Corruption in ANC, public service has set South Africa back – Former President Kgalema Motlanthe

Corruption in ANC, public service has set South Africa back – Former President Kgalema Motlanthe

Saturday, April 13, 2024 1:06 pm

President Motlanthe explains a point to Adebanwi, photo by Eddy Marenco.j.jpg

President Motlanthe explains a point to Adebanwi, photo by Eddy Marenco

On April 4, 2024, former President of South Africa, Kgalema Motlanthe, delivered a Special Lecture organized by the Center for Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania, USA, entitled, “30 Years of Freedom and Democracy in South Africa.” Motlanthe is the third president of democratic South Africa. He was elected president by the South African parliament on September 25, 2008, following the resignation of President Thabo Mbeki. He left office on May 9, 2009, and subsequently became the Deputy President under President Jacob Zuma until May 2004. Motlanthe was imprisoned on Robben Island by the apartheid regime between 1977 and 1987. He was the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers between 1992 and 1998, and the Secretary General of the African National Congress (ANC) between 1997 and 2007. In 2007, he became the Deputy President of the ANC and, in 2008, a Member of Parliament and a Minister in the Presidency. He is currently the the Chair of the ANC Electoral Committee for the May 2024 elections. After the lecture, he sat down for Q&A with Wale Adebanwi, the Director of the Center and Presidential Penn Compact Professor of Africana Studies.

The interview has been edited for conciseness. Excerpts:


Wale Adebanwi: Your lecture returned to history and then brought us into the present. The conclusion was thought provoking. Let me start with this, how does it feel to be president first and then deputy president? I asked this specifically because I was reflecting on John Lance John Nance Garner, who was Vice President to President Franklin Roosevelt. He once said that “becoming vice president was the worst damn full mistake I ever made.” What was your own experience?

President Kgalema Motlanthe: Well, the advantage of serving as a deputy president after being president is that the president you deputize is your successor. And so, in many instances in our discussion, the president would say, “No deputy president behaves the way you do,” and I would say, “You remember I was President before you.” I would also say, “No president behaves the way you do.” So, there is an advantage: you can come at issues from a position of experience, and it also communicates a message that to be in public service means you accept to serve at whatever level. That is what is important in that experience.

WA: At the end of apartheid three decades ago, Africa, the Black World, and indeed the entire world expected so much from South Africa. The way apartheid ended seemed to represent a model for the rest of the world in terms of how to end a conflict, the kind of conflict that you had in South Africa. South Africa came up with a constitution that is perhaps the most progressive in human history. Given the advantage you had given the position you occupied in 1994, what were your expectations of South Africa. And how would you reflect on the outcome in the last three decades?

PKM: The struggle against apartheid was conducted under the Freedom Charter of the mid-1950s. In 1955, to be precise, a congress of the people was convened, which include The South African Indian Congress, the African National Congress, The South African Colored People’s Congress as well as the Congress of Democrats and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. The Nationalist Party itself was invited. All the political parties were invited to participate, but instead of sending delegates, the Nationalist Party sent police to arrest those delegates who participated. Fortunately, by the same time they disrupted the conference, the Freedom Charter had already been adopted by that conference. Therefore, the Freedom Charter, in its preamble, states that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, Black and white, and that any government of the future must be based on the will of all the people. So, the central message of the Freedom Charter was that you fight against an evil system, and you must not be like your oppressors. That is why the apartheid system was one of white supremacy and racial discrimination. You couldn’t replace that with Black supremacy or African supremacy; you have to strive for an inclusive system, because in liberating ourselves as oppressed people, we also had the responsibility of liberating the oppressors. Therefore, we couldn’t be like them. We had to be more accommodating. And because it is all about humanity, we have to say we are all fellow human beings, though we have been treated as sub-humans. That was the promise of 1994. And, of course, it’s a process. It is a long journey that we have to work towards achieving over time, because we found, as I said, that the fault lines of apartheid are still in place. Legislation has changed. All enjoy the rights, but that’s the principle and what is enshrined in the Constitution. The real reality and life experiences are slightly different and need a more determined effort to change them. The younger generation who have not experienced apartheid, to whom apartheid is like a distant story from the beginnings of time, have no patience; they don’t understand. So, they want the rights that they are entitled to be realized immediately. As a nation, we need that. We need young people to bring radical perspectives, because we ourselves have difficulties in explaining to the people to be patient, to wait, and so on, people who have nothing. Martin Luther King Jr. in his letter from a jail in Alabama said, “if you are fighting against the degenerating influence of ‘nobody-ness,’ if you are a nobody and you regard yourself as a nobody, it’s very difficult for those of us who are privileged to say, please be patient. We have no such right.”

