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Kgalema Motlanthe returns to support Ramaphosa when tru...

South Africa


Kgalema Motlanthe returns to support Ramaphosa when trusted people are few and far between

Former president Kgalema Motlanthe. (Photo: Adrian Moser / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

As President Cyril Ramaphosa appears to be cementing his political position within the ANC, so too it appears that Kgalema Motlanthe is beginning to play an important supporting role.

Former president Kgalema Motlanthe has become involved in processes that will have a very real outcome on the political balance of power in the ANC. This is intriguing, because it suggests that he could still play a pivotal role despite not holding a formal position of power. 

The development may also be part of a longer-term relationship between Motlanthe and President Cyril Ramaphosa, amid some evidence that Motlanthe may have played a vital role in helping Ramaphosa to secure the top job in the first place.

There can be no doubting Motlanthe’s return to positions of influence and power in our politics.

First, the ANC’s National Executive Committee announced that he was going to be the chair of the party’s new Electoral Committee. He is now overseeing the process of selecting candidates to represent the party in the upcoming local elections. This is a massive loss of power for the office that used to oversee this key process, that of the ANC secretary-general.

Then, there is the process that has played out in the Free State, where, after a court case overturned the election of the provincial leadership, the National Working Committee of the ANC asked Motlanthe to broker talks between the different factions. In the end, a task team was finally set up.

Importantly, the convenor of that team is Mxolisi Dukwana, the suspended Secretary-General Ace Magashule’s local nemesis, the man who led the charges against him for years. (The deputy convenor is Premier Sisi Ntombela, presumed to be an ally of Magashule, suggesting she was chosen to achieve some form of balance.)

Both of these roles played by Motlanthe would have been difficult, requiring extreme patience, political dexterity, and perhaps most of all, a strong case of personal legitimacy. He would have to have been trusted by all sides and be seen as someone whom you cannot oppose, someone who is hard to criticise once the decision has been made.

There is apparent willingness on his side to play these roles.

Even since he left office as deputy president in 2014 (after serving as president in a sort of caretaker role between the recall of Thabo Mbeki in 2008 and Jacob Zuma’s election as president in 2009) he has been willing to take on important jobs.

In 2017 he chaired what was called the High Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation and the Acceleration of Fundamental Change for Parliament. His report led to important recommendations and resulted in last week’s high court decision declaring the Ingonyama Trust’s rent-seeking unlawful.

There is still plenty of work for him to do.

There is a shortage of people within the ANC who are seen as independent and competent enough to chair important processes or committees. While in other political parties this function is often fulfilled by former leaders, difficulties in the relationships among the ANC’s former leaders have made that difficult, or impossible.

Zuma beat Mbeki at Polokwane in 2007 and then humiliated him by recalling him in 2008, which meant Mbeki could not play such a role. (Just last week, Mbeki said that he could not campaign for the ANC during the Zuma era because the party “did not have a good story to tell”.)

Also, while Zuma was leader, Motlanthe ran against him at the ANC’s Mangaung Conference in 2012. While they did work together as president and deputy president after Motlanthe’s defeat at Mangaung, there may still have been some animosity between them.

This could perhaps be not so much because Motlanthe lost, but because he dared to run against Zuma in the first place. This may have been the real reason that Zuma decided to make Ramaphosa his deputy president.

As Qaanitah Hunter has written in her book Balance of Power, it was then Free State ANC leader Magashule who first asked Ramaphosa to be Zuma’s deputy. It may be that this faction felt they needed Ramaphosa to ensure victory over Motlanthe. Over time Zuma might well have realised the absurdity of what had happened.

The theory then would go that Motlanthe only ran not to beat Zuma, but to place Ramaphosa in the best possible position to beat him and his faction five years later.

This may be borne out by Motlanthe’s own behaviour when his loss was announced: he held up his hand straight into Daily Maverick’s Greg Marinovich’s camera, and held up two fingers. It seemed he was quietly celebrating a victory when everyone else was celebrating his defeat.

