JOHANNESBURG - South Africa's deputy president is being urged to challenge President Jacob Zuma for the leadership of the ruling party, the African National Congress.
Kgalema Motlanthe, dubbed Zuma's "silent opponent" in the South African press, has not announced his candidacy for the ANC's top spot, which will be decided at a conference in late December. The ANC leader will be the party's candidate for president in the 2014 national election and such is the strength of Nelson Mandela's party that the ANC candidate is virtually assured victory.
Motlanthe is being urged to get off the fence and actively challenge Zuma.
"We have to restore the dignity of the ANC. You can't fight the struggle in a white suit ... Get out of the white suit and into overalls and get your hands dirty," ANC Youth League Deputy President Ronald Lamola said at a rally Motlanthe rally attended Saturday, according to the local newspaper, The Sunday Independent.
Motlanthe has not indicted if he will compete against Zuma to lead the party, but there is growing speculation that he may throw his hat into the ring. A new biography of Motlanthe has sparked conjecture that he may challenge Zuma, who is facing persistent criticism of his leadership of the ANC.
The authorized biography portrays Motlanthe as someone who could rescue the ANC's credibility in the eyes of those who are disappointed with the party's failure to stem social inequality despite the country's considerable natural wealth. But the book also suggests that he may not have the aggressive political instincts needed to battle Zuma.
Motlanthe is not a well-known figure internationally, but he has already served as South Africa's president. He was a caretaker president in 2008 after the ouster of former President Thabo Mbeki.
Political analysts question whether Zuma, 70, will face a serious challenge from his deputy. Some believe Motlanthe, 63, has a fair chance following what many see as Zuma's poor handling of labor unrest in South Africa's crucial mining sector.
The new biography, "Kgalema Mothlanthe," by Ebrahim Harvey, comes out barely two months before ANC members gather for a crucial conference to select a new leader for the party. The biography will help South Africans better understand Motlanthe, said Shadrack Gutto, a professor of African renaissance studies at the University of South Africa.
"The timing would suggest that he meant to try and say, `Here I am,'" Gutto said of the new book, which came out as some ANC branches openly declared their support for Motlanthe as ANC president. Gutto said Motlanthe would offer a "totally different type of leadership" and that "he would be a credible leader" in a way Zuma is not.
Thabo Masebe, a spokesman for Motlanthe, said his boss "doesn't want to think about a particular position."
"It is up to the will of the (ANC) branches," Motlanthe is quoted as saying in the biography. "My position is that nobody must try to canvass for themselves in the run-up to elections ... But if I am nominated for such a position when the electoral commission approaches me and says I have been nominated for such a position, I will then either accept or decline."
Motlanthe came to be the temporary president of South Africa in 2008, when Mbeki resigned after he was ousted as the leader of the ANC. The bitterly divided party agreed on Motlanthe as a safe, non-controversial caretaker president until the national election, which Zuma won. Motlanthe was president of South Africa for nearly eight months, from Sept. 2008 to May 2009, after which Zuma took charge. Motlanthe was widely credited with offering measured, sober leadership in those months, according to his biographer.
"Most of those I spoke with say it is gravitas that strikes them most when they think of Kgalema as a leader," Harvey writes. "Kgalema has a dignified seriousness to him. In mass meetings he would probably not be as spontaneous with ululations as Zuma."
As a young man Motlanthe, a onetime altar boy, had hoped to become a Roman Catholic priest but the apartheid government denied him permission to train outside South Africa. Motlanthe was later influenced by Steve Biko's Black Consciousness Movement and was a voracious reader of general literature, as well as Marxist texts, which made him well educated despite his lack of a university degree.
Motlanthe has solid anti-apartheid credentials. In 1977, for charges including sabotage, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, most of which he served on Robben Island at the same time as Nelson Mandela and Zuma. On his release he joined the National Union of Mineworkers, a powerful labor group, where he grew in stature until 1997, when he was elected secretary-general of the ANC. Since then he has been an influential member of the ruling party, praised as a unifier who shies away from populism.
"As we have seen, Kgalema is acutely aware of the ills in the ANC and that, unless they are dealt with sooner rather than later, the future for the ruling party will be bleak," writes Harvey.
Despite all this, however, Motlanthe may not directly challenge Zuma. Harvey notes that many of those who have worked with Motlanthe describe him as indecisive and averse to taking risks.