Kgalema Motlanthe has formally announced that he is running to unseat South African President Jacob Zuma in an African National Congress (ANC) leadership vote next week. Motlanthe, the current Vice-President and former interim president, has ignored claims from ANC politicians that his challenge to Zuma is a threat to the stability of the party. Since firebrand ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema was expelled from the party earlier this year, alternatives to Zuma, unpopular amongst South Africa’s younger generation, have been sought.
The choice of Motlanthe, a former Secretary General of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), as the Youth League’s preferred candidate is unsurprising. Mining has dominated South African politics and society for the past few months with widespread pay strikes and violent government crackdowns making the front-pages at home and abroad, culminating in the extensive coverage of the Marikana massacre in August. Zuma is widely seen as a stooge of the mine owners and the nomination of a former trade union leader like Motlanthe as a challenger for the ANC leadership is a clear statement of want from the Youth League.
The other prominent figure currently causing waves in South African politics is Cyril Ramaphosa. A supporter of Zuma, Ramaphosa will be offered the Vice-Presidentship if Zuma defeats Motlanthe in the leadership contest. Interestingly, Ramphosa is a man, like Motlanthe, inextricably linked to the trade union movement in South Africa. Indeed, he was key in developing the NUM during the 1980s and was an important spokesman for black workers’ rights during the Apartheid era.
Such a history should make Ramaphosa the ideal candidate of the ANC Youth League. However, times have changed. Ramaphosa now represents big business and vested interests perhaps more than any other man in South Africa. Possessing a stake in Lonmin, the supposedly repressive and unfair owners of the Marikana mine, Ramaphosa called for strikers at the mine to be punished for their “criminal” behaviour just a day before the shooting started. For a former bastion of workers’ rights to take such a stance was deeply shocking and, for many, a sign of the decaying morality in South Africa under the corrupt Zuma leadership.
It is unfortunate that the ANC has no significant political challenger in South Africa. Complacency abounds in a government unconcerned by the corrupt practices that surround it, safe in the knowledge that re-election is a mere formality. Strikes at mines persist and are mirrored at public utilities companies and other industrial works nationwide. Motlanthe may not be the radical change the ANC Youth League desires but he has links to both the Apartheid struggle (he was imprisoned on Robben Island) and the trade union movement, neither of which he has yet severed. For that reason alone he is a worthy challenger to Zuma. What will happen if, as is expected, he loses, and what repercussions that will have for the unity of the ANC and South Africa in general, we shall soon discover.