President Motlanthe, photo by Eddy Marenco.jpg

President Motlanthe, photo by Eddy Marenco

WA: To pick up on that, in my research on street renaming in South Africa, I met young people in townships and informal settlements who expressed these sentiments. I remember the first time some young people in Orange Farm (Johannesburg) told me that Mandela was a “sellout,” I was shocked. Mandela?! They think that members of your generation have all “sold out.” What is the concrete promise that you have for these young people, because they are absolutely frustrated with your generation? They think that it’s not only that you sold out, but you have no vision concerning what to do about the conditions that devastate their lives. What are the concrete things that need to be done to address this question, that is, the challenges of this younger generation who are losing hope?

PKM: Well, it is the prerogative of youths to be radical, and that’s what we expect from them. If you have radical youth, you have a good problem. The worst problem is if we have a youth of wheelbarrows; if you leave them here, you’ll find them there after 20 years. That’s the worst problem, because progress and motion can benefit from that kind of radical perspective. And that is why we have to try to understand their vocabulary, understand their anxieties. In part they also have a historical obligation to define what their role is today and we have to say to them, “you are not leaders of tomorrow, you are leaders today.”

WA: I will follow up on that. I think this is important because your role is especially important not just as a former president but as one of the leaders of the ruling party, the ANC. South Africa faces incredible challenges now. State capacity has collapsed across many government functions that are essential to a functioning economy, there is extremely high inequality, unemployment remains high at 35%; in fact, youth unemployment exceeds 60%. There is an unprecedented energy crisis with persistent electricity shortage, and poverty has risen to 55%. So many challenges. In fact, a recent report has it that South Africa has the world’s highest inequality and unemployment rate. What went wrong? And what is being done by the government of your party to address this fundamental questions?

PKM: Well, as they say, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That adage is true even today. We had jobless growth in the first decade of our democracy mainly due to the commodity boom, so, the economy was growing at 4-5% but mainly from the money market, not from the manufacturing and productive sector. And so, people who invest in the money market are speculators; they come in at a certain time, and they leave, and when they leave, they don’t bid you farewell, and it ends. So, the economy wasn’t creating jobs. The education system was also not creating the hard skills needed by the economy. So, it was overwhelming…. and the corruption that took hold of the governing party and the public service also set us back a great deal. Remember that it was preceded by an economy that was growing, and we even hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2010, and then, from there, things just went south because of corruption.

Corruption means that a bottle of water like this, which goes for a dollar, may be sold to the government for $25. When there is an occasion like this, what does corruption mean? It bleeds scarce resources, and they divert resources. That, coupled with where poor maintenance of bulk infrastructure, meant that… let me give you an example. At ESKOM [the electricity commission], there are a number of coal-fired power stations. At one power station called Tutuka, which has six units, because of poor maintenance and also the centralization of procurement at ESKOM head office, when a unit needs a spare part, it takes forever for the head office to procure the requisite spare parts and send it through. And so, what do they do? They carry on with the five that are operational, and if any one of the five also needs some maintenance or spare parts, they get the spare parts from the one that is already operational. And slowly, in the end, they end up with two functioning units and the other four, that’s where you get your spare parts from. This reduces the base load, because you need balance in your base load; otherwise, you go into a disconnect. They will have to stop the supply in order repair the damages units. That’s what corruption led to.

At the moment, President [Cyril] Ramaphosa has made efforts to embark on a renewal process and take corrective measures. Institutions established to support democracy were hollowed out through the processes of deliberately undermining their capacity, including revenue service. No governing party should reduce the capacity of where the revenue service collects revenue. You need that. Your budget comes from collected revenue, but even the South Africa revenue services were hollowed out of capacity to collect revenue.

WA: You are the chair of the electoral committee for the ANC for the May 2024 elections. Many people believe that the ANC is intellectually and politically exhausted. So, they are wondering why they should vote for a party that seems to be ideologically exhausted. And as you mentioned in your speech, that seems to be part of the reason why you have about 150 other political parties now contesting for elections, because it seems the ANC is exhausted. I am wondering why you think the ANC would be a good option for many people in the next elections. It seems evident from some of what I have read that your majority – if at all you still manage to have the majority in the parliament – would be drastically reduced. The question is, why should a party that is ideologically, intellectually, and politically exhausted be allowed to return to power?

PKM: Well, experience is the best teacher. The African National Congress has the experience of being … of course, it has been eroded by corrupt elements, but that’s an experience. The other parties don’t have much experience, which is why at the local government level, when there are coalitions already, those coalitions are very unstable because they are not established on the basis of principle or common vision. They are transactional. Therefore, you have a plethora of smaller parties that say “what is in it for us? We will be with you, but what do we get in time?” So, the national focus gets lost in that process. The ANC will remain central in the South African polity precisely because of the experience it has over the years. And, of course, the party that is 102 years old will get tired. The tendency is that you can always celebrate your glorious past. One of our famous poets in South Africa, Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile – but he is no more, may his soul rest in peace – his poetry collection is entitled “The Present is a dangerous place to live.” He writes past, present, and future as one word, and he says past, present, and future is always now. So, you need the experience. The past may be glorious, but it’s of no value unless you draw the correct lessons from the past to address the present in a manner that lays down a solid foundation for the future. So, past, present, and future are always now.

