Not entirely omniscient
22 January 2018 07:56 (South Africa)

Keyser Söze or peacemaker: Dilemma Motlanthe still puzzles

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • Politics
keyser motlanthe

The Sunday Independent says deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe “is ready” to contest and to lead again. According, of course, to an unnamed source. With so many things happening in SA politics in in the last six weeks, what can we expect in the next 18 months? What kind of Race for Mangaung will we see? STEPHEN GROOTES gets the blood going.

June was a heady month for our politics. In just six weeks we had an election, an ANC Youth League conference and a Cosatu central committee meeting. Then, on Sunday, yet another story broke about next year’s ANC leadership contest, starring the perennial no. 2, Kgalema Motlanthe.

In the film “The Usual Suspects” there is a legendary, down-to-the-bones frightening, undefined and, until the very end, unidentified villain. Known as Keyser Söze he is part myth, part real person. Throughout the movie you don’t know if he really does exist or if he is just the figment of the imagination of a chain-smoking gangster.

So why are we indulging in cinematic memories, as brilliant a movie as the  “The Usual Suspects” was? Because the race to Mangaung – the race for leadership of the ANC - is going to be defined by just such a myth, the one about Keyser Söze . And in the world of political shadow boxing, the easiest way to win, is to have no shadow.

The Sunday Independent’s story, unfortunately, does not name its source, it doesn’t tell us how close the person is to Motlanthe so we are left to wonder a little. Is it someone who saw him once across a crowded room, or someone very, very close, or even, whisper it, Motlanthe himself. Don’t expect to ever find out. So, this could be someone just mucking about ’cos they’re bored, or someone floating a balloon. We’ve seen plenty of balloon-floating of late. There’s been that claim about a “plot” to unseat Zuma agreed to by “senior ANC leaders” who then, one by one, came out to deny it. Then there’s been the usual whispered suggestion, towards of the end of political pieces in various media, that Tokyo Sexwale may even fancy another go. And Mathews Phosa has been awfully quiet - what’s he been up to?

And that’s just for the leadership position. Bear in mind there are five other jobs up for grabs as well all carrying power, cachet and influence. So, how will it all pan out?

Short answer is: We can’t really say.

The long answer involves looking at various power relations. We already know that two of the main playing fields in the next while have been defined by the Youth League. They are nationalisation of the mines, on its terms (rather than those of Cosatu or the SACP), and whether Gwede Mantashe should stay on as ANC secretary general.

We also know that over the last few months the League has been growing in power, or seen to be growing in power, depending on your point of view. It has, literally, set the agenda.

But we have two big formations waiting in the wings, and which are now ambling onto the pitch, in the shape of Cosatu and the SACP. Let’s start with the SACP because it’s relatively simple. It’s been pitifully weak ever since Polokwane. Aubrey Matshiqi’s assertion that, by turning itself into such a big supporter of President Jacob Zuma, it has robbed itself of real power has become publicly true. But there are signs of a fightback. Blade Nzimande’s speech to Cosatu’s central committee meeting last week was very powerful. And angry. And angry works in our politics. If the SACP can manage to sustain that level of loud unhappiness for a while, there could be a comeback underway.

Cosatu is generally seen as much more powerful. It has the numbers, the real, dues-paying members, the organisation and the will. That will comes from having 2 million-plus members who all have a stake, however small, in the economy and thus have something to lose. But it seems to be divided over some major issues. It was unable to agree on most of the important political resolutions placed before it last week. And a house divided is surely a house weakened.

Then we have Zuma himself. Surely, he is in a weaker position than he was three weeks ago on his way down in the continuous see-sawing his presidency has turned out to be. Amazingly, it just seems that no one is really behind him anymore. Cosatu has made its support for him conditional. The SACP is a little warmer, but mainly because there’s no one else. And the League thought it would be fun to keep him waiting for several hours before he could speak to them - just to show Zuma who's really the boss. 

This is why the Motlanthe story, if it did come from his people, carries so much weight. Because, like Keyser Söze , we don’t know if it’s real. As Kevin Spacey says in the movie, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn't exist.” And in a political world in which the smallest miscalculation is the end of your political career, not existing is a huge asset.

But what if Keyser Söze does exist. Who would hold the balance of power? That would seem to be the “middle ground” of the ANC. We’ve said it before - that’s a difficult constituency to define. They are the people Zwelinzima Vavi was referring to when he said the real voice of the ANC “had spoken at the party’s national general council” last year. Presumably, he means when the NGC essentially backed Zuma and shied away from Malema. But we know that they are up for grabs, or at least Youth League thinks so. Keyser Söze  would know this is a war fought in the trenches of the ANC’s branches, and that Youth Leaguers must, and could, take them one by one. Vavi knows this too. He told Cosatu’s members to join the ANC if they can. There is a huge numbers game in all of this. Just how each side does will become apparent next year.

In the meantime, the two most important figures in all of this - one of whom is very real and the other possibly nonexistent - are staying mum. Zuma is saying nothing, as usual. Motlanthe’s people are denying anything that appears in print.

Throughout Zuma’s race to Polokwane, outside every court in which he appeared, I continually asked his supporters the questions: “Why are you supporting Zuma? What will he do for you?” Every time the answer came back: “He’s a victim, there’s a conspiracy”. Sometimes there was a racial aspect to the answer, sometimes not. The point is, no one ever gave a positive reason. No one ever said: “I support Zuma because, when in power, he will do X,Y or Z.”

Our political “Keyser Söze”  is exactly the same. He will not tell us what he will do. He will not say. He will not even tell us if he officially exists as a potential leadership candidate. And yet he is seen as being hugely popular - which is different from actually being hugely popular. And, like Söze , you can’t define him. You don’t know where he stands on, say, mine nationalisation or Mantashe’s future. The chattering classes like him because he makes positive statements, he actually gives the impression of having an opinion, of being sensible, of being the kind of guy you go to to stop the lunacy of the Protection of Information Bill. He also gives the impression of not being that interested in the top job. Of not existing at all. Of being just the figment of the fevered imaginations of the political chatterers.

And if the heat gets turned up, if people start asking difficult questions about, say, Oilgate or the decision to sack Vusi Pikoli, what will happen? In Spacey’s immortal words, “And like that, poof….he’s gone”. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

For more:

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

  • Politics

Get overnight news and latest Daily Maverick articles

Reader notice: Our comments service provider, Civil Comments, has stopped operating and will terminate services on 20th Dec 2017. As a result, we will be searching for another platform for our readers. We aim to have this done with the launch of our new site in early 2018 and apologise for the inconvenience.