Former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe took over after the resignation of President Thabo Mbeki in the aftermath of the decision by the African National Congress (ANC) during a meeting of their National Executive Committee (NEC)., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
October 28, 2012 7:24 pm
South Africa reaches ‘tipping point’
By William Wallis and Andrew England in Cape Town
South Africa is at a “tipping point” and the power of the African National Congress will decline amid public “despondency” if the ruling party fails to renew itself according to Kgalema Motlanthe, the country’s deputy president.
Mr Motlanthe was speaking to the Financial Times ahead of what could be a defining battle for control of the party at a conference on December 16 against a backdrop of sluggish growth, rising social tension and growing disenchantment with President Jacob Zuma and the ANC’s rule.
“There is no doubt about it that we need renewal or we’re going south,” he said. “It [the conference] will represent a tipping point depending on what happens,” he added, saying that if public expectations of change were not met “the level of despondency will rise and the negative outlook will be strengthened”.
That might sound euphemistic for a leadership challenge that some factions of the ruling party would like Mr Motlanthe to pursue at the party conference, at which ANC leaders will be up for election. But the deputy president is keeping his cards close to his chest when it comes to his own intentions.
Softly spoken, and respected as a conciliator within the party, Mr Motlanthe is scrupulous about party protocol which frowns on open campaigning until provincial delegates nominate their preferred candidates in the month ahead of the conference.
Frustrated supporters fear by then it will be too late. Mr Zuma, who is tainted by past scandals, criticised for being indecisive and blamed for presiding over a sharp increase in corruption, may already have mustered the necessary numbers.
There is also talk within the party of a deal in which Mr Motlanthe desists from challenging in return for more powers, or that Mr Zuma is re-elected as ANC president for another five years but steps down as head of state ahead of 2014 national elections, paving the way for Mr Motlanthe to take over.
While such a compromise might save the party from rupture, some supporters believe it would deprive South Africa of the decisive leadership it needs now.
So, if he is nominated to contest, will he take up the challenge? “I can only respond to that question when it is put to me,” Mr Motlanthe says.
Born in 1949 in Alexandra, one of Johannesburg’s oldest and poorest townships, Kgalema Motlanthe was recruited into Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s armed wing, in the 1970s. In 1976 he was arrested and the following year sentenced to 10 years in Robben Island prison.
He was released in 1987 and in 1992 elected general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers. Five years later he became ANC secretary-general and in 2007 was elected ANC deputy president.
Mr Motlanthe became caretaker president in 2008 after Thabo Mbeki was forced from office by Jacob Zuma, then deputy president. Mr Zuma became president in 2009.
After weeks of crippling and often violent strikes in the mining sector exposed dangerous fault-lines within South African society, he is, however, explicit about what is at stake both for the party and the nation.
There is a battle, he says, taking place within the ANC. On the one hand there are members who feel they arrived at their destination when, after decades of struggle against racial discrimination, they overturned white minority rule. On the other, there are those who believe that the events of 1994 were just the beginning of the journey.
“Many organisations don’t last precisely because they ossify with time, and when you say people are conservative, you are really saying, in simple terms, that they’re clinging onto the truths of yesterday, which have no relevance today,” he says.
Younger South Africans who did not experience the evils of apartheid directly tend to judge the party not just on its history but on whether it meets their aspirations today.
“They use a simple measurement. Is the ANC capable of going to the moon? And they say, well, if it can’t deliver (school) books, how can it go to space? There’s no sentimentality about it.”
Responding to speculation that if there is no change of direction ahead of the next general elections, the near monopoly on power that the party has commanded since 1994 could begin to be challenged, he says: “The point is the ANC has to find a way of connecting with that generation. If we don’t, they will not see the ANC as their natural political home.”
During recent turmoil at the mines, Mr Zuma and his government have often seemed missing in action. Among those who stepped into the breach was Julius Malema, the firebrand former ANC youth leader expelled from the party earlier this year, who is now facing fraud charges. Although Mr Malema is seen as a backer, the deputy president is scathing about his ilk.
“Populists are no different from rioters. There’s a futility about their cause because it’s always informed by the here and now, and once they’ve had their platforms they go home and sleep,” he says.
Mr Motlanthe, who rose to prominence as a leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, shows a deep appreciation of the underlying causes of the turmoil in the sector, and says a mere increase in wages – such as that agreed on Friday - will not be sufficient.
There needs to be wholesale change to the migrant labour system, he says, aiming some criticism at those mining companies which failed to improve living conditions for their workers when times were better.
Today’s adverse global economic climate makes it all the more critical that those in power lead by example, he adds. “As leaders, we have to clearly indicate that we are prepared to make sacrifices.”