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President Kgalema Motlanthe

in conversation with Prof. Daniel Plaatjies

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Kgalema man

1949 Born in Alexandra township, Johannesburg

1969  Johannesburg City Council liquor outlets in Soweto supervisor  

1970 Umkhonto we Sizwe

1976 Arrested and detained 

1977 Sentenced 10 years on Robben Island 

1979  Correspondence studies to complete matric and carpentry

1987 National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in charge of education

1992 NUM General Secretary. 1990 Head re-establishing the legal structures of the ANC and first chairperson

2021 Head of the Nelson Mandela Foundation


The story of the altar boy whose mother and father were a cleaner and a domestic worker, yet managed to rise to the highest echelons of a nation’s leadership is one that holds profound lessons for the young and disadvantaged in today’s South Africa. Kgalema Motlanthe’s journey to the top wasn’t any different from that of many black children who grew up under the pernicious system of apartheid. Born on the 19th of July 1949 in Benoni, in the former Transvaal, now Gauteng, Kgalema had to walk long distances to and from school, changing primary schools multiple times due to the discriminatory laws of Bantu education.

His parents were devout Christians, and as such, he got involved with the activities of the Anglican church in his community at a young age. His time in the church environment, exposed him to encounters that, as he explains; ‘removed the scales from his eyes’. He noticed the nondiscriminatory conduct of the white Anglican priests at St Peter’s, and pondered on how that differed considerably from the way South African whites treated their fellow black countrymen. At St Peter’s library, he read the book “Naught For Your Comfort” by Trevor Huddleston and he gained a deeper understanding of the thinking behind Bantu education and the resettlement schemes by the apartheid regime. He saw how these acts were designed to foster deprivation for the black populace.

As Kgalema grew, so did his political awareness and the development of other physical and social skills he possessed. He was a skilled footballer and it was on the soccer field that he met and became mentored by Isiah Budlwana Mbele, Secretary-General of the African National Congress, who was the father of his soccer manager. By the late 1960s, Kgalema was already actively engaging in political activities, and by 1973, he and a group of 3 others, formed a cell group of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC. On the 13th of April 1976, Kgalema was arrested after he was named by an arrested member of his MK cell group as being part of a planned sabotage. He went on to serve 10 years on Robben Island for charges under the Terrorism Act. He was released in April 1987. Soon after his release, he joined the National Union of Mineworkers, becoming its general secretary. In 1997, he got elected as the secretary-general of the ANC. Kgalema’s ability to connect to people and groups across political divides propelled him higher and higher in political ranks and positions. Rather than harboring political ambition, Kgalema has said his objectives have always been working together for the collective good of the nation. And so it was by no design of his that on the 25th of September 2008, he was sworn in as the third president of South Africa.

Motlanthe found himself elected to lead a party and a nation during a tumultuous time in the country’s political history since apartheid. He was named ‘South Africa’s reluctant president’ by the Daily Maverick, and had numerous smear campaigns and falsehoods spread and published about him, yet despite these, he stood true to his principles, never wavering in his commitment to integrity and loyalty to his party, the ANC. He stepped aside for President Jacob Zuma on the 9th of May 2009, going on to be his deputy president until 2014.

Kgalema leader

You can't ask of others what you aren't prepared to do yourself

Key Quality of a Servant Leader

President Kgalema Motlanthe

South African

Public Servant


Elected unopposed as Secretary General of the ANC and re-elected in 2002



ANC Deputy President



Minister in The Presidency and President


2009 to 2014

Deputy President

Kgalema interview
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Things You May Not Know About Kgalema 

These are drawn from the full interview, which for Daniel was from "OneComradeToAnother'. Watch the full interview, here.




