Constitutional Hill

President Motlanthe’s sex life and public morality

Things are obviously getting rather dirty in the internal battles in the ANC. What am I saying: not getting dirty, getting even MORE dirty. First there were the stories of President Kgalema Motlanthe thrashing the house he was renting in Sandton. And then this weekend, newspapers reported that our President – who is married – is conducting affairs with two different women while he is still married. One of the women is said to be pregnant with his child.

If this is all true – and President Motlanthe has not confirmed or denied these reports, so we do not know what is true and what not – the question is whether the newspapers should report on such matters at all. The ANC thinks not, and claims that our President’s rights to privacy and dignity protected by the Constitution have been infringed.

As a general rule, I think newspapers have no business to report on the private lives of politicians. I prefer the French rather than the US approach to these matters. The French has a firm belief that the private affairs of a politician will almost never say anything about that person’s fitness for public office and should be off limits for the media. Who cares if a politician has a mistress, is gay or lesbian, frequents prostitutes or is involved in a sex romp now and again?

I know I don’t. I care rather more about politicians sc@!wing ordinary voters by stealing our money, than about what they do in the bedroom.

This will change if the politician’s public statements and private actions clash violently. If the President was the chairperson of the moral regeneration movement, say, and speaks week after week about the need to respect traditional moral values, yet carries on affairs in secret, then it will say something about the credibility and honesty of that person and should be exposed. Or if he has just fired the Attorney General for not taking into account national security issues while he is privately carrying on an affair with a women who is a spy for Zimbabwe, then it should be exposed by the media.

If the politician is an ACDP leader and rails against homosexuality while sleeping with young men on the side, the same rule should apply. And if a politician is the Minister of Health and tells the nation that to prevent HIV, every person should only have one sexual partner at a time, yet is promiscuous in his or her private life, this information will clearly be relevant and should be exposed by the media. That is why the reports about our previous Minister of Health’s drinking problem and her cleptomania was probably acceptable: it spoke towards her rank hypocrisy.

But as a general rule, I think the private morality of a politician has nothing to do with us voters and we should allow our politicians to live their lives in private – no matter how messy these lives might be. But the public morality of politicians requires that they are more or lest honest, that they should not behave like rank hypocrites and that they should more or less practice what they preach. If they fail to do so, it will say something about their public morality and then their private lives should become fair game for the media.

In principle I therefore agree with the ANC stance on this issue. Where I differ with the ANC, is where it says these reports violate President’ Motlanthe’s right to dignity and privacy.

First, the ANC is confusing the common law notion of dignity and the constitutional notion of the right to dignity. The former is a subjective notion, speaking to the dignitas of a person, that is the feelings a person has about him or herself. It is subjective and refers to the person’s feelings and standing in the community. Common law deals with breaches of this kind of dignity through defamation law, for example.

The more important a person is, the easier it would be to show his common law dignity has been interfered with – but this is not a  human rights issue. He or she can sue the newpaper for defamation if he or she wants, but cannot claim an infringement of his right to dignity, merely because he or she feels hurt and embarrased about what was written. That kind of subjective dignity – which might even be constitutionally problematic because it does not afford all people equal protection of the laws – is not what is protected by our Bill of Rights.

On the other hand, the right to dignity refers to dignity in the objective sense. It does not refer to the feelings of a person, but to the notion that every person – objectively speaking – has an inherent and equal dignity because he or she is a human being. This dignity cannot be taken away by law or by media action, because it is inherent in being human. When newspapers report on the private life of a President, they are not interfering with this right to objective dignity – even if the reports might hurt the feelings of the President. It will only be where the media treats a person as if he is not really fully and equally human that the right will kick in.

As for the President’s privacy, I suspect he would have a rather uphill task to convince a court that a report about his relationships with various women infringes on his right to privacy. This is because the Constitutional Court has said that the privacy right is layered – like an onion. The more private the person and the more private the act, the stronger the protection. The more public the person and the more public the behaviour, the less the protection.

So, a right to privacy will almost always be infringed when a newspaper reports on the consensual private sexual acts of a private citizen conducted in private. Even public figures might be protected from salacious reporting of very intimate details that will not make any contribution to the enhancement of democracy. Thus, reporting details of President Motlanthe’s sex life will almost certainly infringe on his right to privacy – unless he has taken a stand agains same-sex marriage, say, and has had a night of passion with an 18 year old boy, because this information will then become important for us voters to make decisions about our democracy.

Where the newspaper reports on issues affecting the spouse of our President – our first lady, so to speak – then it might well be ethically wrong to do so, but would probably seldom infringe on either the President’s or his or her spous’s right to privacy. If he or she wanted absolute privacy about a marriage, the President should never have become a politician. As us tax payers foot the bill for costs incurred by the President’s spouse, there is some public benefit of information about his affairs being published.

I still think in this case the reports should not have been published because the link with the exercise of our right to vote is so tenuous and the sleazyness of the reporting so problematic that it probably does not enhance the working of our democracy. Let the President be. Unless he steals our money of course or takes a bribe from a friend or an arms company. Then, please tell us all about it.

