Where ignorance fears to tread.
22 August 2014 21:30 (South Africa)
South Africa

Zuma and Motlanthe: Shadow boxing over SA's today and tomorrow

  • Ranjeni Munusamy
  • South Africa
C:\fakepath\ranjeni tipping point

You would think the two people at the top in South Africa would agree on whether the country is in crisis. Apparently not. The deputy president thinks South Africa is in a ‘rut’ and that Mangaung represents a ‘tipping point’. The president says his deputy is ‘exaggerating’ and the country ‘is not in a crisis’. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY. 

In order to serve as president and deputy president in the state, a level of like-mindedness is rather essential. The deputy president often has to serve as acting president when the president is out of the country. The two flank each other in cabinet meetings, and while executive powers are vested with the president, he would count on his deputy to support him in executing his responsibilities. 

There has to be unquestioning trust between these two people in order to govern the country effectively. 

The relationship between President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe started off like a house on fire when they were elected to lead the ANC in 2007. Since then, there appears to have been a cooling in relations. There is no longer any chemistry between the two. If anything, public interaction between the two seems somewhat forced and artificial. 

Perhaps it is the functioning of the presidency that causes friction. There two have separate offices which rotate on their own axes. There are no regularly scheduled meetings between the two to discuss matters of state: the only time they meet is when they have to attend the same event. It is consequently unsurprising then that the two have developed different perspectives on major issues. 

Of course, the relationship has to be viewed now through the prism of the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung, where they are expected to compete for the position of president. Both Zuma and Motlanthe are reluctant to admit that they are now in campaign mode, although there is a subtext to much of what they say. 

Signs of divergence were first evident over the handling of the disciplinary case against the former ANC Youth League President Julius Malema. From the time Malema was charged, stories were circulated that the ANC’s top officials were not united on the disciplinary action. Malema himself believed that Motlanthe, Deputy Secretary-General Thandi Modise and Treasurer Mathews Phosa would break ranks. 

It has now been revealed in Motlanthe’s biography that he thought that putting Malema through a disciplinary process was “fundamentally wrong” and that a “political solution” should have been found to the transgressions of Malema and other Youth League leaders. This is in spite of all the top six officials being wheeled out in a joint press conference in April to lend their weight to the decision to expel the Youth League leaders. 

The second issue of contention between Zuma and Motlanthe was the ANC proposal for a “second transition”. The concept was touted at the ANC policy conference in June and formed the backdrop for all policy discussions at the meeting. The original version of the discussion document suggested that the ANC should view South Africa’s political transition as being complete, and that a new transition focusing on economic and social transformation should begin.

In the run up to the policy conference, Zuma owned the document and talked up the concept on several platforms he addressed. Then Motlanthe unexpectedly tore into the document, saying it was laced with “smatterings of Marxist jargon”.

“Second transition! Second transition! Second transition! From what, from where to where? What constituted the first transition? What were the tasks of that phase, have all those tasks been accomplished or not?” 

Zuma retaliated, defending the need for the second transition but also pointing out that it was duplicitous for anyone (Motlanthe) to criticise the document after it had been endorsed by the ANC leadership. 

“It is important to understand how the ANC works. The ANC produces documents first and they are discussed by working committees. Once they are looked at by the National Executive Committee (NEC) they are sent to branches. This is what we did. Comrades at leadership level had the opportunity to see them and the time to look at it, not once but three times. The NEC discussed it three times. It is inconceivable for a member of the NEC to say he is not aware of it,” Zuma said at an ANC meeting in the Free State. 

The debate over the second transition document at the policy conference thus mutated into a proxy battle between Zuma and Motlanthe supporters. The compromise was to change the concept to “the second phase of the transition”. 

This week Zuma and Motlanthe’s clash of perspectives became evident again – indelicately in front of the international media. Political and economic developments in the country are being closely monitored by the international media due to consecutive international ratings downgrades and the unrest in the mining sector. The government has been stung by reports in several international publications, including The Economist, about the unravelling of delivery gains and growing socio-economic crisis in South Africa. 

In an interview with the Financial Times, Motlanthe said Mangaung would represent a “tipping point” and that if the many expectations of the ANC conference were not met, “the levels of despondency and so on will rise and the negative outlook will be strengthened”.

Repeating a constant refrain of his about the ANC needing to “renew” itself, Motlanthe said this was the only way the ruling party would be able to lead “all of South Africa out of this rut”. 

“There is no doubt about it that we need renewal or we’re going south,” Motlanthe said. 

Zuma was clearly not impressed by Motlanthe’s comments. Speaking to foreign correspondents based in South Africa on Monday, Zuma said the country was not in crisis. 

“We are not at a tipping point,” Zuma said. “It is wrong to exaggerate, to say because there are strikes, then South Africa is in a big crisis.… To us (government), South Africa is not in a crisis. Tipping from where to where?” 

But is this a real difference of opinion or an attempt to by Zuma to get Motlanthe to shut up? Zuma after all convened two meetings of government, business, labour and community organisations to deal with the economic situation and the crisis in the mining sector, after which he announced a package of measures to help the economy recover. Motlanthe seemed only to be echoing the general response in government and the ANC.  At the ANC policy conference, Zuma repeatedly called for “a radical shift towards economic and social transformation” and “a militant programme of action” to deal with poverty, inequality and unemployment.

How then is this different from the sentiments expressed by Motlanthe?

In all the analysis of a possible Zuma-Motlanthe showdown at Mangaung, it is often stated that there is very little difference evident between the two men in terms of policy and perspective. This could be a result of the fact that Motlanthe, as Zuma’s deputy, is restrained from expressing himself clearly and crossing swords with his boss. He probably also does not enjoy getting hammered down when he does.

Zuma evidently sees Motlanthe not only as a competitor but an opportunistic critic. There is palpable discomfort having his challenger in the position closest to him where he has access to the levers of power and unfettered information. Media reports have also suggested that there are attempts by Zuma and those close to him to gag Motlanthe and control his diary in order to prevent him from stealing the spotlight from the president.

It is becoming increasingly obvious though that the working relationship between Zuma and Motlanthe may not be able to last out their term of office. If they do go head to head at Mangaung, it will be virtually impossible to resume the façade of a symbiotic relationship afterwards. And even if they strike a deal to continue working together, whether this can last out another two years remains to be seen. If they continue to bicker in public, they might reach their own “tipping point”.

The presidency of South Africa was not built to have to opposing forces occupy it. It bombed out when Thabo Mbeki and Zuma occupied the same office space and it is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Zuma and Motlanthe in it.

Motlanthe may be right that Mangaung could deliver South Africa out of the rut, but he might be hoping it does the same for him. DM

Photo: Reuters, plus creative licence.

  • Ranjeni Munusamy
  • South Africa


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