African unity shaped by history

“... Apartheid declared all Africans as temporary sojourners in a white man’s land and that was the logic of it, it was that we come from Homelands... Different countries and that’s why these Homelands were created. They would declare Africans as not South Africans because they were playing a numbers game. Colonialism in itself led to the unity of the Africans. The normal formation of nation-states was interrupted by the arrival of the settlers in South Africa. So historically, at the time when Africans were living communally in the villages, they had communal ownership... The value system then was that the community looks after everyone... When they now had to come into the urban areas, taxes were imposed on them. In Natal, Theophilus Shepstone imposed this notion of lobola, and actually affixed a number of cattle that a young man had to pay. That forced people to go and work in industries and particularly in the mines and the sugar cane plantations. So in a sense, the history shaped this unity of the African people and that's how for instance the African National Native Congress was founded as a parliament of the African people. When they realised that they were excluded from parliament of the Union of South Africa, they then decided to form their own…”


Leadership lessons from the soccer field

“... I used to play semi-professional football for Rockville Hungry Lions as a midfielder, and later I played for Spa Sporting Club in Pretoria as a midfielder as well. In my younger days, I could use both legs, so I could play on the left flank and on the right flank, and in the midfield. That’s an asset because you literally have to coordinate the attacks of the team and the defense. However, it also helped me understand that each player brings strength and weaknesses to the team and that the rule of the team is to bring to the fore the strong points of each player and undermine the weak points…”




Tagged enemy of state, and escaped death penalty

"...Well we were quite optimistic and confident that change was definitely going to come and that we were a part of the effort to bring about liberation. And so when we were apprehended and charged, we faced charges, we were charged under the old terrorism act because we were regarded as terrorists. The first charge was belonging to a banned organisation, and promoting and advancing the cause of a banned organisation, and the second one was undergoing training, and the third was possession of explosives. So they convicted us on all three counts and each count under the terrorism act bore a mandatory minimum sentence of five years. So the judge had no choice in the matter, he had to give the five years and so Justice Human, who presided over our case, convicted us on all three. The prosecutor, who was the attorney general of the Transvaal actually asked for the death penalty to be imposed. But the judge in his wisdom gave us five years for each count of the three counts which meant 15 years, but he said the third count and the second count would be served concurrently, which then meant effective 10 years which we served to the last day. Those days there was no question of parole or remission, not for a category who was regarded as political prisoners. We knew you had to serve to the last day so you had to calculate how many meals you’re going to have up to the last day..."


The aftermath... the work of leading the nation

"... It was a decision of the national executive committee. We had to convey it to the best of our ability. I was serving in the Cabinet and so even when President Mbeki, having accepted, had to convene the last Cabinet and explain what had happened, and I was there. I was sitting in that Cabinet Committee Meeting, and then of course some of the Cabinet Ministers had difficulties in remaining. They said well ordinarily you serve in Cabinet at the invitation of a President. Now the President who has invited us to sit in this Cabinet is leaving. How do we remain? We can't be presumptuous to believe that whoever is going to be the next President would retain us, so the honorable thing for us is to leave. If whoever is president appoints us or invites us to serve, we will consider it and honor it at that time… Parliament had to elect someone, so they elected me and the DA nominated Joe Seremane. There was a vote and I was elected by Parliament. So I had to be sworn in and took over with immediate effect. Because I had served with most of the people who were in Cabinet, and also in my position as Secretary-General (of the ANC) I was always there with the President whenever they were appointed, so colleagues and comrades knew exactly what to expect from me so the most remained. Those who had to leave said to me they weren't leaving because they are boycotting…”


Please note this is a word-for-word transcript from Daniel and Kgalema's conversation. 


The family touch

I was brought up in a very devout Christian family, and so these values of treating each other with respect and fairness were passed onto us…One gets a sense that you can’t sleep well for as long as there are human beings who go without, and so we’d want to have an equitable just society where every child shall have the opportunity to receive education, and every child shall have the right to have a roof above their head… And enough to lead a dignified life. Now the system itself works on the basis of exploitation. Which means some people have to go without. And therein lies the need for a correction. So hopefully at some point, we will have a society in which none shall go without.




