We are now a month away from the Mangaung national conference of the African National Congress (ANC) and, at the time of writing, it is still not clear whether Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is a presidential candidate. If he does eventually enter the race, will it not be too late? Or is his reticence precisely what will catapult him to the presidency of the ruling party?
Those who are close to the Deputy President are convinced that he is doing the right thing. They argue that he is the one ANC leader who will bring principle and dignity back to the presidency of the party. If they are correct, Motlanthe is being faithful to ANC culture and tradition, according to which it is the disciplined cadre who does not wear his ambition on the sleeves of his ANC shirt. Motlanthe, they tell us, has positioned himself above factional politics and, if he is elected, stands a better chance of uniting the ANC after Mangaung.
Unfortunately, others in the anti- Zuma lobby are not as sanguine. In fact, when the Deputy President visited Mbizana, in the Eastern Cape, as part of the sixty-eighth anniversary celebrations of the ANC Youth League, Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale, during his speech, turned towards Motlanthe and asked: “Uzoyithola kanjani uhlez’ ekhoneni?” (How are you going to get it (the presidency) when you are just sitting in a corner?)
Sexwale was echoing the sentiments of many who are becoming increasingly frustrated with Motlanthe. Some of these are of the view that Motlanthe is obsessed with the appearance of dignity and gravitas. To them, he is fighting within the rules when the pro-Zuma camp has been on the campaign trail for a long time and has relied on the advantages of incumbency. However, what may be more damaging is the perception that he wants to be elected without a fight and is, therefore, being cowardly.
For me, what has been interesting is the distortion of history. The distortion has been happening at two levels. Firstly, it has been argued that ANC culture and tradition do not allow members to campaign for positions. Secondly, there has been an attempt to dislodge opponents through ‘lectures’ which, ostensibly, are meant to extol the virtues of former leaders, such as OR Tambo and Nelson Mandela, when, in fact, what is being done is to create an ‘other’ (the opponent) who is unlike these stalwarts.
In this case, if the argument is, let us say, that Tambo had a beautiful voice, the opponent in the battle for Mangaung has an ugly voice.
But where does the idea that members of the ANC should not campaign for positions come from? When the ANC was operating in exile and underground within the country, security considerations dictated that the location of ANC consultative conferences, as well as the identity of leadership candidates, be kept secret since, by campaigning openly, such candidates would have exposed themselves to the danger of being assassinated by apartheid agents.
But prior to the banning of the ANC in 1960, it was not uncommon for ANC members to campaign for leadership positions. At one ANC conference, there were 54 candidates for the top job. Therefore, the current antipathy towards open leadership contests was not ordained by history.
The problem is that the ANC has multiple identities: it is a liberation movement, a modern Parliamentary party and social movement and has, at times, operated like an opposition party. The difficulty it faces is that of harmonising the different dimensions of its complex identity.
Further, people use a particular dimension of this complex identity to advantage themselves and to disadvantage real and perceived political enemies. The overall strategy seeks to advance narrow political interests by distorting, ignoring or denying history and by relying on that part of the ANC’s complex identity which has the potential to maximise opportunities by imposing constraints on political opponents.
These are the challenges the anti- Zuma lobby has to contend with. By this, one is not suggesting that supporters of Motlanthe are angels in this regard. The difference between Zuma supporters and Motlanthe supporters is that the former have been more efficient and have enjoyed the advantage of a candidate who is not coy about his availability.
As matters stand, it may be too late for the anti-Zuma lobby, even if Motlanthe decides to accept branch nominations when the nomination process closes at the end of this month. For the Zuma camp, the challenge is to sew up the presidential race before December, and this can only happen if Motlanthe declines. For the anti-Zuma campaign, the challenge is to fend off the growing perception that their man is a spineless coward. Either way, I will be surprised if Zuma is not re-elected in Mangaung.
Click here to watch a video interview with Matshiqi discussing the ANC leadership race