If there is one politician who today epitomizes the true spirit of OR Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela, that person has to be former President Kgalema Petrus Motlanthe, fondly known as Mkhuluwa, meaning the “Elder One” or “Grandfather” in Xhosa and Zulu. He has two younger brothers.

One of the most difficult things to find in politics today is integrity, selflessness and humble leadership. Today leaders are driven by self-interest, self-aggrandizement and need to be right. Kgalema is driven by the unity and love for his country. He is not perfect, like Tambo, Sisulu and Mandela, but he is what we term “a safe pair of hands.”

In country where people are boxed according to their educational backgrounds, it is not expected that Kgalema Motlanthe will display the qualities of an intellectual as he has conducted himself.

As I read the book, one thing that I admired the most about Kgalema, one that thing that stood out over and over again is his integrity. If you want to read about integrity in politics, Kgalema is an epitome of integrity in politics. It’s almost impossible to find leaders of Kgalema’s stature in politics.

He is extremely private, he has deep respect for his privacy. He is not dramatic, he is a reserved leader.

After he was appointed to replace President Mbeki, the staff at the Office of the Presidency was surprised at how Kgalema would have sit with them in their offices and have lunch with them, he would even make them tea.

They say he made them feel like he was their equal, that they were all there to do a job as a team of equals.

Kgalema is not afraid to speak truth to power, he is not afraid to raise his views on matters where he holds a dissenting view. He was vocal about issues he felt strong about, but he was respectful in his approach. He raised his views in a disciplined manner. He is definitely not a meek leader, he is unassuming as a person but he is smart. He is a team-player and not a fan of confrontation.


He commands respects among his peers and comrades. If there is proof of this, during the Mbeki/Zuma campaigns towards the epic Polokwane conference, he appeared in both “lists” of nominations of both Mbeki and Zuma. This is a sign that comrades see him a voice of reason, someone who is sober, not emotional.

When Mosiuoa Lekota was struggling to bring the Polokwane conference to order, Kgalema stood up and walked to the podium to restore calmness, there was a sudden quietness in the hall full of thousands of comrades. This was a defining moment that displayed how much respect the ANC comrades have for Kgalema.

As a serious disciplined leader, he respects rules and procedures hence he vehemently denied to be part of any election campaigns that stands to divide the party. He is against factions, cliques and groups.

The mark of a good leader is when he commands respect across the political spectrum. Even among opposition parties.

There are other comrades in the party that felt that he should have been more assertive on certain key issues. But the other side of the coin is that if he had been more assertive, that may have gone against the grain of his personality, he is not dramatic, he is thoughtful.

Besides that, being assertive doesn’t guarantee that people will do what you want.

Kgalema is a low profile, cautious, humble, selfless and quiet leader. He is frank, realistic and diplomatic at the same time. He is a builder of unity, not a divider. He is not easily angered, he rarely (if at all) makes enemies. He is a behind-the-scene leader, shuns the media.

A striking fact about this is that Gwede Mantashe has had a more visible and firmer public profile since taking over from Kgalema as SG in Polokwane.

It’s quite likely that Mantashe was more in the media in 2008 alone than Kgalema had been over the entire five year term from Stellenbosch to Polokwane.

Kgalema is much more carefully considered than Mantashe tends to be. He will not think twice but five times before he makes statements or calls press conference. He has never once shot from the hip and been visibly upset at press conferences, being guided by protocol and his own judicious restraint, whereas Mantashe can readily tell a journalist where to get off.

There has been a couple of scandals that the media published about Kgalema but after investigation, nothing come out of them. When the media ran a scandalous story about some secret relationship he had with some young lady, Kgalema kept his head and didn’t respond. After the whole scandal died down, Kgalema had a meeting with SANEF (South African National Editors Forum). The editors expected him to lash out at them, instead they were quiet surprised at his conciliatory tone and that he felt they need to work hard on their checks and balances.


Kgalema is developmental at heart. He is the catalyst behind the formation of the Political School. He was against the expulsion of Malema from the ANC. He always maintained that Malema and the ANC Youth League should always feel free to raise issues that challenges the ANC and that they should be guided not expelled.

He says people have a right to raise their views even when those views are contrary to what you believed in.

He says “You cannot fire or expel a person for expressing a view that is different from yours.”

He was (maybe still is) close to Malema. He listened to the youth league, but he challenges them when he differed with them. The only leader who spoke against Malema’s “We will kill for Zuma” statement was Kgalema, no one within the ANC had the courage to speak against Malema at a time when it was convenient for most leaders to keep quiet in support of Zuma.

He always viewed his role as that of a parent guiding his kids, not expelling them from home when they didn’t agree on issues. As a matter of principle, He was against the expulsion of any comrade from the party, let alone Malema.


Kgalema didn’t share the need to recall former President Mbeki from office. He felt that instead of recalling (and embarrassing) him when he was left with about 8 months in office, perhaps the best thing would have been to ask him to bring the country’s elections to a closer date, that way he can finish his term of office sooner but also amicably.

He raised his view against the recalling of Mbeki at the meeting but once the party had agreed to recall Mbeki, he had to respect the decision of the collective.

He didn’t agree with Mbeki on the recalling of Zuma as deputy president of the country, but he didn’t believe that recalling Mbeki by the ANC was a good decision either.

He was asked to convey the message (together with Gwede Mantashe) to Mbeki. The ANC (in sending Kgalema) felt that if there is one person that Mbeki respected, it was Kgalema.

When his plane had to do an emergency landing on an unlit runway at a deserted airport in the DRC due to low fuel, the superiors at the South Africa air-force wanted to charge the pilot of the plane with negligence and risking the president’s life.

Kgalema strongly objected. He pointed out that the pilot, a white South African, had saved their lives.

While the later investigation led to precautions ensuring that this kind of crisis never happened again, no action was taken against the captain and his crew.

Kgalema Motlanthe

Former president Nelson Mandela, wrote a letter to Kgalema that went to the media the day after Kgalema was inaugurated as the 3rd President of the South Africa:

“We have known you for a long time and you are eminently deserving of this high honour. You are a quiet, firm and principled leader, one who puts reason above emotions and one who seeks to unite rather than divide. We know that our country is in good hands with you at the helm of government.”

Kgalema never really harbored ambitions of being a president of the country. He was convinced that he could effect change and impact the country whiles being the ANC.

In the struggle for liberation you do what you have to and can do. If you end up a leader it must be accidentally and not as a result of an ambitious goal that singularly drives you. – Kgalema Motlanthe, 2009.

I enjoyed this book, even though when a book is written by a journalist who you feel has a certain agenda, you can’t help but have to try to steer away from the journalist’s view but stick to the story describing the man.

It’s good book, I loved it and I will definitely read it again. It reminds that in an extroverted world, introverts can make good leaders.

I give it 8/10

Let me finish the review by saying we are fortunate to have Kgalema in our country. Here let me quote the tribute he paid to the sterling stalwart of the ANC, Walter Sisulu, on his death in 2003:

“Thousands of voices have concurred that he was a great freedom fighter, a trusted leader and a worthy friend. In the days that follow… much more will be said to offend his modesty. He would remind us that the African National Congress always operated as a collective, that no one person can take credit for what was essentially the achievements of the masses. Yet there is nothing I have heard in the past few days few days that has been untrue, nothing exaggerated, no stories embellished. What emerges from these stories is not the portrait of a saint, but a vivid and multi-layered picture of a human being, who though not lacking in faults, was generously endowed with compassion, understanding humility and reason.”

Without realising it, Kgalema could have been describing himself.

One thought on “Book Review: Kgalema Motlanthe – A Political Biography

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