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100% Maybe

Kgalema Motlanthe: A political biography by Ebrahim Harvey

[This first appeared in the Cape Times on Friday 23 November 2012]

Not many biographers would open their work with a volley across the bow of a fellow writer, but Ebrahim Harvey states upfront that, unlike Mark Gevisser, he will write the political biography of Kgalema Motlanthe that will “comprehensively unpack the dream itself” — alluding, of course to the subtitle of Gevisser’s book “The Dream Deferred”.

The dream, says Harvey “has to confront the very nature of the decades long struggle against political oppression (apartheid) and economic exploitation (capitalism)… and of the ANC’s policies and strategies that developed in relation to those two inseparable historical realities”.

A biographer need not feel an affinity for the subject (though Harvey clearly does) and it helps that there is a frame of reference on which both writer and subject concur. The concurrence here—and it is assumed and not reinforced by anything Motlanthe says, for he says very little—is that the ANC’s policy was formed out of a socialist manifesto and that it has abandoned this in favour of free-market capitalism. The dream has become a nightmare.

The confusing thing is that we are never really certain that it is Motlanthe’s dream that is unpacked. In fact, it is hard to discern any thing that can be remotely attached to Motlanthe and wrapped in the term “dream”—a word that evokes grand aspirations, a longing for things bigger than the painstaking administration of policy documents and proper bureaucratic procedures. He seems to be good at that.

This is not a flawed book; it is a bad one. The juicy bits, if they can be called such, have been splashed about in the media: that he saved Zuma at Polokwane, that he is dissatisfied with the ANC’s failure to of the poor, that the ANC did not need to expel Julius Malema, etc. But, strip away that and very little remains except a dry discourse on a need to revert to social engineering (frighteningly, of a Chinese nature, given Motlanthe’s infatuation with the Chinese way of government).

If Motlanthe is to be treated as a political animal, which the title of this book indicates, then Harvey has described some near-extinct species of sloth, patient by nature, not nurture. He describe Motlanthe’s “call to dutiful service”—embodied in his phrase, “In the struggle you do what you have to do and can do”—as a “passionate calling”: this is akin to describing the action of a hamster on a wheel as “persuasive”.

Perhaps, Harvey subscribes to the notion that politics is about ideas not personalities and thus we do not need to know or understand more about the current deputy president and maybe future leader of the country. But we cannot separate politics and personalities—rather like saying cuisine is about calories and not taste—and that is why the book is so dire.

The Motlanthe we see shows no leadership qualities: he is a grey man, filling his time with the endless footnotes of the history of the struggle like a PhD candidate determined to exhibit to his examiners the breadth of his reading. We are told, endlessly of his leadership prowess, but at every defining moment he fails. As the head of the NUM, he was easily persuaded to accept Mbeki’s explanation of why Gear—the spear of free-market capitalism—was right. He then criticises the fact that Gear was not discussed within the ANC, yet he was in a position to make that debate happen and remained silent.

He failed as the ANC’s secretary-general to display his so-called legendary negotiating pragmatism when Cosatu objected to iGoli2002 programme but he simply went along with it. Yet, that same secretary general at a 2000 Cosatu May Day rally “called on union members to ‘intensely hate capitalism and engage in a struggle against it’. These are words by which he does not live, and Harvey brushes over such duplicity too many times to achieve credibility.

For example, Motlanthe’s account of what transpired between himself at Luthuli House and Andrew Feinstein over the arms debacle conflicts with Feinstein’s. Harvey doesn’t pursue it. And he allows Motlanthe simply to avoid the question: what did he think about the arms deal? He was asked by Archbishop Tutu to instigate an arms deal inquiry during his eight-month tenure as president of South Africa, but refused to do so. It was on his watch that Vusi Pikoli was dismissed, against the recommendations of the Ginwala commission. (He denies a substantial pay-out was made to Pikoli to keep quiet.) And the less said about his chairmanship of the deployment committee in 2008 the better (which is obviously the choice Harvey makes).

Lord Douglas Hurd in an interview on his favourite political biographies, said the good ones are “writing the story of history and the story of their times through the lives of particular individuals”. He said such books should appeal to people for whom history has no thrall. On this measure alone, this book fails.

Perhaps Motlanthe said it best: “I still insist that it is not for members or followers of any organisation to want to be leaders… To volunteer leadership is the antithesis of democracy.” And therein lies the rub: what you get is “100% Maybe” (apologies to ZANews) and a dull book.


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