Kgalema Motlanthe in Mangaung after he was defeated by Jacob Zuma for the post of the ANC president. (Photo: Greg Marinovich / Newsfire)

If this is true, then Ramaphosa would probably be aware of it, and thus be perfectly happy to allow Motlanthe this space in which to work. Their history within the National Union of Mineworkers means they have known each other for many years.

This, of course, is very useful for Ramaphosa. He needs someone who can preside over processes that will lead to the outcomes that he desires. It may be a continuation of his strategy of creating a process first, and then allowing it to play out while having a pretty good idea of how that process will end (a strategy which appears to have worked fairly well for him in dealing with Magashule).

There is another important process playing out here. It may now be that our politics become more “normal”, in that former leaders start to play important roles. There are things they can do, processes they can move along, commissions they can chair.

Mbeki’s comments last week and Motlanthe’s important roles here could be evidence of this.

Of course, this should not be overstated. It is unlikely that Zuma will be asked to play any role whatsoever as long as Ramaphosa is leader of the ANC…

In the meantime, though, it appears that Ramaphosa may now have a useful ally, someone with influence and experience, someone he can trust, and someone who has a desire to help fix the ANC. DM


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  • Reading the papers this weekend about the absolute farce the anc is as a manager of their own political party (unpaid bills, ghost employees, hangers on, tax issues etc) makes me wonder if the party is capable of fixing itself. Even with the likes of Motlante – who is clearly, like Brutus, an honourable man – I seriously doubt it.

  • That makes so much sense and gives me new hope. I have no idea if it is true, but it is hopeful. Men of honour working together. Yes… though it may be what we long for rather than reality.

  • Once again a brilliant article by Stephen. I am often amazed at his depth of thinking, and also is a dedicated viewer of his anchor role in the afternoon slot on Newzroom Africa (surely now the top TV news channel in SA, having overtaking eNCA some time back). In fact, virtually all the DM journalists are top notch, hence the equal quality of DM readers (at least those commenting on articles). Whilst I have respect for some journalists at News24 (in particular Adriaan Basson, Pieter du Toit, Qaanitah Hunter and Karyn Maughan), they do not have the depth in top journalism as at DM. Adriaan Basson’s article this morning on News24 (something bigger for which Mkhise should have been fired) is outstanding. But I am digressing. Stephen’s take on Motlante’s “return” is very refreshing, and just gives me a glimmer of hope.

  • ANC will survive from now on its ability profile honourable leadership. Motlanthe is a good start but what about Frank Chikane? and others in their ranks who are not yet past it nor corrupted?

  • The idea that the ANC can be “fixed” is totally wrong. They are welded to a world view based on ideology ,not practicality , plus a bit of Lenin-speak. Oh and don’t forget raced based discrimination apparently as a redress for past sins. While all the fuss about statues in a country that names an airport after a mass murderer?

  • A very welcome development. The sadness is that the root cause of SA’s problems is a political landscape dominated by the ANC with that voting system that encourages the power broking game right up to the NEC/Luthuli house. This structure calls the shots, managing the inconvenience of Parliamentary and the Chapter nine institution processes, and the other checks and balances, so carefully designed to, but failing to mange our democracy. I suspect its similar to that which will be revealed in the Steinhoff matter. No system of checks, balances and controls can counter leadership that is dishonest and immoral. A vexing question is what will be the trigger in SA’s development that will enable other political parties to become acceptable to voters such that a real democracy can function? This seems yet to even be visible on the political horizon. What is interesting in the current playout of Ramaphosa and his few good men, is that establishing parallel Government processes from within the office of the President is being used for good, whereas Jacob Zuma used it for his own selfish ends. It seems, for the foreseeable future, we are doomed to a scenario where we at best stumble like a drunk in a fog of uncertainty, and most South Africans remain trapped, through incorrect policy, in a low level economic existence. How different things could be! That said, one is grateful for our President’s efforts to stop the rot and pulling us, for now, back from the brink of disaster.

  • Thank-you Stephen, promising news. I have sympathised with our President over the last couple of years, walking on eggshells lest the corrupt voted into powerful positions decided to ‘recall ‘ him. However, now the message seems to be getting through except to rent-a-crowd.

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