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‘I want to serve.” These are the words of presidential hopeful Tokyo Sexwale as he cautiously declares his intentions to challenge President Jacob Zuma at the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung in December.
Sexwale stops shy of saying he is going to run for the presidency of the ruling party, and couches his words carefully: “It would be an honour to serve, but the branches must decide.”
He adds, “We are already being approached” – by branch members and leaders who he says want him and others to step up to the leadership, though he refuses to say who is nominating him or what his chances might be.
In an interview at the Sexwale Family Foundation headquarters in Joburg yesterday, the 59-year-old talked more openly than he has before about the party many believe he wants to lead.
Sexwale also revealed for the first time that Zuma didn’t want to be president, and had approached him to run against Thabo Mbeki at the party’s Polokwane conference in 2007. Pallo Jordan and Zola Skweyiya had also approached him.
He said: “Zuma approached me as well, because he felt he was being persecuted by Mbeki, who wanted to put him in jail. He didn’t want the presidency. That wasn’t his ambition then. And that is why I ran.”
He had to withdraw his candidacy when it became evident he stood little chance.
But the perennial presidential hopeful refused to give up and he is back for a second time, more confident, if not more cautious, arguing that it is the “democratic birthright” of every member to serve the party.
The ANC will begin the process of nominating candidates for the party leadership only in October, two months before the elections, but until then the contest is being fought behind the scenes and in extraordinary tension.
“There is a lot I would like to say but cannot,” said Sexwale. “This is a critically sensitive time.”
Though it has been widely assumed that he would align with Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, should Motlanthe decide to contest, it would now seem that he is prepared to go it alone, if necessary, or cut his losses if needs be.
“This is a game of numbers, of votes, of what the delegates want. Mangaung will be a conference of branches. And until the branch delegates cast those votes, we do not know what kind of beast will emerge.”
His backing is not insignificant and according to some aides, he has gained significant ground in the Eastern Cape and is pushing into several provinces.
He is adamant that he will not run for the sake of a seat.
“I will weigh my options very carefully. I will examine the motives of those who are nominating me. I wouldn’t want to be used by factions. I’m not a puppet and I would not want to find myself in a position that others have found themselves in,” he said in a veiled reference to Zuma who was installed with the help of Julius Malema, who then began a campaign to dethrone him when the two men fell out.
A long-time defender of the erstwhile ANC Youth League president, Sexwale doesn’t rule out a return for the 31-year-old rebel and defended his decision to support Malema during his disciplinary hearing as one of principle.
“Sometimes you have to stand up and speak out and at that time I did it, but not because I wanted to support Malema. It was because some of the charges were flawed. Some of them were later dismissed. It wasn’t a flippant move on my part.”
Big on clichés and heavy on one-liners, Sexwale says all the right things.
He sees a party in crisis, a country that is concerned and says “the time has come to convince society that we are up to the task of leading”.
On corruption, he said: “There can’t be any ambiguity. It’s turning into a national monster. We must get tough and we must be seen to be acting”.
On the economy he expressed concern about the growth deficit and rising unemployment and poverty.
On government, he believes it is “a big multitrillion-rand business that requires real skill and expertise”, and argues that non-performance in the public sector is “not on”, yet he refuses to be drawn on specifics, such as the Limpopo textbook scandal.
Sexwale is saying all the right things but not necessarily all that needs to be said.
A week after the unsightly debacle in Limpopo where Zuma erected a wall of steel to shield himself from his own members, all Sexwale said was that it’s “best forgotten”.
The level of insecurity and secrecy in the party today is not only crippling much-needed debate but preventing senior men and women from taking the lead and stalling the crisis.
Leadership is big on Sexwale’s agenda. It is something he talked about repeatedly in the three-hour interview, which was confined to the ANC and not his business life.
He describes leadership in various ways, and mostly tinged with what he calls Mandelaism.
Yet he is incapable of breaking the mould and taking the lead and saying: “I want to be president.”
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