the nation which they now bemoan to be  under assault.

Margaret Thatcher once disparagingly referred to the lack of courage and conviction among politicians. She said that ‘’ When I'm out of politics I'm going to run a business, it'll be called rent-a-spine.’’ No better assessment can be made of Manuel and Motlanthe’s existence as previously shrinking violets now coming into full bloom.

But the saddest truth of this story is that the quote attributed Burke is the most true. In order for an increasingly dangerous future for South Africa to become our reality these, supposedly, good men stood by and did nothing. They worried for their own futures, their careers and their positions. They did not care for us or what impact that which they propped up would have. And now, as they both retire to comfort and prestige, they see it fit to talk. Alas, their suddenly finding their voices has come a little too late.

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