As South Africa grapples with the question of who will emerge as the leader of the African National Congress at the party leadership conference next month, the real issue is whether President Jacob Zuma has been so damaged by scandal, the mining massacre and the resulting labor unrest this year that he doesn’t have enough support to retain the presidency.
While most observers expect Zuma to come out ahead, one of his potential challengers is Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, whose possible bid got a considerable boost earlier today when ANC members in Gauteng, the country’s richest province, said they would support Motlanthe as the country’s next leader.
But there’s only one problem: Motlanthe isn’t sure he wants to challenge Zuma for the presidency.
While the person chosen as the ANC leader isn’t guaranteed the presidency in the 2014 election, the ANC is such a dominant force in the country that the ANC leader would be the enormous favorite.
With his more laid-back, professorial style and caginess about whether he even wants the job, Motlanthe is seen by many as an ideal antidote to the brash Zuma at a time when the country is searching for quiet stability.
“I’m still agonizing over it,” Motlanthe, 63, told foreign journalists Friday at the Union Buildings, the headquarters of the nation’s presidency.
In fact, Motlanthe was even hesitant to call himself a politician.
“I know it might sound like a lot of ducking and diving and so on,” he said, adding, “I have a political attitude, but I’m certainly not a politician.”
For Zuma, the problems are many. Many blacks expected that the end of apartheid would bring them more economic opportunity, yet the majority of them remain overwhelmingly poor two decades after apartheid ended—while the politicians and the elite get richer. But perhaps no period has been rockier for Zuma than the last three months, when a massacre of 34 striking miners by police resulted in months of devastating strikes that shut down the mining industry and led to months of violent unrest that dragged down the nation’s economy, damaging the country’s image with investors and leading to a downgrade by credit ratings agencies. In addition, there are many questions about millions of dollars of government-paid improvements made at Zuma’s private home.
But Zuma still has the strong support of the Zulus, the nation’s largest ethnic group.
Motlanthe, a former Robben Island prisoner like national hero Nelson Mandela, actually served as president from September 2008 to May 2009 after then-President Thabo Mbeki resigned. On Friday, while he wouldn’t criticize Zuma, he did offer his thoughts on the corruption that he said comes with “the sins of incumbency.”
“Once it gets to a point where it becomes a matter of life and death to occupy a position of leadership or not, with an eye on future opportunities, therein lies the danger,” Motlanthe said. “The duty to be of service is lost … With time, you end up with a web of connections and patronage that is challenging.”
Those are intoxicating words for a nation that is struggling for an honest, Mandela-like leader.
But when asked for his opinion on Zuma, Motlanthe replied: “He is my president. He has all the qualities of being a president of the ANC.”