An interview with South Africa's former president Kgalema Motlanthe

Thursday, 21 September 2017
Richard Dowden

Kgalema Motlanthe should be basking in the glow of a well-lived life. Born in 1949 his youth was dominated by the steady advance of apartheid in South Africa. He talks slowly, describing the 1950s carefully without exaggeration or anger. His father was a social activist in Alexandra Township, the small black slum in the rich white northern suburbs of Johannesburg. In his youth, he says the African National Congress (ANC) was a talking shop, an aspiration, but as the apartheid barriers constricted more and more aspects of black lives, he chose to resist and joined the armed wing of the banned ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

A leader of the Soweto 1976 uprising, Motlanthe was arrested, charged under terrorism laws and sent to jail on Robben Island for 10 years. Far from being a dead period, Motlanthe describes this time as “the most productive years of one’s life. We are able to read and discuss. Those years gave meaning to life.”   

He was released in 1987 and became Deputy President and then President when Thabo Mbeki was forced to step down in 2008. He handed over to Jacob Zuma the following year. Motlanthe is appalled at the way Zuma has allowed corruption to flourish and tribalised South Africa. He also decries the establishment of reconfigured provinces which, he says, are based on the former tribal homelands and that gives currency to tribal identity.  The discipline of the ANC throughout its years and its fundamental commitment to be non-racial and non-tribal is being eroded.

“Perhaps the ANC has attained the purpose for which it was founded," he says, but adds that "it has become isolated from the rest of society and not relevant. What is needed is a broad front to rally the best of young talent. “

The economy has been at zero growth and that, he says, causes great concern. “It is all big talk and less action. Mega projects are dreamed up, just whatever the head of state wants. South Africa could become junk status. The state-owned companies, Escom [the power company] and Transnet [the rail system] used to be profitable but are now needing bail-outs and that will cause a domino effect in the economy.”  

His soft, slow voice conceals a burning anger at what the ANC and the country have become. “It causes us sleepless nights. I can imagine the ANC losing power,” he says. “In many parts of South Africa it relies on coalitions...It will only have a renewal when it hits rock bottom because people in it for the largesse it distributes will desert it.”