Thursday, February 5, 2009



By Mondli Makhanya
Feb 01, 2009

A (brief) presidency that held so much promise has unravelled into a great disappointment

Shortly after taking office, President Kgalema Motlanthe invited editors to the Presidential Guest House for a get-to-know-you session. We argued, debated, shared ideas. It was a really open, frank discussion, as they say in cliché land

When we walked out of the meeting, the general mood among the editors was one of relief and sadness.

Relief because we had, for the first time in ages, experienced a breath-of- fresh-air type engagement with the highest office in the land.

It was a far cry from the fierce duels we used to have when we met the guy who used to run the republic. Those were unpleasant affairs where he and his Rottweilers would growl and sink their teeth into our flesh.

On that October day, we met with a man we all felt we could work with and fight with if the need arose.

Even the ministers and officials around the table were relaxed, and levelled criticism at us without unsheathing swords.

As I said earlier, there was a feeling of relief and sadness.

Sadness because we realised that he would be in office for only six months before making way for the agile break- dancer.

Our sentiment was not out of sync with other sectors of society, who had been glad to see the back of the previous guy and were worried about the circus ways of the man who would follow Motlanthe.

Those early days of the Motlanthe presidency seem so long ago now.

Since then, a (brief) presidency that held so much promise has unravelled into a great disappointment.

Nocturnal matters aside, Motlanthe’s tenure has been singularly unexciting and unimpressive. Even his addresses to the nation have been rote and uninspiring. The last time he said anything that moved a soul was in his inauguration speech, which was a fatherly, unifying address.

The reason for this is that Motlanthe took the “caretaker” part too literally.

His colleagues at Luthuli House had forced him into accepting the caretaker presidency with the express understanding that he would just warm the bench and do as he was told.

But in not wanting to be his own man, he continued on some of the previous guy’s bad paths. Although he defied Luthuli House on some issues, he gave us no sense of what he was about.

He now finds himself a lonely man — with a party that is knifing him and a society that is lukewarm towards him.

It could have all turned out differently, had Motlanthe recognised upon taking the oath that he was doing so at a most critical juncture in South African history.

A depressed nation was looking for hope and leadership. It was looking for the father that he appeared to be in his initial days. He could have been the sort of leader who easily got us to sign up and clobber some unsuspecting small neighbouring country.

Motlanthe could have taken his script from a presidency report entitled South Africa Scenarios 2025: The future we chose? released a week before he took office.

The report painted three different scenarios for South Africa.

The first one, Not Yet Uhuru, envisages an irresponsibly free-market direction leading to the rich-poor gap widening, a situation not conducive to social stability.

The second scenario, which at the time was seen by experts as “implausibly rosy”, was labelled Nkalakatha. In this scenario, a take- charge government achieves 5% to 6% growth rate, slashes unemployment and gets the nation to work as one in taking on challenges.

The third, named Muvhango, is the most depressing and one which all should be striving to avert.

A report in the Sunday Times at the time summed it up thus: “Muvhango describes a South Africa which begins well, with rebounding growth and a successful 2010 World Cup, but which declines dramatically under the influence of protracted infighting in the ANC, poor planning, rampant materialism and widespread corruption. Despite good regional trade deals and booms in industries such as call centres, South Africa fails to capitalise on a high suggested world growth rate of 4.5% for the 16 years ahead. Poor performers (are) shielded by unions and political connections; billions in development funds are returned unspent by provinces; and social fractures include xenophobic violence and a militant feminism which features women-only carriages on the Gautrain. Following an ANC split in 2012, the party unifies again in 2022 and, belatedly, goes back to the nation, humbly, and (demonstrates) signs of a revival of idealism — effectively, starting the future over from scratch.”

The disconcerting thing is that Muvhango is not implausible at all. You just have to look around us to see why.

The reason I quote these scenarios is that Motlanthe had a chance to use his brief presidency to get us to kick-start thinking about our choices and to sound warnings to the nation about the follies of the present. He did not do so and he will leave office in April having been just another caretaker.

He has a chance to change this in the months he has left in office.

Because once he is gone we will be at the mercy of one whose only vision is who will be meeting next month’s bills.