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South Africa swears in ANC elder as president

Kgalema Motlanthe is seen as a caretaker until next year's vote.

September 26, 2008|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — A low-key former mining union official, Kgalema Motlanthe, was sworn in as president of South Africa on Thursday, widely seen as a caretaker keeping the seat warm until the ruling party's leader runs for the post after next year's parliamentary elections.

With the ruling African National Congress bitterly divided, Motlanthe is viewed as a peacemaker able to straddle the party's two main camps: supporters of party leader Jacob Zuma and loyalists of former President Thabo Mbeki, who was ousted last weekend.

Motlanthe's election by secret ballot in parliament was largely a formality, because the ANC holds about 70% of the seats in the body.

Despite his temporary role, Motlanthe has to ensure a smooth transition of power at a difficult time for the country. Business and consumer confidence have plummeted; the inflation rate recently hit 13.7%; the value of the currency, the rand, has fallen; and chronic problems of unemployment, poverty and crime have improved little despite 14 years of ANC rule.

Motlanthe on Thursday pledged not to make any sharp changes to economic policies after the shocks in the market two days earlier, when Finance Minister Trevor Manuel resigned along with 10 other Cabinet members.

Scrambling at the time to neutralize the damage, the ANC announced that Manuel would stay on, a move Motlanthe confirmed Thursday as he announced a Cabinet that included most of those who served under Mbeki.

But he moved to a new position the controversial Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who was criticized by the international AIDS community for her ardent promotion of beets, garlic and lemon to treat the disease and for her lukewarm approach to antiretroviral drugs. She becomes minister of the presidency.

He also shifted Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula to the defense post. Nqakula generated controversy in 2006 when he said that people who complained about the level of crime in South Africa could leave the country.

"In a turbulent global economy, we will remain true to the policies that have kept South Africa steady and that have ensured sustained growth," Motlanthe said.

Motlanthe is a respected elder figure in the ANC who served 10 years in prison in the apartheid era alongside eventual President Nelson Mandela. He was elected ANC secretary general in 1997. In December he became party deputy president on the Zuma ticket at the national conference.

He has won respect from mining executives, the ascendant left wing of the ANC and Mbeki loyalists in the Cabinet. Unlike Mbeki or Zuma, both divisive forces in the polarized ANC, he is regarded as a uniting figure.

Motlanthe has won praise from opposition parties and was described by Patricia de Lille, leader of the small Independent Democrats party, as "one of the few voices of reason in the ANC."

Helen Zille, leader of the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, called on Motlanthe to set up a judicial inquiry into a corruption scandal over the multibillion-dollar arms deal in which Zuma has been accused.

Opposition parties congratulated Motlanthe but warned of tough times ahead for efforts to deliver health and education services and reduce poverty and unemployment.

"Dealing with these problems needs to become the nation's No. 1 priority, not the politics of revenge and hatred which we have witnessed from within the ANC's ranks over the past week," said Democratic Alliance Chairman Wetshotsile Joe Seremane, who ran unsuccessfully for the presidency, winning little support outside his party.


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