Motlanthe, seeking S. Africa's top job in his own right

16th December 2012, Comments 0 comments

Kgalema Motlanthe has already had a taste of what it is like to be president of South Africa.

Now, at 63, he wants another shot.

Born in Alexandra, a township in the north of Johannesburg, Motlanthe was catapulted to power in September 2008 when the ANC unceremoniously booted out Thabo Mbeki from the top job.

Acting in a caretaker role, Motlanthe assumed custody of the nation for less than a year until Jacob Zuma -- who ousted Mbeki as head of the African National Congress -- was elected.

Five years on since that act of political regicide, Motlanthe wants to prove he is something more than a seat warmer.

At the party's five-yearly conference being held this week, he is the man who wants to oust Zuma as ANC leader, and by extension, as president of the country.

Yet his campaign has been more of a love tap than a full frontal assault.

For months ahead of the conference Motlanthe said little about his campaign, except to say he was "agonising" over a possible run.

Even when three ANC branches backed his nomination, Motlanthe left it up to his spokesman to announce that he was in the race.

That may be a sign of the man, often described as a consensus builder who treads softly and respects party unity.

Coming from a poor working class background, he grew up in a house which he has described as "just one big room".

He attended an Anglican missionary school, one of the few places were a black child could be assured of a basic education under the apartheid regime.

It was a formative experience.

"I was an altar boy for many, many years and I think that is really what shaped one's life," he told interviewer Padraig O'Malley in 1992.

"At one point I thought I was going to become a priest actually."

Instead he played top-level soccer and worked for the Johannesburg Council, where he became involved with Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC.

His chief task was to take recruits out of the country for training, including to Swaziland where he first met Zuma.

But when the anti-apartheid struggle deepened in the late 1970s and Umkhonto we Sizwe turned to sabotage Motlanthe's life changed drastically.

"In 1976 April, that is two months before the uprisings in Soweto, I was arrested and charged on the Terrorism Act and sentenced to a term of imprisonment of fifteen years," Motlanthe recounted in the interview.

He was charged with furthering the aims of a banned organisation, possession of explosives (TNT) and having undergone training for sabotage.

He said his years at the Robben Island prison "were the most enriching of my life, we were a community of people who ranged from the totally illiterate to people who could very easily have been professors at universities."

"We were able to read, we read all the material that came our way, took an interest in the lives of people even in the remotest corners of this world. To me those years gave meaning to life."

While giving meaning, the strains of being away from his family may have cost him his marriage.

-- 'Analytical, disciplined' --

In all he served 11 years in prison. When released in June 1987 he promptly joined the National Union of Mineworkers, as an education officer.

He soon rose through the ranks to become head of the union, a top flight political position in South Africa.

"The very first meeting we had, I was struck by his analytical capabilities and powers and by his disciplined approach to everything," Cyril Ramaphosa was quoted by Motlanthe biographer Ebrahim Harvey as saying.

While an avid unionist, Motlanthe was anything but dogmatic about the challenges facing South Africa. Sometimes he managed to sound more like someone from the World Bank than the left wing.

Discussing the country's bloated but massively inefficient government in a 1996 interview he spoke about "right-sizing the public sector."

On the vexed issue of income disparity between races, Motlanthe advocated increasing everyone's wealth rather than activist redistribution.

"The reality is that the cake is just not big enough for everybody else and therefore the challenge is really to mobilise all the social forces towards the effort of increasing the cake," he said.

"To me the most important element in affirmative action ought to be in the area of education, spreading and unlocking, because I think it would unleash immense social resources and that's what we need to achieve."

Those moderate views spelt a rise through the ranks of the ANC that was incremental, but not prone to the turbulence of more outspoken cadres.

He was appointed Secretary General in 1997, where he served for two five-year terms before being appointed deputy president.

At this week's ANC conference he will find out if he will rise to the top.

© 2012 AFP

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