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South Africa’s Deputy President Debates Taking Party Leadership

South Africa's Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, Nov. 30, 2012.
South Africa's Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, Nov. 30, 2012.
Anita Powell
South Africa's ruling party is preparing to elect a leader who will be heir apparent to the presidency in 2014.  But the man seen as the biggest challenger to President Jacob Zuma says he's still "agonizing" over whether to go for the presidency of the African National Congress, ANC.  

Kgalema Motlanthe, South Africa's deputy president, deftly ducked and dodged the mantle of power that has been offered to him by some branches of the African National Congress.

Little is known about Motlanthe and his views, and despite spending nearly two hours speaking to foreign journalists on Friday, that is still largely the case.  

Motlanthe’s biggest challenger may in fact turn out not to be Zuma.  It appears to be Motlanthe.

"My, my, my feelings are completely neutral," Motlanthe said, when asked for his reaction to his recent nomination by ANC branches, including the powerful Gauteng province branch.

That word seems to encapsulate how different Motlanthe is from the president.  Zuma is rarely described as neutral - this is, after all, a man who said earlier this year that women should not be single and that motherhood is “extra training” for women.

Motlanthe, by contrast, has a professorial air and a skill of saying very little with many words.  He is known as a through-and-through ANC man, and he offered little information on how he might lead the nation differently from Zuma.  He mentioned South Africa's many problems - education, health issues, crime, corruption, and land reform among them - but did not offer any clear solutions.

He said he and Zuma generally agree on policy.  But he did say the ANC needed reform.

"We can't rely on the ANC's glorious history.  History is only of value to the extent that it gives us lessons.  But if we are irrelevant today, the ANC will count for naught," he said.

Motlanthe said that he was "agonizing" over the decision to accept the nomination - he has about two weeks to decide -  but then said, to the surprise of many in the room, that even if is elected party leader, it doesn't mean he'll become president.  The presidency has been held by the ANC's top official since the party took power in 1994, but Motlanthe noted that it is up to parliament to choose the president.

He has a point: Motlanthe actually served as caretaker president after the departure of Thabo Mbeki, though he was not the ANC president at the time.

South Africa's political dance is complicated, more so because the dance floor is so crowded with former ANC freedom fighters jockeying for few spots.

Motlanthe may have put himself in an all-or-nothing position: while the Gauteng provincial ANC wants him as president, the ANC veterans league shot back Thursday by eliminating him from their entire slate.  He may end up having to fight to keep his current job.  

But while he said little, he did let slip that behind the scenes, he may be a shrewd and smooth negotiator.  I'm not a politician, he said with a cheeky smile, but I have a political attitude.

We'll see how far that takes him next month when the ANC chooses its leader.

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