The Library of enlightenment

"... They had an extensive library at St Peter’s because St Peter’s was the first secondary and high school for Africans in the Transvaal in those days, the 1930s and hence many of our leaders are products of St Peter’s. Former ANC President Oliver Tambo was a student there, he matriculated at St Peter’s and also came back to teach when he came back from Fort Hare. He taught other leaders like Duma Nokwe (who was barred from teaching and battled for the right to appear in court as an Advocate. He was a Secretary-General of the ANC... So St Peter’s had an extensive library and one of the first books I read there was a book written by Trevor Huddleston called “Not For Your Comfort” which had two chapters which really removed the scales from my eyes. One was a chapter entitled ‘Education for Servitude’ which was an explanation of Bantu education and what its effects were going to be for generations of Africans. The second one was a chapter titled ‘Till there be no place’ which was about forced removals because at that time, settled communities were uprooted and resettled elsewhere in Sophiatown... The urban areas, where Africans had freehold and rights to the land, they were uprooted and resettled elsewhere. So in Cape Town, you had District Six, here in Johannesburg you had Prospect Township… So when people were being moved out, the rest of Soweto consisted of people who at one point or another had lived in Alexandra… When Nelson Mandela first came to Johannesburg he had a room there, it's still there in Alexandra Township…”


How they broke the news

"... Much had happened leading up to that decision of the National Executive Committee. You’ll recall that prior to the National Executive Committee’s decision, Julius Malema was on television that Thursday. The NEC met from Friday into the weekend. But that very week, on a Thursday, Julius Malema was on TV and he announced that Thabo Mbeki is history. And he actually said watch this space, he’s history. And which also meant that somewhere he had been drawn into discussions, which gave him the impression that that was going to be the decision, and of course that NEC met into the morning, the meeting ended early in the morning. It must have been 1:30 am or something like that, and the decision had been taken. The Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe and myself were then given the responsibility to go and communicate the decision to comrade Thabo Mbeki, who was the sitting president of the Republic. So we went to see him in the morning at around 7 or so and we conveyed the decision to him. You know as a member of the ANC, I think he himself had anticipated that at some point or the other, such a decision was going to come. He was at that time due to leave for the UN, UNGA (United Nations General Assembly) it was around that time when the UN General Assembly meets, and that trip had to be canceled. But normally the team of ministers would have gone ahead and so some of them were already there. It was a very difficult period because I held the view that the organisation should have directed him to bring the elections forward to you know, and by that I mean he would have had to ask the IEC to come up with a date that would have shortened that term... But the majority view was that no, not a day extra and so that's what we had to convey. I thought the matter could have been managed differently. But of course, you know in a collective the majority view prevails, and so it prevailed and went and we spoke to him, he accepted the message…”



No compromise, even with family

"... The Sunday Times came up with that article that day and the very day I wrote to the Public Protector, that very day, and asked them to investigate the matter because I felt that I occupied public office... The in a sense implied that there was trading about state secrets. I felt that an independent body like the Public Protector should investigate that matter so that there shouldn't be any stone left unturned. So the investigation was conducted by the Public Protector who found that there was absolutely no basis for the allegation. But it was important to subject it to such independent investigation. What many people had not taken account of was that essentially, sitting where I was sitting at the Presidency, it was a serious allegation, such that the State Security ought to have investigated that matter. The fact that they did not even utter a word whatsoever points to a very deep-seated problem with how the State Security Agencies function. Because, if in any country, if there’s an allegation that the deputy president of your country is trading on information with foreign authorities, definitely that's a matter for investigation at the highest level, but no such thing happened..."




Observations of an altar boy

"... I grew up as an altar boy, as a server in the Anglican church. In Sophiatown, at St Peter’s, there was a religious sect of Anglican priests who came from England, from Mayfield. These included Father Trevor Huddelston and he was the most prominent of that religious sect. They were called the community of the resurrection and they lived communally in the priory. They shared everything, attended to their own home chores. The only assistance they had was someone who did their washing and cooking. Everything else, they washed dishes, they washed pots, they cleaned, they did everything. And these were whites you see, from England. And they ministered to communities in the townships. So we were altar boys, we used to go around with them and so on. The fact that these were white people who related with, walked into homes in the townships, related with African communities as fellow human beings, had an impact, and brought about awareness at a very early age in society in general. Whites in South Africa believed in white supremacy, that they were superior beings and that Africans were actually sub-human. Hence all the signs in those days that you know, you couldn't walk into a shop and expect to be served. There were places where Africans were served through a window, a little window, (so) not to enter the shop itself. So that discriminatory practice was something that we lived with and became aware of. Yet on the other hand here were these white priests who related with us as fellow human beings and it immediately brought about the need to distinguish between the official system of apartheid and individual whites..."


