Kgalema Motlanthe

Deon de Lange

WITH South Africans still basking in the afterglow of Nelson Mandela Day, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe had to settle for relatively muted celebrations of his own birthday yesterday.

But the toned-down merriment was more than made up for by glowing salutations from the ANC Youth League, which issued a statement congratulating “President” Motlanthe on the occasion. The league made the same “mistake” last year.

“The ANC Youth League wishes President Kgalema Motlanthe a joyous and productive birthday. Comrade Motlanthe is a politically, organisationally and ideologically sound leader of the ANC, and a committed servant of the people,” the league said.

Asked whether the reference to “president” had been a typing error, youth league spokeswoman Khusela Sangoni-Khawe told Independent Newspapers that there were “several factors” that had led the league to refer to Motlanthe as “president”.

She said it was customary in the ANC to refer to former presidents as “comrade president” – seemingly conflating the roles of president of the country and president of the party.

She said the ANC still referred to former president Thabo Mbeki as “comrade president”, but neglected to add that Mbeki was indeed a former president of the ANC. Motlanthe briefly served as president of SA after Mbeki was fired by the ANC in 2008, but has never held the position of ANC president.

Sangoni-Khawe also noted that, as President Jacob Zuma was currently abroad on a state visit to China, Motlanthe was now the acting president of SA.

This point was confirmed yesterday by Motlanthe’s spokesman, Thabo Masebe.

But the real reason for the youth league’s cheeky promotion of Motlanthe became clear when Sangoni-Khawe was pressed for a better explanation. “It is also our aspiration that, come Mangaung, we will no longer have to refer to comrade Motlanthe as deputy president,” she said.

The league hopes to replace Zuma with Motlanthe when delegates gather in December for the party’s national conference.

But in the light of recent disciplinary steps against former youth league leader Julius Malema, which resulted in his expulsion from the party for, among other things, comparing Zuma unfavourably to Mbeki, Sangoni-Khawe was quick to add that the league’s comments did not amount to “opening the leadership debate”.

The ANC has banned members from openly discussing leadership succession until nominations officially open in October. “We are not nominating (Motlanthe) – we are just joining the discourse on leadership,” Sangoni-Khawe added.

The league’s statement read like election campaign rhetoric. It recalled Motlanthe’s Struggle credentials (“he was sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island” and “he has served in the underground structures of the ANC”), and punted him as a “capable cadre” ready to “serve and take up the challenges confronting our people”.

“Through comrade Motlanthe we have been reminded about the centrality and importance of education, self-sacrifice and revolutionary theory in practice for the fundamental transformation of society.

“He never misses an opportunity to remind us that it is our obligation, as young people, to constantly question and fearlessly challenge the status quo.”

If any doubt remained about which presidential mast the league had nailed its colours to, this was dispelled by the statement’s conclusion that “undoubtably (sic)”, Motlanthe “is the future of the ANC and South Africa”.

And in case Motlanthe himself had doubts about his future, the league put him on notice by saying that, “when the time comes in the next few months”, Motlanthe’s values of “principle, integrity and humility” would guide him once the mandate of leadership was bestowed on him by the “overwhelming majority” of ANC members.

The ANC also issued a congratulatory message yesterday, thanking “the deputy president” for his “selfless, consistent and impacable (sic) leadership and contribution to the selfless struggle and governance of our country”.