Kgalema Motlanthe exemplifies justice and integrity – qualities that are sorely lacking in the SA under Jacob Zuma, says Wilmot James.
Cape Town - The US historian Arthur Schlesinger once remarked that the concept of leadership implies that individuals make a difference in history.
“From classical times to the present,” he writes disapprovingly, “eminent thinkers have regarded individuals as no more than pawns of larger forces, whether the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus or the latter-day divinities of Race, Class, Nation, Progress, the Dialectic, the General Will, the Spirit of the Age and History itself”.
He goes on to make the important point that “determinism may or may not be true, but it unquestionably violates our deepest instincts.
“It abolishes the idea of human freedom by discrediting the presumption of choice that underlies every word we speak and every decision we make. It abolishes the idea of human responsibility by depriving the individual of accountability for his acts.”
I share this with you because we are here in this Parliament animated by the compelling belief that leaders make a difference. I share this with you also because it is true that leaders may alter history for better or worse.
There is no question that the man we honour today – Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe – has altered history for the better for reasons to do with his strong inner belief in justice, his devotion to public service rooted in the Episcopalian tradition of the Anglican church (he was an altar boy and wanted to be a priest), and a civility in his conduct based on the notion of reciprocal honour and respect we could do well to emulate in this world dominated by noise, incivility and the crass exercise of power.
Motlanthe was no armchair revolutionary. He put his life on the line. He was recruited to Umkhonto we Sizwe in the early 1970s, languished for 11 months in the feared John Vorster Square jail in central Joburg, was convicted of terrorism and spent 10 years on Robben Island, from 1977 to 1987, and became key to the formation of the National Union of Mineworkers.
Together with Cyril Ramaphosa and Marcel Golding, he did the impossible by unionising the mines’ unstable, oscillating migrant labour force.
In Parliament, he made a noteworthy difference.
On HIV/Aids, he appointed when he became president Barbara Hogan as minister of health. She was vital in turning back the HIV/Aids pandemic criminally mismanaged by the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who denounced ARV drugs as poisons.
He was a lonely, sane and sober voice on Zimbabwe, critical of both Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai’s roles in the deterioration there, as well as South Africa’s role in it.
He recognised that the first round of black economic empowerment benefited a handful of black millionaires with little advantage for small businessmen, and no opportunities for the masses.
And he took Parliament seriously, attending sessions with diligence, and answering oral questions with great care and an understated humour.
It is a puzzle why he recommended to Parliament that the former head of the National Prosecuting Authority Vusi Pikoli be fired when the Ginwala commission advised otherwise.
More recently, he was not successful in brokering a peace pact between the mining houses and trade unions. Amcu is still avoiding putting its signature to the agreement, and labour unrest and violence continue to plague the industry.
Motlanthe exemplifies qualities of personality that are rare in the world of politics.
He has a strong sense of honour and defers to the highest moral virtues of which human beings are capable, which is reciprocated by the esteem in which we hold him.
He has a keen sense of ethical conduct, working hard to keep promises, and a desire for completeness or wholesomeness associated with the value of integrity. He is respectful of his colleagues and members of the opposition, an attitude showing respect for others and their views.
Motlanthe is one of the few remaining politicians who in his conduct and personal example reminds us of the centrality of public purpose in animating our politics.
In today’s environment, marked by greed, self-justifying acquisitiveness and mindless consumption, he is a refreshing reminder of the central theme of the Mandela presidency, which emphasised public service as the principal duty of the new South African politician.
He is also the antithesis of the corruption that characterises the era of President Jacob Zuma, remaining deservingly unscarred and untainted by the moral rot exemplified by Nkandla and the evasion of justice that keeps him (Zuma) in office. One must wonder aloud how different things may have turned out had Motlanthe continued as president.