PRETORIA, South Africa — South Africa's Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, the man some have begun to nominate to take over the nation's governing African National Congress party, doesn't want to be called a politician. Let alone a candidate.
"I'm still agonizing over it," Motlanthe told foreign journalists Friday at the Union Buildings, the seat of the nation's presidency.
Yet ANC local bodies have begun to pick Motlanthe, a subdued, 63 year old to take over the party now run by President Jacob Zuma. It's not clear whether Motlanthe will get the support needed to overcome Zuma at the party's December convention in Mangaung. Certainly Motlanthe is not actively campaigning; he dodged even some of the simplest questions Friday. Some, however, have heralded his candidacy as a chance to put someone in place whose perceived quiet rectitude and caution could right a party beset by allegations of mismanagement and corruption.
Becoming leader of the ANC means a nearly automatic ticket to becoming the president in post-apartheid South Africa. Opposition parties don't garner the widespread support given to the ANC, the party of icon and former President Nelson Mandela. National elections are scheduled to be held in 2014, so the upcoming ANC convention will set in place the leadership who will contest it.
Zuma, 70, currently leads the party. However, he faces ever-increasing criticism among South Africans as the nation's poor blacks, who believed the end of apartheid would bring economic prosperity, face the same poverty as before while politicians and the elite get richer. Meanwhile the nation's economy continues to struggle amid slow growth and the aftermath of violent unrest in the country's mining industry. Zuma also faces criticism over millions of dollars of government-paid improvements made at his private homestead.
However, Zuma remains a charismatic leader who maintains a great deal of support from Zulus, South Africa's largest ethnic group. And while the ANC doesn't have a strong history of candidates campaigning before their national conventions, Motlanthe seems at pains – for now – to separate himself as far as possible from the idea of being candidate.
"I know it might sound like a lot of ducking and diving and so on," he said Friday while speaking to the Foreign Correspondents' Association of Southern Africa. He added: "I have a political attitude, but I'm certainly not a politician."
Such ducking might help Motlanthe, who served as South Africa's president from September 2008 to May 2009 after then-President Thabo Mbeki resigned. Some might view him as sober leader, untainted by the internal disorder within the ANC. Though he shied away Friday from even naming who he thought were the most inspirational leaders in Africa, the former Robben Island detainee criticized the corruption that he said comes with "the sins of incumbency."
"Once it gets to a point where it becomes a matter of life and death to occupy a position of leadership or not, with an eye on future opportunities, therein lies the danger," Motlanthe said. "The duty to be of service is lost ... With time, you end up with a web of connections and patronage that is challenging."
When asked for his opinions on Zuma, he replied: "He is my president. He has all the qualities of being a president of the ANC."
Motlanthe later left the room smiling as he walked under a portrait of Zuma on the wall above his head.