Who is Kgalema Motlanthe?

Some notes on the man the ANC is deploying to the South African Presidency

Petrus Kgalema Motlanthe was born in Alexandra Township on July 19 1949, the oldest boy of his parents' six children. His mother was a washer woman who later worked in a clothing factory. His father worked in Anglo-American's head office. Kgalema would be the only male in the family who did not end up working for the company at one point or another.

His family moved from Alex to Meadowlands Soweto in 1959. The formative influence in his early years was the church. "I grew up in the Anglican Church" he told City Press in 1992, "and was very close to the priests. They belonged to the Community of the Resurrection." He served as an altar boy for many years and at one point thought of becoming a priest.

In a 1992 interview with the academic Padraig O'Malley Motlanthe noted that the brothers of this order, to which Trevor Huddleston belonged, "were the first people who were doing visible social welfare work in the townships and one came into conflict with them at a very early age."

"These people lived communal lives, they had a common approach to things and basically shared everything that they had with whoever happened to be at the mission at that point in time. To me at that time, they were quite an eye opener in that here were whites who were prepared to do ordinary chores like washing their own dishes, etc. At that time it was quite an experience in that in Johannesburg there was no place where blacks could buy food and enjoy it except on a pavement, but here were whites who would walk into any home in the townships and share basically anything they had, and that is really what shaped ones philosophy in general."

After matriculating from Orlando High School he went to work for the City Council. "They had what they called the commercial department, which was a glorified name for bottle-stores and agricultural marketing in the townships. I worked for about seven years as a supervisor of the Johannesburg Council bottle-stores in the townships."

He was an excellent soccer player and, according to a later profile, played for Spa Sporting Club in Pretoria and Rockville Hungry Lions in Soweto. According to a biography released by the ANC yesterday in the early 1970s he was "recruited into Umkhonto we Sizwe. He formed part of a unit tasked with recruiting comrades for military training. The unit was later instructed to transform its function from recruitment to sabotage."

On April 14 1976, two months before the uprisings in Soweto, he was arrested by the security police and detained in John Vorster Square for 11 months. He was tried, along with Stanley Nkosi and Joseph Mosoeu in February 1977 on Terrorism Act charges. According to the 1977 Survey of Race Relations Survey: "they were alleged to have undergone training for sabotage, promoted ANC activities, and received explosives for sabotage. All pleaded not guilty. Mr Justice Human found Nkosi and Mothlanthe [sic] guilty and sentenced them to effective goal sentences of 10 years each. Mosoeu was acquitted."

He would spend a decade on Robben Island. These years, he later told O'Malley, were the "most enriching" of his life.

"We were a community of people who ranged from the totally illiterate to people who could very easily have been professors at universities. We shared basically everything. The years out there were the most productive years in one's life, we were able to read, we read all the material that came our way, took an interest in the lives of people even in the remotest corners of this world. To me those years gave meaning to life."

Motlanthe was released from prison in April 1987 and joined the National Union of Mineworkers as an Education Officer. A New Nation article (February 13 1992) said that the "decision to join the labour movement was a result of a careful analysis of the union movement by an imprisoned leadership on Robben Island. At the time of the formation of the NUM, there was deep concern within the political leadership over the difficulties involved in organizing the mining sector. The Island leadership, Motlanthe part of it, decided to deploy trusted cadres to help build the union and ensure that it developed [in a] progressive direction. Motlanthe volunteered."

After the ANC was unbanned he became chairman of the party's PWV region. He stepped down from that position in September 1991 to devote more time to his work for NUM. In January 1992 the Central Executive Committee elected him acting General Secretary in January 1992 over Marcel Golding, the favourite for the position. Newspaper profiles of him described him then as a committed socialist and "120% ANC", but said that he was agonising over whether to join the SACP or not.

He would serve as secretary general of NUM until he was picked out as the ANC's candidate for secretary general in 1997 - again filling the shoes of Ramaphosa. He was elected unopposed to that position at the ANC's 50th National Conference in December of that year. He was re-elected unopposed in 2002. He would describe the shift from the unions as a "mere deployment."

