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Book Review

Kgalema motlanthe - a political biography Author (s): Ebrahim Harvey
By Staff Writer Sun 21 Dec 2014, 08:50 am (GMT +2)
Mmegi Online :: Book Review








EBRAHIM Harvey's lively biography of Kgalema Motlanthe, launched on Thursday night at Wits University, is a classic campaign biography. This genre was established by John Eaton's 1824 book on his friend, Gen Andrew Jackson, in which the military man's purported rise from a humble log cabin was lovingly, but not altogether accurately, detailed. The weaknesses of the presidential contender were turned by Eaton's pen into strengths. His irresponsibility was reshaped into fearlessness and his political naivety was refashioned into moral rectitude.

It becomes clear early in Harvey's book that mere evidence will not impede the progress of his chosen narrative. He finds a log cabin in Alexandra in which to place Motlanthe's family and he leaves them there. But Motlanthe himself told scholar Padraig O'Malley two decades ago that his father and his brothers worked for Anglo American, an "all-embracing" company that dominated his family's life. "I am the only one who never really worked for (Anglo)." Harvey simply ignores this politically embarrassing aspect of his subject's family history.

Harvey downplays Motlanthe's 1992 claim that his service as an Anglican altar boy "shaped one's life". He is in a hurry for this muscular teetotaller, whose first job running Soweto liquor outlets was presumably linked to his temperance campaigning, to transcend Christianity for a more politically correct Marxism.

When all else fails, Harvey simply allows Motlanthe to rewrite the past. Thus he is given space to deny his scorn for Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In 2004, he told O'Malley that the MDC was a tool of "neocolonial" intervention, "anointed" by western powers to secure Iraq-style regime change. "If it can be done in Zimbabwe", he warned, "it will be done to us tomorrow."

Not if he can help it. Motlanthe once described the Democratic Alliance as "not truly South African" and claimed that it "targets" poor people. "If you can get them (the poor) onto your side," he rather curiously claimed, then "you can be in government".

In 2000, Motlanthe attacked "gullible whites" for promoting antiretroviral (ARV) treatments for AIDS. Harvey selectively quotes his observation that HIV/AIDS campaigners were recycling "crap from the pharmaceuticals". But he does not explore Motlanthe's claims that HIV was merely one of "69 possible causes" of immune deficiency, that orthodox scientists were plain wrong, or that ARV proponents were driven purely by the profit motive.

The book is equally unsuccessful at substantiating Harvey's claim that Motlanthe "has never really been an ambitious leader". Motlanthe was "anointed" ANC secretary-general in 1997 over the heads of the "ordinary branch delegates" he claims to respect. Harvey credulously accepts Motlanthe's claim that he was obliged to accept by Walter Sisulu.

The author does not interview Motlanthe's enemies, but even his friends underline his limitations. Irene Charnley, a colleague from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), hilariously describes his leadership style as "like a shepherd's, leading from behind". NUM general secretary Frans Baleni says that as ANC secretary-general, "all the powers of Motlanthe's position were taken by the (ANC) presidency. Basically, he was like a mere clerk." Gwede Mantashe says that "even when Mbeki did things that were clearly wrong, he would not confront him".

Harvey tells us a little bit about who paid for the book - among others Primedia (part-owned by the Mineworkers Investment Company), the Oppenheimers and African Rainbow Minerals. But he does not reveal what strings, if any, came with an authorised biography. For this reason, we do not know if Motlanthe sanctioned, or even invented, one spurious insinuation that runs throughout the book: that Motlanthe fell under Sisulu's spell on Robben Island and later came to exemplify the great leader's conciliatory virtues. On the concluding page, Harvey suggests that Motlanthe has inherited the great man's mantle. Some readers may find this claim presumptuous: whoever or whatever else he may be, Motlanthe is no Sisulu.
¥ Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town. (Business day) Author (s): Ebrahim Harvey
Published By: Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd
Date Published: 1 October 2012
464 pages
Country: South Africa
EAN: 9781431404384

EBRAHIM Harvey's lively biography of Kgalema Motlanthe, launched on Thursday night at Wits University, is a classic campaign biography. This genre was established by John Eaton's 1824 book on his friend, Gen Andrew Jackson, in which the military man's purported rise from a humble log cabin was lovingly, but not altogether accurately, detailed. The weaknesses of the presidential contender were turned by Eaton's pen into strengths. His irresponsibility was reshaped into fearlessness and his political naivety was refashioned into moral rectitude.

It becomes clear early in Harvey's book that mere evidence will not impede the progress of his chosen narrative. He finds a log cabin in Alexandra in which to place Motlanthe's family and he leaves them there. But Motlanthe himself told scholar Padraig O'Malley two decades ago that his father and his brothers worked for Anglo American, an "all-embracing" company that dominated his family's life. "I am the only one who never really worked for (Anglo)." Harvey simply ignores this politically embarrassing aspect of his subject's family history.

Harvey downplays Motlanthe's 1992 claim that his service as an Anglican altar boy "shaped one's life". He is in a hurry for this muscular teetotaller, whose first job running Soweto liquor outlets was presumably linked to his temperance campaigning, to transcend Christianity for a more politically correct Marxism.

When all else fails, Harvey simply allows Motlanthe to rewrite the past. Thus he is given space to deny his scorn for Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In 2004, he told O'Malley that the MDC was a tool of "neocolonial" intervention, "anointed" by western powers to secure Iraq-style regime change. "If it can be done in Zimbabwe", he warned, "it will be done to us tomorrow."

Not if he can help it. Motlanthe once described the Democratic Alliance as "not truly South African" and claimed that it "targets" poor people. "If you can get them (the poor) onto your side," he rather curiously claimed, then "you can be in government".

In 2000, Motlanthe attacked "gullible whites" for promoting antiretroviral (ARV) treatments for AIDS. Harvey selectively quotes his observation that HIV/AIDS campaigners were recycling "crap from the pharmaceuticals". But he does not explore Motlanthe's claims that HIV was merely one of "69 possible causes" of immune deficiency, that orthodox scientists were plain wrong, or that ARV proponents were driven purely by the profit motive.

The book is equally unsuccessful at substantiating Harvey's claim that Motlanthe "has never really been an ambitious leader". Motlanthe was "anointed" ANC secretary-general in 1997 over the heads of the "ordinary branch delegates" he claims to respect. Harvey credulously accepts Motlanthe's claim that he was obliged to accept by Walter Sisulu.

The author does not interview Motlanthe's enemies, but even his friends underline his limitations. Irene Charnley, a colleague from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), hilariously describes his leadership style as "like a shepherd's, leading from behind". NUM general secretary Frans Baleni says that as ANC secretary-general, "all the powers of Motlanthe's position were taken by the (ANC) presidency. Basically, he was like a mere clerk." Gwede Mantashe says that "even when Mbeki did things that were clearly wrong, he would not confront him".

Harvey tells us a little bit about who paid for the book - among others Primedia (part-owned by the Mineworkers Investment Company), the Oppenheimers and African Rainbow Minerals. But he does not reveal what strings, if any, came with an authorised biography. For this reason, we do not know if Motlanthe sanctioned, or even invented, one spurious insinuation that runs throughout the book: that Motlanthe fell under Sisulu's spell on Robben Island and later came to exemplify the great leader's conciliatory virtues. On the concluding page, Harvey suggests that Motlanthe has inherited the great man's mantle. Some readers may find this claim presumptuous: whoever or whatever else he may be, Motlanthe is no Sisulu.
¥ Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town. (Business day)



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