Ebrahim Harvey Launches Kgalema Motlanthe: A Political Biography with the Deputy President
The launch of Ebrahim Harvey’s Kgalema Molanthe: A Political Biography, has been called the book event of the year and it was certainly the biggest, with over 1000 people gathering in The Great Hall at Wits on the University’s 90th birthday. Men in black, with curly wires behind their ears and armed police were interspersed, keeping an eye, after guests passed through the first security check point. The Jacana crew were diligently ushering the masses and the VIPs and did a remarkable job ensuring smooth proceedings. Amongst the many dignitaries were Tokyo Sexwale, Trevor Manuel, George Bizos, Ahmed Kathrada and Matthews Phosa.
There has been much controversy about the timing of the launch with the Mangaung ANC Conference coming up. Harvey and Motlanthe both claimed emphatically that this was completely co-incidental and that the timing was due to unforeseen delays.
Rowdy Youth League supporters, singing, dancing in the aisles and chanting for change, took advantage of the opportunity to further their own political aims. Their inappropriate cheers and misguided encouragement, repeated jumping up and interruption of the speakers was part of the syndrome that Harvey termed, “the Mangaung mania or Mangaung manga manga”. He said, more
interestingly, the book came at a time of the biggest socio-political crisis in our democracy.
Motlanthe handled the situation in a calm, serious, yet humorous manner. He related his experience of visiting a pre-school in an old cheese factory in Italy, that used advanced new technology to teach literacy to toddlers. After sharing an anecdote about teaching comrades literacy on Robben Island, he said, “it would bring about great improvement in our basic education performance if we adopt this method of teaching literacy with computers. We would create a cultured nation that would not be rigid, from a very tender age these children will learn that things are always changing.”
This elicited a series of loud cheers from the red berets, once again inferring a reference of change to a new president and attempting a show of support for Motlanthe. Motlanthe addressed them directly, “For me the irony is really lost on you, this is science, it’s not about names of places. I can see you are trapped within the geographic name of Mangaung”. This evoked laughter amongst many guests and, in particular, Ahmed Kathrada.
Motlanthe expressed his personal literary aspirations to write his own memoirs. He related how, even though he is an extremely private man, he readily allowed Harvey to write his biography after being convinced by a Zimbabwean friend, Dr Mambaza, who said, “give someone interviews and get them to record these on tape because it is never possible for political activists to make time to write books.”
Ray Hartley, editor of the Sunday Times said, “We have to thank Harvey for providing the 3-D portrait that he has, he has written it very thoroughly and with a lot of passion. We live in a highly charged environment, in South Africa politics is a full contact sport. This book introduces Kgalema Motlanthe for the first time and is part of a tradition that is developing in this country that has got to be very seriously encouraged, of serious writing of recent history. We need a culture in this country of reading in-depth, that’s why we are here tonight to support this event.” This, he said, was apart from his initial desire to lock the dignitaries in a room to, “sort out this Mangaung thing tonight”.
Mike Martin from Jacana said, “The media and politics do not always sit easily together but tonight we have both on the podium, from the editor of the Sunday Times to the ANC Secretary General”. Gwede Mantashe encouraged national literary aspirations, perhaps with some derisive insinuations of his own, “There is space to write about anything, comrades need to write and fill this gap in our history.” He mentioned in particular Sexwale and Phosa and encouraged all South Africans “to write, write, write, because it lasts, this platform of shouting ends at the end of the rally”.
Harvey thanked Motlanthe for giving him 200 hours of interviews over three years, a record. He said, “this provided me with the best bank on information that I can think of, on the ANC. Motlanthe is sketched as very discreet and private, biographies are very intrusive and invasive. It was very courageous of him to open up his life both personally and politically. There was nothing that this man needed to hide. Not once during the rumours of him having had an affair with a 24 year old girl did I find him looking morose, troubled or dejected, nothing at all, he has amazing resilience and fortitude. The man is truly a biographer’s delight.”
Motlanthe said that he wanted Harvey to be critical in the writing and do an assessment of the positions that we adopt, “I did not just want a book that was just about positive issues. It will be a success if it succeeds in generating debates and discussions, in undermining our fixed positions, if it gets us and everyone else to question the underpinnings of our institutions and positions that we adopt. If we simply adhere to the notion of ‘as it was, so shall it be,’ we will never be able to serve as a raising agent of change. It is important that the book should raise the questions that pull us out of our comfort zones.”
Motlanthe ended with the way he would like to be remembered after his death and shared what he had told Trevor Manuel, “In my will I am leaving instructions that my obituary or tombstone, if I deserve a tombstone, reads, ‘Others made suggestions and he implemented’.”