Deals gave him power
Am I the only one who finds it ironic that a political figure whose rise up the ladder was partly due to behind-the-scenes dealings now says he doesn't want to be made a leader "by arrangement"?
In an interview published by Business Day on Monday, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe all but ruled out the possibility of a deal whereby he would remain the ANC's second-most important leader after its Mangaung national conference next month.
With President Jacob Zuma now almost guaranteed to be re-elected as the ruling party's head honcho at Mangaung, Cosatu and other moderates in the Zuma camp have been hoping that a deal to retain Motlanthe would be struck before the conference.
This would involve a trade in which Motlanthe agrees not to challenge Zuma for the top post and Zuma supporters, in turn, withdraw their nomination of businessman and ANC national executive committee member Cyril Ramaphosa for the deputy presidency.
Even though the outcome of most of the ANC's provincial general council meetings last week indicate that Motlanthe is unlikely to beat Zuma, he made it clear in the Business Day interview that he was not interested in any pre-conference wheeling and dealing, saying this would take away the branches' right to nominate leaders.
"Elections in an organisation are an instrument for strengthening the organisation, not weakening it - but that's only when it works and people accept it for what it is," he said.
In his strongest indication yet that he would not accept an offer from Cosatu and other Zuma supporters for him to withdraw from the presidential race in return for continued tenure as deputy president, Motlanthe said: "I don't want to lead an organisation where I have no sense of what the members think of me, and by arrangement. I would never do that. That is why it's important that their assessment of you and the expression of their will must not be interfered with."
This, to me, is a puzzling stance, coming as it does from a man who has often benefited from deals entered into by senior leaders with little input from the general membership.
He rose to the rank of general secretary at the National Union of Mineworkers in 1992 because a group of union leaders - supported by ANC bigwigs - believed that the former Robben Islander was a more suitable successor to Ramaphosa than the then NUM deputy general secretary, Marcel Golding.
In the run-up to the ANC's Mafikeng conference in 1997, very few ANC branches knew enough about Motlanthe to elect him as the party's secretary-general.
But the intervention of senior ANC leaders, including stalwarts such as then president Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, ensured that Motlanthe was elected unopposed to the post.
According to what current ANC treasurer-general Mathews Phosa told Motlanthe's biographer, Ebrahim Harvey, there was no contest because the election was decided "more than a year before" by party leaders.
Surely party branches had no say in this.
Motlanthe's criticism of the recent Cosatu and SACP conferences - at which top leaders were returned to office without contest - is contradicted by the fact that he seemed to have no problem with this in 2002, when he and other ANC leaders were returned to office unopposed at the Stellenbosch conference.
Surely that, too, was "by arrangement"?
But, despite these contradictions, and Motlanthe now appearing unlikely to remain in the party's top structure after Mangaung, the ANC would do well to take his warnings in the interview seriously.
The party, he warns, is fast losing the "non-racial" character necessary for it to lead us into becoming a truly united nation.
More devastating for the ANC is his suggestion that debates are stifled by people thinking "about whether there will be jobs tomorrow or not".
Motlanthe is critical of the ANC's increased reliance on its majority in parliament to shoot down debates instead of developing strong counter-arguments.
"As the ruling party, if you do that, you undermine the other task of uniting people. Unity means people must have a sense of belonging and feel that they are valued as members of the South African nation. If you simply say: 'You're out on the basis of numbers', that message will be heard and understood by those who don't have the numbers," he said.
ANC branches might have chosen Zuma over Motlanthe to lead them for the next five years, but if they want the party to do well in the 2014 general elections, and subsequent polls, they should listen carefully to what the deputy president is saying.