South Africa's Next President?

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Jon Hrusa / EPA

South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe at a press conference in Johannesburg on Sept. 22

Kgalema Motlanthe, who been named by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) as its nominee for caretaker president of South Africa, is a consensus candidate — a singular achievement in a party largely bereft of consensus. Motlanthe appears set to take the reins from Thabo Mbeki, whose resignation was demanded by the ruling party after a judge accused Mbeki's government of improperly interfering in the prosecution on corruption charges of his chief rival, Jacob Zuma. Zuma, who beat out Mbeki in a bitterly-fought campaign for leadership of the ANC last December, can't assume the presidency until next year's elections because he's not a member of the legislature. But he'll be happy to have the seat kept warm by his close ally Motlanthe, viewed both within and outside of the ANC as the most level-headed and pragmatic leader in his faction and as the figure best able to unify a badly divided ruling party.

The son of an impoverished mine worker, Motlanthe came of age politically as a student activist during the Soweto uprising of 1976, and the following year was imprisoned for his role in those events. He spent ten years behind bars on Robben Island, the infamous South African prison which held so many anti-Apartheid leaders it became known as the "university of the struggle", where he joined fellow inmate Nelson Mandela in the ANC. Upon release, he became an organizer for the National Union of Mineworkers, becoming its Secretary General in 1987. A decade later, was voted into the same position in the ANC, and became its deputy president in 2007.

Motlanthe is a cautious and low-key operator rather than a high-profile politician or empire builder, and is generally viewed as one of the intellectual anchors of the Zuma camp — which has challenged Mbeki's market-oriented economic policies from the left. Still, the widespread respect enjoyed by the former political prisoner and union organizer has positioned him as a bridge between the rival factions, and the leader many see as the one best able to ensure a smooth transition to Zuma’s presidency.

(Click here for photos of the violence that has erupted in South Africa this year.)