For the next several years he would form an integral part of the new Mbeki led leadership. As such he was not uninvolved in three of the most destructive policies of the Mbeki-era - centralisation, the support for Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and AIDS denialism.


In an August 1997 interview with O'Malley he spoke with grudging admiration of the way in which Afrikaner nationalists had used political power to advance their volk. Even as they were looking after their own through state patronage, he noted, "they were also sending brilliant young ones through technikons overseas in Holland, Germany. They come back and they are deployed to run this institution or that institution. [Despite] much of the excesses of apartheid, one can't help but admire their determination because they were exactly more or less in the same situation that we find ourselves in today."

He added that he had been reading the Super Afrikaners (a book on the Broederbond). This contained, he said, a description of "what political power means, and how it must be utilised to advance the cause of the Afrikaner. They were very meticulous, they understood that they were now in power and that these levers of power must be utilised to advance their cause."

Shortly thereafter the ANC leadership, of which he was now a part, adopted a policy of cadre deployment. ANC cadres would be deployed across all centres of power to advance the cause of the liberation movement, and the black majority more generally.

In early May 1998 Motlanthe told the Sunday Times that the ANC wanted to review the constitutionally protected independence of various institutions - if it won a two-thirds majority in the 1999 election - so that it could govern "unfettered by constraints". This initiative stemmed, apparently, from growing frustration within the ANC that "it has been unable to grasp the key levers of power."  

Among the institutions the ANC wanted to review, the article stated, "are the Judicial Service Commission, which advises the President on the appointment of judges, the auditor general, the attorney general and the Reserve Bank." Motlanthe was quoted as saying, "you need people in these positions who buy into the values of the new nation."

The ANC MP, Bulelani Ngcuka, appointed to the position of National Director of Public Prosecutions in July 1998, was an early beneficiary of this programme. In a June 1998 interview with O'Malley Motlanthe justified this approach stating that the old ruling groups had, after the transition, "relied very much on the sway and influence that they still had in key strategic organs of the state and that ranges from the judiciary, the judges, right down to the police."

A Sunday Times profile of Motlanthe from June 4 2000 how he had, since his election, "led the charge to reclaim the power the party lost to Parliament, bureaucrats and numerous statutory bodies. Whereas ANC activists who had been dispatched to the government and Parliament avoided Luthuli House during the first five years of democratic rule, today the downtown building receives a procession of heavyweights from the state, parastatals and trade unions. They come to resolve disputes between government departments; between different tiers of government and between ANC-aligned unions and ANC government structures."

In his organisational report to the party's National General Council in July 2000 Motlanthe boasted that the "achieved considerable progress in the deployment of political and administrative heads, we now need to put greater emphasis on restructuring middle management in strategic areas in the public service." These cadres, Motlanthe made clear, would remain answerable to party. The report stated, "we need to ensure the accountability of all cadres of the movement wherever they are deployed." In that report Motlanthe reaffirmed the equally Soviet concept of "democratic centralism" as providing the guiding organisational principles of the ANC:

"These include that key policy decisions are subject to democratic debate and discussion within our organisation, the decision of the majority prevails and, once made in the correct structure, is binding on all members of the ANC. Decisions of higher structures bind lower structures, and leaders and cadres have a responsibility to abide by, defend and implement these decisions."


Motlanthe seems to have had a fairly peripheral involvement in the ANC's promotion of the putative AIDS cure Virodene. However, in early March 1998 he did lead the ANC's charge against the Medicines Control Council for refusing to allow the testing of the drug on human subjects. He suggested that the MCC was acting under the sway of rival pharmaceutical manufacturers. "I surmise that the council is driven by other interests than concern for proper control of medicines".

When asked why the ANC had such an interest in Virodene he replied: "Because this is a major issue-it confronts the entire humanity. If society is on the brink of a major breakthrough on the scourge of AIDS, [it is wrong] if there is no will and readiness to bring this work to a conclusion." Motlanthe also said decent researchers [Zigi and Olga Visser] were being "hounded like criminals" and accused the MCC of "playing god". "Given the devastating effects of AIDS the research must be brought to its logical conclusions", he stated. Motlanthe also dismissed the view that Virodene was toxic as "any medicine had side-effects".