President Motlanthe answering a question as Adebanwi looks on, photo by Eddy Marenco.j.jpg

President Motlanthe answering a question as Adebanwi looks on, photo by Eddy Marenco

WA: About eight countries in West and Central Africa have experienced military takeovers in the last five years. What is your take on the fate of democracy in the continent, in the light of democratic regression in some parts of the continent?


“Democracy has a bright future in Africa”


PKM: Democracy has a solid and bright future on the continent because it is only through democracy that the needs of ordinary people are realized. Therefore, coup d’etats have a lot to do with external influences, because many countries on the African continent still have to win the right to define what their strategic goals are themselves. Because, at the moment, the rating agencies, the donors, are the ones who determine what should happen. So, 54 countries on the continent are expected to do exactly the same things, at the same time. One of the leading analysts on the continent says we are going through a period of choiceless democracies on the continent. Choiceless because the policy is externalized, outsourced. What qualify for progressive policies are punished by the investors. There is still that challenge for the continent and every country to win the right to determine what its own strategic goal is and to define its problems.

“My love for jazz music”

WA: You were once the patron of International Jazz Day in South Africa. I know that you are into jazz music. Who are your favourite jazz musicians?

PKM: Oh my God, is it in South Africa or elsewhere?

WA: In South Africa.

PKM: Well, there is one musician called Clifford Brown. He’s a trumpeter. At the age of 20, he was involved in a near-fatal car accident and almost died. When he recovered, he played with some of the prominent jazz players and made lots of recordings, but he died at the age of 25 in a car accident. Within that brief period, he inspired other musicians such as Sonny Rollins. because many jazz players fell victim to drug addiction. But Clifford Brown, young as he was, could go and perform and, when he was done, hang out with everybody else and go home without been hooked on drugs at all. So, he inspired Sonny Rollins, who said, “look, Clifford proved that it is possible to be a wonderful musician and not be a victim.” So, he was my favorite artist. He was one of my favorite trumpeters. He died very young, at the age of 25.

WA: Any other?

PKM: Oh! Well, there’s a whole lot of them; I mean, Max Roach was great for all musicians. However, John Coltrane, was a great musician for us back home in South Africa. We had Hugh Masakela, Jonas Gwangwa, and Kippie Moeketsi. Moeketsi told me a story. In 1959, they produced the first jazz album called “Jazz Epistles,” which was composed of Abdullah Ibrahim, John, and Meoketsi. Miriam Makeba, who Harry Belafonte helped come to the United States, she was 20 years old, and she got Moeketsi admitted into the Manhattan School of Music. And we back home, we believed him to be one of the accomplished jazz musicians.  At the Manhattan School of Music, they tested him, and they found that he had a good ear for music, and he could follow what they were playing. Then, they asked him what he wanted to study. And he says I want to play the trumpet. So, they gave him a scholarship, but he couldn’t read music notes symbols. His music was self-taught, and he never studied anything. And then they said, “OK, play it, whatever you can play.” Well, from his performance, they found out that he had no idea about the trumpet. The way he held the trumpet and the way he put the mouthpiece to his lips were wrong. Anyway, they said, “we’ll give you a chance.” So, they put him in a class with 13-year-olds, and he says they played far better than he had ever hoped to play. He spent 5 years there and qualified to become a real trumpeter and could now read, compose and write music. The following year, he also arranged for Jonas Gwangwa to join him. Jonas was 22 years old that year. He got admitted to the Manhattan School of Music, and they did the same test and found that he had the ear for music, he understood the music. And they asked, “so what instrument do you play?” He said, “I play trumpet.” They said, “OK.” They gave him a scholarship, but he too couldn’t read music notes symbols. Then they said, “OK, play whatever you play.” He played a slight rumble, and he went down like that [gestures], and they asked, “when you go down, what notes are you trying to read there – because you can play these notes from here?” The same thing happened to him in the classroom for 13-year-olds. He spent five years there and became a great musician. The third one that joined them was Kippie Moeketsi. Moeketsi, they also told him to play the saxophone. They found out he had the ear and everything and he had composed songs that were performed by Miriam Makeba and others. They asked him what he wanted to study, he said he wanted to do orchestration and composition. He was not interested in playing any instrument. So, they say, “you are 25 years old, we can’t teach you.” They rejected him. He was fortunate to find a professor who spent five months to teach him the basics of composition and so he could be able to orchestrate. He became a prominent musician and composer. A record producer like Quincy Jones described him as “a griot.” Because, when he was doing the score for the Roots, he relied on Moeketsi.

  • Transcribed by Chukwudi M. Isiani, doctoral student, Department of Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania.

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