Title: Kgalema Motlanthe
Author: Ebrahim Harvey
DEPUTY President Kgalema Motlanthe has been described as many things. An enigma. The most misunderstood leader of the ANC. Discreet. And even secretive.
But could all this be true?
In a recently published biography, Ebrahim Harvey attempts to provide an insight into the man who some in the country back to beat the incumbent at the ruling party’s elective conference in Mangaung, Free State.
Motlanthe himself has remained coy – steadfastly insisting that no leader of the ANC should aspire for high office.
Leaders are nominated by the masses in their branches and there the story ends. Or so Motlanthe would have us believe.
Published a few weeks ago to coincide with the run-up to Mangaung, it is hard to believe that Motlanthe is not aspiring for the presidency of the ANC and of the country. However, many political observers say his recent speeches and actions are an indication of his desire to topple Zuma, in spite of his stony silence on the matter.
The book chronicles Motlanthe’s family and early life as well as his political awakening as he discovers the ANC – a move that many would be surprised to learn earned him a 10-year stint on Robben Island as a political prisoner for underground activities against the apartheid government. This happened two months after the June 16, 1976 Soweto uprisings, although he had been arrested earlier.
It is clear from the book that Motlanthe formed important friendships and alliances that were to influence his political outlook and actions later in life.
Although he spent time with various luminaries of the Struggle on the island, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and Govan Mbeki, he singles out Sisulu as the man who had a profound influence on him and perhaps this is borne by his reserved manner – an attribute associated with Sisulu.
He is known for his sense of fairness and justice as well.
Growing up in famous townships of Alexandra and Soweto, Motlanthe probably had no idea that his life would later take a turn so dramatic that he would end up in the Union Buildings – albeit for eight months – though the possibility of a return remains high.
He grew up a staunch Anglican before becoming a Communist.
His membership was to lapse over the years although he retained close ties with SACP members by virtue of the positions he holds.
Those he spent time with on the island claim to have seen in young Kgalema “leadership qualities”.
Others who know him well and were interviewed for the book attest to his intelligence and deep thinking, hinting at the possibility of him being an excellent head of state.
Contrary to a public perception of Kgalema as a serious and staid character, he has been described as jolly with a good sense of humour and as someone who likes to tell jokes.
But there was nothing to laugh about several years into his incarceration when his marriage to wife Mapula started to fall apart when she stopped corresponding with him and later stopped visiting.
It was during this time that she fell pregnant and had a baby girl.
Motlanthe wrote to Mapula: “… How is Ntabiseng? Tell her I wish her good health and I love her no end. My mind is spinning because it is so full of you …”
When she resumed her visits to prison Mapula brought the girl.
The couple have another child, a son named Kgomotso.
The Motlanthes are in the process of finalising their divorce.
After he was released from prison, Motlanthe became a unionist and in 1992 succeeded Cyril Ramaphosa as general secretary of the National Mineworkers Union.
Five years later he was again to succeed Ramaphosa as secretary-general of the ANC.
In 10 years Motlanthe was in the Union Buildings as president under exceptional circumstances.
Former president Thabo Mbeki had been recalled a few weeks earlier following the bruising and divisive ANC conference at Polokwane, Limpopo.
When Zuma led the ANC to victory in the 2009 general election he appointed Motlanthe deputy president of the republic.
Fast forward to 2012 and Motlanthe may again see himself in the presidency if he wins in Mangaung – although he will have to wait before he assumes control of the state levers as Zuma still has about two years of his official term left.
Questions remain over whether there will be two presidents – one for the country and another for the ruling party – should Motlanthe pull a surprise.
This is a scenario ANC delegates would want to avoid.
“Two centres of power”, as they call it, would be undesirable.
This was the scenario that led to the recalling of Mbeki in 2007 and the ascendancy of Zuma to high office.
But does this book reveal the politician that Motlanthe is, as well as the human nature of the man known as “Mkhuluwa” – the elder?
In an inner leaf of the book, political analyst Professor Adam Habib says of Motlanthe: “… is an enigma of the South African political scene. Ever present in post-apartheid South Africa’s major political developments, yet always in the shadows, he is the least known of the country’s political heavyweights.
“Seen as the only feasible alternative to Jacob Zuma, Kgalema Motlanthe is the man everybody would like to know.
“Ebrahim Harvey’s attempt to tell Motlanthe’s story is the first public account of his life and serves as his answer to his critics.
“Critical, yet profoundly sympathetic, this is a valuable read for anyone interested in the ANC and its future.”
And, I might add, the future of the country.