Between late 1999 and early 2000 Thabo Mbeki had been converted to the doctrines of the AIDS ‘dissidents' or ‘denialists'. For a while at least it seems that Motlanthe was bewitched by Mbeki's views on the aetiology of AIDS and the toxicity and lack of efficacy of anti-retrovirals.

In an interview with O'Malley conducted in August 2000 Motlanthe disputed the causal link between HIV and AIDS and also referred repeatedly to the fact that the virus had (allegedly) never been isolated:

"That's the fundamental question because once it is scientifically isolated then the scientists will develop a proper counter for it and we will be much closer to the solution of the problem. That's why it's a symbol, it's not one disease, it's a symbol of opportunistic diseases which kill you because your immune system has collapsed."

He accused the pharmaceutical industry of trying to profit from the disease with inefficacious medicine. "In this country," he told O'Malley, "we have seen a massive, massive campaign calling for a drug called AZT to be given to women who are rape victims." When asked whether this campaign was backed by the pharmaceutical companies he replied:

"Well the producers of the drug they are very happy, they have so many sales persons, they think they could secure government approval and a commitment that it would be made available and it is something that has to be taken on a daily basis, made available to rape victims, pregnant mothers and that kind of thing, people who are living with HIV. They would make quite a rake in out of it and yet there is no proof that it actually helps." In a follow-up interview in September 2000 he spoke passionately on the topic. He stated:

"There's a virus called HIV which is one of 69 possible causes of the collapse of the body immune system and our position is that from all accounts this virus has not been isolated and photographed and studied under controlled conditions as to what it's behaviour is. Therefore it remains one of the many causes and not the sole cause of AIDS and therefore the response to AIDS is informed by that totally, that there is ongoing research work by scientists to try and isolate this virus. Now there are people who are driven by pharmaceuticals who say that that question must never be asked because pharmaceuticals produce drugs on the basis that HIV causes AIDS, period. It is the only cause of AIDS and that's it. Any other question, you are a dissident, you are bad, you are malicious, you are dangerous to society, you will be responsible for the deaths of so many children and this and that and so on. It's all crap from the pharmaceuticals."

He also accused white South African critics of Mbeki's AIDS policies of being gullible. "You see half of them don't read but they regard themselves as well informed because they're white." He said that when you ask an expert whether they have seen evidence of the HI virus "they will swear at you. They will tell you that question was answered twenty years ago, they will tell you you are giving audience to dissidents."

The reason they will become vicious, Motlanthe noted, is because "it [the virus] is simply not there. They take it on authority and then it gets passed on like that but there's no authority, it's a lie repeated by those who are supposed to know better. The truth of the matter is that if they were to admit that indeed no such thing has happened, I mean it would cause serious reverberations across the scientific world.... It would be like when Galileo invented the telescope and said the earth is not flat after all, it's round, it caused serious reverberations. That's what will happen with this thing."

By December 2002 Motlanthe had not moved that far away from his earlier stance. In reply to a question from City Press's Jimmy Seepe about the lack of emphasis on HIV/AIDS at the party's conference Motlanthe replied:

"The issue of HIV/AIDS has always been on the ANC agenda. The ANC approach to the disease is that we are not dealing only with a communicable disease. It takes more than a single drug to boost the immune system of a person. Poverty is critical in terms of what a person eats. We refuse to make the human body a dumping ground for chemicals. What we have not subscribed to is the belief that we should look at a single drug [as the only remedy]."

In early 2004, following the ANC's decision to embark on a comprehensive roll-out of anti-retroviral treatment Motlanthe's views seem to have shifted completely. He told Jimmy Seepe: "We don't regret the way we have dealt with the issue. We have approached this issue very comprehensively. We are in the same boat with the TAC now." He defended the ANC government's previous stance on the basis that extra time had been needed:

"The government has been very cautious to ensure that when it embarks on treatment, such treatment should be sustainable. It must not be something that only grabs headlines just for a few months. The ANC knew it was going to reach a time when the roll-out was going to happen. It was a progression of events that needed to be undertaken."