The decimation of the rights of a people

“... The dompas simply put, was based on the efflux and influx control laws. Firstly all Africans were declared as temporary sojourners in a white man’s land, that’s what apartheid said, that no black person is a citizen or resident of any magisterial district unless he or she is employed by specified employer, it could be a factory or whatever. So in this dompas you needed what they called a work seeker's permit. Such that if your dompass did not have a work seeker’s permit, you’ll be arrested. Each black male over the age of 16 could be stopped anywhere, anytime and asked to produce this dompas so it had to be on your body 24 hours. If you’re employed and you walk out and leave your jacket in the factory to go and buy a cool drink, you could be arrested outside if you didn't have your dompas on you. But essential to the dompas was this work seeker’s permit, which had to be stamped…That’s why it was such a thorn in the flesh of our people and that’s how Sharpeville happened. There had to be a struggle against the dompas itself because it was restricting… Africans were made to pay so many taxes it's not funny, it's really not funny today, they had to pay for what was called a hut tax in the villages for simply having a hut. They had to pay for dog tax in the townships, if you had a dog you had to pay a tax for that dog. There was a little silver plate which had to be strapped around the neck of your dog otherwise they will shoot it on site. There was a time when they would raid and shoot the dogs, and throw the carcasses on the back of a truck, and so on. And then if you had a bicycle you had to pay a tax for the bicycle. Now the poll tax normally is paid by people who vote, who have a right to vote, Africans were excluded from voting in South Africa from the time of the Union and yet we had to pay this poll tax as it were....”



Conserving the truths of yesterday #feesmustfall

“... Malema wants an instant solution, he is a leftist. If you take the #FeesMustFall movement, the issue of free education and so on would have been debated. I mean the Freedom Charter says the doors of learning shall be open to all, refers to basic education. That the children will get free education. It doesn’t refer to tertiary education. It says on merit, it will be on merit, and through government support. Now that’s what the Freedom Charter says, and that’s the distance that was determined by those who wrote the Freedom Charter at that time. So those of us who believe that the Freedom Charter must be attained as is will be looking at it in that fashion. That no basic education, but at tertiary level NSFAS is sufficient. But students today, who are in that situation come from poor families… That may be the straw that really breaks the back of the camel. That will be the last straw. So they are pushing the envelope which is really the responsibility of young people in the mainstream because it's about improving conditions. But those of us who are now conservative in terms of the truths of yesterday in the Freedom Charter are saying no it can't be done. Yes it can be done for basic education level but not at tertiary level it can’t be done. So we are conservative, we are conserving the truths of yesterday and this mainstream now represented by the student movement is saying: “No no no, it is possible.” They are making everyone revisit this thinking to work out how this is going to be funded. On the other hand the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) is saying: “No no we know where the money is, the money is at the chamber of mines, at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, at the Reserve Bank.” So no problem, it's going to be there tomorrow, so we open the vaults … They in a sense represent the left deviation, they are to the left of this hashtag movement… That’s where they position themselves. They think they can find an instant solution to this problem…”


Full Interview 

Kgalema Full Interview
Kgalema lesson

Servant Leaders can't ask of others what you aren't prepared to do yourself


"... It simply means that you now those who hold high office and understand the oath of such high office must live by those standards. You can't ask of others what you’re not prepared to do yourself. And that is why when I was secretary-general of the ANC the, and individual leaders of the ANC stepped on the wrong side of law and so on, the first thing I will say to them is you know you're a leader, you lead these members and if the ANC leads society it means you lead society. Now, what does your conscience tell you to do? Because if it wasn't you directly involved how would you advise someone who was involved in the situation that you find yourselves in so your conscience can only apply when you are exercising leadership to others. It must also guide you as an individual, and there was one comrade we had who was a speaker in the free state at the legislature Joe Mafereka, he is no more now, I remember you know at one point when he was speaker a matter that had..."

Daniel in conversation with

Kgalema Motlanthe




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