Tag Archives: Cosatu

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.

—ends— 

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When rulers replace leaders.

Who Rules South Africa?

By Martin Plaut and Paul Holden (Published by Jonathan Ball)

If you wrote a book called, Who Rules the USA? the clamour of conspiracy theorists from David Icke’s collection of lounge lizards to the Twitters of the  #Elvisisinthesupermarket followers would be deafening. The book would be a best seller but no one would take it seriously, let alone read it.

But Who Rules South Africa? is taken seriously and read in South Africa. South African-born, Martin Plaut was an advisor on Africa and the Middle 
East to the British Labour Party from1978 to1984 (spanning the James Callaghan and Michael Foot years) after which he joined the BBC, working primarily on Africa. He was an Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of 
International Affairs, leading their Africa research programme and continues
 to be an active member. He is
 currently Africa Editor, BBC World Service News and has written, co-written and/or edited seven books. Paul Holden, a South African, is the author of two other books, both dealing with what has become known as ‘the arms deal’: The Arms Deal in your Pocket and The Devil in the Detail.

Conspiracy theories do dribble through this deeply researched book. But at the end of the last page you are faced with some glaring truths. (One of which is that since 1948 South Africans have been ruled by a one-party state with ’democratic trimmings’.)

The simplistic answer to who rules is, of course, the African National Congress (ANC). For the ANC—the ostensible ruler of the country—the state train, however, is beginning to pop a few rivets and may be close to derailment. The tripartite alliance of the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu)—the real rulers—are no longer on the same train, let alone the same track.

Plaut and Holden claim the alliance was never really in agreement and was simply bundled onto the same goods wagon by the ANC in exile with no written agreement, no constitution, no minuted meetings and no public accountability. It still operates in this clandestine manner.

Part of the problem in fathoming who runs the country goes back to black economic empowerment (BEE), the murky unstable structures of which are beginning to teeter. They quote businessman Moeletsi Mbeki who derides BEE as a plan by the white economic ‘oligarchs’ to ‘co-opt leaders of the black resistance movement by literally buying them off’. And it seems to have succeeded. By August 2011, ‘about three quarters of Cabinet’s 35 members were found to have financial interests outside their main occupations…’ as did ‘59% of the country’s 400 members of parliament’.

Some say the increasing middle class will stabilise the government and thus play an important role in who rules. Transformation in the public service has been the primary driver of black middle-class growth and continues to do so. The middle class comprises just under 10-million people, of which 50% are black Africans. But the abrogation of power by the middle class—both black and white—means it has become docile.

A 2007 Public Services Commission report on the indebtedness of public servants found that 20% of all public servants had been served with garnishee orders (instituted when a person defaults on a credit repayment which is then serviced by a third party, in this case the State). Business Day columnist Mzukisi Qobo says the complacency of the black middle class is result of the economic security: holding a professional job and having a regular income.

He says, however, the white middle class think it is the job of the black middle class to challenge the government. This, he says, is ‘a convenient escape from individual responsibility to whiteness as a de-legitimated category that can exist politically only as a victim of the black-led ruling party’.

The SACP and Cosatu are challenging the rapaciousness of the BEE elite and the ANC’s ‘cadre deployment’ in key government and economic sectors, stirred by their members call for service delivery. It is feasible these two could form their own opposition party and vote the ANC out of power. But now, the voters—of whatever class—are not the rulers in South Africa, due partly to the mix of proportional representation and cadre deployment.

Plaut and Holden see it is a little more sinister. Zuma has created a cabal of BEE elites, a prejudiced intelligence service tracking political opponents, a compliant Judicial Services Commission and a corrupt police force working hand-in-glove with organised crime to maintain his position of power. He has been able to do this as ruler of the ANC—not as the country’s leader. Parliament and the Cabinet operate very much as does the Chinese National People’s Congress—to rubberstamp the decisions of the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) very much in the manner of the Chinese Politburo.

The influence of China on trade and policy decisions may well mean that the ANC may not respect the power of the ballot box should it lose the elections. And that’s when we’ll really know whether the ANC rules or leads the country.

This review was originally published in the Cape Times.

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