South Africa

Words & Wisdom: Kgalema Motlanthe speaks out

By Stephen Grootes 2 November 2015

As we hurtle towards local government elections next year, it appears that some former ANC leaders are getting more and more worried. It is to be expected that a party as big as the ANC, which has been in power for so long, and undergone several leadership elections, will have people who once occupied high office, but no longer feel comfortable in the party. However, the fact that someone who was once deployed by the party to its highest office, and who played a pivotal role in getting President Jacob Zuma into power in the first place, is now speaking out, takes us into new territory. Kgalema Motlanthe's comments in his Business Day interview could well be some sort of turning point for the ANC. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

On Monday, Business Day published an interview with Kgalema Motlanthe, in which the former deputy president made several criticisms and comments. Motlanthe’s most telling comments were that the ANC was not in an ideal state, that it was not operating properly, in that members were no longer following the constitution, and that the organisation was likely to lose votes in next year’s elections.

There is no way to get around the fact that Motlanthe appeared to be directly critical of President Jacob Zuma.

At one point, in the full 22 page transcript, Motlanthe said “…because right up to Polokwane the organisation was operating on the basis of the constitution, in that leadership, even when the majority wanted to act in a particular way, if you invoked the constitution they would back off… the difference is that now you can’t invoke the constitution and get people to back off it.”

Motlanthe seems to be saying that Zuma, himself, is not following the constitution of the ANC. Coming from the man who was Zuma’s deputy in the ANC for five years, and who was trusted enough to be President of South Africa after the recall of Thabo Mbeki, Motlanthe’s comments are simply astounding. To fully understand the true gravity of his comments, one needs to remember the role Motlanthe played in Zuma’s path to power.

He was Mbeki’s secretary general in the ANC for ten years. During that time he supported Zuma, he attended his court appearances, and made sure the party was behind him. Legend holds that he played a crucial role in delaying Mbeki, when the former president tried to force Zuma to resign from his ANC leadership positions after the Shaik Judgment in 2005.

If he had not acted in that way, there is a strong chance that Zuma would never have won the election in the first place. It is this fact that seems to make Motlanthe’s criticisms quite lethal for the ANC.

Motlanthe also says that it is the disregard for the ANC’s constitution that led to him to refuse nomination to the movements National Executive Committee, after he lost the presidential race to Zuma in 2012. As he puts it, “I was clear that if I continued serving in that leadership it would be a constant battle just to get them to operate on the basis of the constitution.” He points to how the ANC “arranged” the ANC Youth League’s recent conference, rather than allowing the league to arrange it. For Motlanthe, this is a crucial issue, because the league is supposed to be autonomous. He believes that this was a point at which the ANC’s constitution was broken.

Motlanthe’s comments on race are also interesting. He says it is wrong that people sitting on the ANC benches in Parliament shout at black DA members about their race. About this, he says: “Is it the expectation that this non-racialism is only going to happen through the ANC, and no-one else? The impact of policy, if your policies are correct, and it has an impact, and influences society in general, why would you want exclusive claims for having brought that about?” He then suggests that, in fact, the political skill to create a proper non-racial society no longer exists in the ANC. That’s quite a claim to make, because many people might feel that Mbeki concentrated on race far more than Zuma has; Mbeki often attacked white people. Zuma has not done that in the same way, and has largely stayed away from race as an issue.

One of the big headlines of the interview is that the “tripartite alliance is dead” and anyone who believes otherwise is “delusional”. On this, there will be much discussion. Motlanthe believes everyone is now part of a single organisation, and that there is no difference between the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP. It is certainly true that Cosatu is not what it was. Everyone accepts that it has split, and the expulsion of NUMSA was the final climax of what has been a disaster for the federation. However, the SACP may beg to differ. They may claim that the Party still has distinct policies and programmes that make it different from the ANC.

Nevertheless, on this, Motlanthe is probably correct. It’s worth repeating (again! – Ed) that the SACP has not been able to publicly campaign against policies like etolls. And if that is not taking a government service and privatising it, then, what is? If you can’t campaign against such an obvious capitalist policy, then what do you stand for? The SACP seems to have lost its voice since 2007, and is only heard when it is backing Zuma, and when the Party has a conference (or when its leader attacks the media – Ed). Otherwise, the SACP is silent.

Motlanthe’s criticisms of the ANC come after other former leaders of the organisation have made similar comments. The most recent was by former director-general in the Presidency, Frank Chikane, who wrote a document suggesting the ANC could start to lose elections. It was pretty easy for Luthuli House to shrug Chikane off. He was, after all, completely associated with Mbeki. Also, while Chikane may be a reverend, and made many sacrifices in the battle against Apartheid, he almost certainly misled the people over the suspension of Vusi Pikoli, during the Jackie Selebi affair. Motlanthe is, however, different. He is revered by almost everyone in the party. His ability to enter high office, and avoid the temptations, marks him as a respected and trusted person. When government got its knickers in a knot, to the point that no one trusted anyone about the health of Nelson Mandela, it was Motlanthe who was able to calm the stormy waters. He has that kind of prestige.

It is probably because of this that Luthuli House felt it could not respond in the usual antagonistic way. There could be no criticism of Motlanthe, a man deployed by the ANC to be President. Instead, the ANC rolled with the punch, saying it wants to “affirm Comrade Kgalema Motlanthe as a leader and a voice of reason…He remains a critical opinion maker on how we as the ANC should confront internal challenges on matters that if left unattended could materialise as future problems.”

Careful phrasing aside, this is surely the ANC trying, once again, to get behind a story that is actually about its failings. It was, precisely, the ANC government that was accused of failing students, it is, also, the ANC that is being criticised by Motlanthe. Based on the ANC’s response to the students, the movement will, somehow, present itself as being fully behind Motlanthe’s comments. It may work, it may not.

The former deputy president’s comments must show that the ANC has lost the initiative. For the second time in just two weeks, it is responding to events, rather than driving the country’s politics. This must be hugely worrying situation for some leaders; we’re guessing a certain Gwede Mantashe, who refuses to sit down when told to do so, is among them.

This story may, as many other political stories, become yesterday’s news soon. Motlanthe will probably, from time to time, make a comment about the party, but he himself will likely slowly drift further away from the limelight. But still, no passage of time should lessen the importance of what he has said: The ANC is in decline, the ANC is no longer following its constitution. We can guess whom he blames for that. DM

Photo: Kgalema Motlanthe said ‘I am elated’ about Jacob Zuma being elected ANC President. Mangaung, 18 December 2012. Photo Greg Marinovich /NewsFire


"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine