South Africa’s ‘forgotten’ president

 ·19 Jun 2024

South Africa is set for a Presidential inauguration on Wednesday (19 June), but many South Africans often forget about the nation’s third President in the democratic era, Kgalema Motlanthe.

Motlanthe was president of South Africa for a short eight months in 2008, and during this time he made some significant and sweeping changes that would echo through governance in the years that followed.

This includes:

  • Disbanding the scorpions ahead of what would become known as the state capture years;
  • Reversing Thabo Mbeki’s policies on HIV/AIDS; and
  • Maintaining Mbeki’s stronger economic policies to weather the global economic crisis of the time.

More recently, Motlanthe served as head of the ANC’s electoral committee and has been a key driver internally in cleaning up the party’s image and talks around the 2024 elections.

Cyril Ramaphosa will be sworn in as President at his inauguration later today, 19 June. This will begin his second full term as President.

Ramaphosa’s Presidency follows those of Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma, and the oft-forgotten Motlanthe.

Unlike the other Presidents who appeared on ballot papers at national elections, Motlanthe was somewhat of an “in-between President.”

He was a well-known and popular figure in the ANC, having served as the Secretary General of the party from 1997 to 2007.

Motlanthe was also elected as Deputy President of the ANC at the ANC’s 52nd national conference in 2007 and became the second Minister in the Presidency in 2008.

Following in-fighting in the party between the supporters of Mbeki and Zuma, the former was asked to resign as President of the country.

Motlanthe was then elected President of South Africa in Parliament and sworn in on 25 September 2008.

After Zuma was elected President on 9 May 2009, Motlanthe served for only eight months before serving as Deputy President until 2014.

Despite the short period, Motlanthe’s Presidency brought about big changes.

He replaced Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang with Barbara Hogan, showing a break from Mbeki’s policy on HIV/AIDS, which had been characterised as denialism.

For context, it is estimated that over 300,000 South Africans died from HIV/AIDS between 2000 and 2005 due to the Mbeki government’s objection to treatment.

In addition, Motlanthe signed legislation disbanding the Scorpions, an elite anti-corruption unit of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), and replacing them with the Hawks. Zuma’s Presidency was then highly characterised by state capture.

Former President Kgalema Motlanthe

Economic performance

Although unpopular with the left-leaning pro-Zuma camp at the time, Motlanthe called for a continuation of Mbeki’s economic policies.

He reappointed popular Finance Minister Trevor Manuel to the role who had previously followed Mbeki out the door, strengthening the rand against the dollar and euro.

That said, the economy, through no real fault of Motlanthe, performed dismally following years of strong growth.

During his short Presidency, South Africa recorded a recession. GDP figures for Q4 2008 (-2.3%), Q1 2009 (-6.1%) and Q2 2009 (-1.4%) were all in negative territory.

This was the first recession in the democratic era, and was largely attributed to the Global Financial Crisis at the time.

2008 was also one of only five years where the FTSE/JSE All Share Index (ALSI) delivered a negative return over the last 30 years.

Source: Allan Gray

However, this poor performance was linked to the global financial crisis, which followed the collapse in the value of US homes.

During the crisis, the US was in a recession from 2007 to 2009, and South Africa, whose economy is at risk of shifts in global markets, was caught in the crossfire.

Although South Africa’s economy recovered shortly after a drop in interest rates, the nation has yet to reexperience the high growth rate seen during the mid-2000s, when GDP growth surpassed 5% in 2005, 2006, and 2007.

Read: R461 million a day for South Africa’s richest people since January

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