On Zimbabwe Motlanthe was part of the ANC leadership collective which supported the hold of Zanu-PF on power through the first two stolen elections in Zimbabwe (in 2000 and 2002) and the land seizures which brought that country to ruin. In an interview with O'Malley in September 2004 he stated that in "our analysis" the MDC was in essence "not a political party, it was a protest vote." He criticised the EU and the British whose interest, he said, "was to exert pressure so that they can see a regime change" in Zimbabwe. The ANC's fear, he continued, was that if the West was allowed to get away with this across the Limpopo, very soon they would be trying the same thing in South Africa.

"If you have a legitimate government and state and you have external powers seeking to dislodge that legitimate government what you are saying to us, the ANC, is that you would do the same tomorrow to us. The point I'm making is that we can see an injustice even if it's wrapped up in a veneer of justice here."


It is not clear to what degree Motlanthe took up these issues on HIV/AIDS, Zimbabwe, and cadre deployment, out of conviction - or whether he was just behaving like a loyal apparatchik dutifully defending and implementing the ANC ‘line' set by Mbeki. He revealed something of his mindset in December 2004 when he took a sideswipe at Archbishop Desmond Tutu for criticising Mbeki's intolerant leadership style. Motlanthe told an ANC audience: "We should not be cowed into silence by those who would call us sycophants for exercising the political discipline that has sustained our movement over decades and enabled us to liberate our country."

Where he came to distinguish himself in the last few years of Mbeki's rule was in his outspoken despair at the corruption that had set in across party and state, particularly at local government level. In early 2007 he told Carol Paton of the Financial Mail that "this rot is across the board. It's not confined to any level or any area of the country. Almost every project is conceived because it offers opportunities for certain people to make money. A great deal of the ANC's problems are occasioned by this. They are people who want to take it over so they can arrange for the appointment of those who will allow them possibilities for future accumulation."

The paradox was that the policy of cadre deployment driven by Motlanthe (and others) was primarily responsible for this decay setting in. "The effect" Paton would later note, "was to collapse the distinction between party and state and encourage growing abuse of state power and economic activities arising from it. However, when things began to go wrong and corruption within the state and ANC began to take root, Motlanthe spoke out clearly and robustly." Paton's assessment was that Motlanthe's "personal integrity has not been seriously questioned."

"There have been occasions, however, when he has been implicated in influence-peddling, apparently at the behest of the ANC. On one occasion he accompanied businessman Sandi Majali on an oil-buying trip to Iraq, with the obvious intention of providing ANC sanction to the mission. Though detractors say he is not as clean as he appears, nothing of substance has stuck. Indeed, Motlanthe appears desperate not to be embarrassed."

The other question is whether Motlanthe will lean push for a more left-leaning economic policy. His inclinations have historically been socialist. At NUM he was critical of GEAR. In a 2000 interview he spoke highly of the way in which Gadaffi had used control over oil wealth to develop Libya. He went on to complain:

"If we take the South African situation, we've got diamonds here, we've got coal, we've got platinum, we've got chrome, we've got iron ore, we've got gold, manganese, we've got all of these minerals, if we were to turn the revenue, direct it into the national kitty, we would be able to do a whole lot of things. We would be able to build proper houses for people, construct infrastructure in this country within a short space of time and of course, instead of just a prominent middle class emerging, you would have the whole nation of people living well, their children receiving education to the highest levels and therefore an educated people capable of inventing and utilising modern technology, all content. But you see where none of that is available to government, none of the natural resources here are available to government."

Motlanthe's great strength, in the current circumstances, is that he is a moderating influence within, and on, the new ANC. A profile by Fiona Forde earlier this week noted that there are few within the ANC who have a bad word to say about him. "To them he is the silent but strong force that exudes calm in a moment of panic - a man whose cool-headed outlook sees him through many a tough time. His is the voice of reason they regularly turn to in the sometimes disparate tripartite alliance. He is an intellectual of note, a comrade whose door is always open."

It was indicative of his ability to avoid burning bridges that he was nominated for a top six position by both the Zuma and Mbeki camps ahead of Polokwane. In the end he chose to stand on the Zuma ticket for the position of Deputy President against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The question remains whether this loyal party apparatchik will be able to provide the leadership this country so desperately needs?

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