  • Clara

    Arguing for privacy is all very well and good, but Motlanthe’s rather complicated private life could translate into him taking his eyes off the ball, i.e. it may impair his efficacy as SA’s president. And I can imagine that during the SADC/Zimbabwe meeting this last weekend he just sat there with his eyes glazed over, pondering on how to juggle all those women in his life, just when he was meant to read Mugabe the riot act. By all accounts he didn’t get around to that, and this omission will have serious consequences not only for Zimbabwe but the entire sub-region, if not the whole continent. Think of that, Pierre!

  • The Big Slipper

    I don’t understand what the problem is – JZ sleeps with young women, even those who don’t number among his many wives, and he’s considered a hero? Kgalema is only sleeping with two? Hau sies, the man still has a long way to go before he is leadership material like JZ.

    Seriously though, one wonders…do we really need to know? Personally, the visual images that the JZ rape trial conjured up were frightening enough – I’d prefer no more.

    I’d rather have politicians amking the beast with two backs between the sheets than stealing money and plundering national resources. If this is the worst that the Pres gets up to, good for him, although his wife might have moered him a bit when he got home. In think the press may have got somewhat carried away with this one.

    Having said that, could I now be donwgraded from counter-revolutionary to semi-counter-revolutionary? I think that statement deserves it. 😉

  • Garg Unzola

    I used to be counter-revolutionary but now I turned that around 360.

    I don’t think public figures deserve the same kind of privacy that us Joe Sixpack types have. While I don’t particularly care with whom Motlanthe is playing choo-choo train riding through the love tunnel, meat puppet in the lingerie play, periscope up and going down, jump the pube fence and gun for glory, etc… if you don’t want to have rumours about your private life doing the rounds in the press, then perhaps your private life shouldn’t be so newsworthy?

    If you’re ashamed of something you’re doing, then don’t do them.

  • PM

    I’m generally with Garg on this one. He made a choice to be a public person, and with that comes the certain knowledge that he will be living in a fishbowl for the rest of his life. Seems rather silly to complain about it now….

    Also, the public has a right to know things. They are the ones making the choices about who is running their country, and they get to make that decision on any basis that they want–no matter how petty. If the publoic isn’t interested in this sort of stuff, then it won’t sell any papers, and the papers won’t tell the cameramen to hide in the bushes anymore.

    But we all know that we do have prurient interests, and that the details (intimate, of course) of politicians lives are of interest to us. We want to know what kind of people they are–are they the kind to cheat on their wives, for instance? I could see how many people might consider that relevant to a decision about who you might want to have running a country and spending your tax dollars. After all, someone who is cheating on their wife is certainly a less than honest person. They are betraying the person closest to them, right? And if they are willing to betray their wife, who would they not betray? (only with good reason, of course…)

  • PM

    So: do you think that this was released by some of the Pres’s enemies within the ANC? Who do you think ratted him out?

  • Peter

    I remember I got all huffy about Bill Clinton playing hide the cigar with Monica, and felt that this was a terrible abuse of power etc. However, George W cleared up my case of holier than thou, and I now accept that these are power hungry individuals, and if they don’t get their regular power releases from a stukkie or two on the side, they are liable to kill millions. Presidential affairs are to be encouraged.

  • Mzo

    I wonder why it is so difficult for some people to understand the relevance of publishing stories about the private life of Pres Motlanthe and yet they do not seem to have the same problem when JZ’s private life is being reported on in the media. Where do you draw the line?

    For example, why would people feel it’s inappropriate to read about Pres KM’s love affairs and yet find it acceptable and even engage in discussions about JZ’s (admittedly) many wives? How are these two stories different?

  • Peter

    Mzo – the difference lies in the juicy differences between a mistress and a wife (or wives). One is legit, the other is skelm.

  • Vuyo

    I broadly concur with your comments Pierre. You must however note that this report must be viewed in the context of the challenges facing the Republic, chief amongst them being the scourge of HIV/AIDS. Government endorses a program of fidelity to one’s spouse/partner, moral regeneration and the use of condoms in the absence thereof.

    The President is estranged from his wife and is not conducting himself in a manner fitting to his office by being adulterous. This however is a primarily a theistian moral standard associated with Christianity, Judaism and Islam and cannot be viewed as universally binding.

    The President is also conducting TWO sexual affairs, one of which has allegedly resulted in a pregnancy therefore presupposing the NON-USE of condoms. This contradicts the message of government (and the President’s own political party) in regard to responsible sexual conduct (to assist the combat of HIV/AIDS) and is therefore of public interest.

    Lastly, your justification of the media’s onslaught against Manto is tenuous. She was not a Minister of Safety and Security nor any department responsible for the public largesse. Therefore her illness, Kleptomania (for which she has been allegedly cured) was and remains irrelevant. Similarly, she has not ever been a proponent for the public policy of limited alcohol usage and therefore her private use of alcohol was irrelevant. I recall that at the time, the neo-liberal press and the opposition argued that because there was a problem of alcohol abuse inn South Africa she, as health minister, was in dereliction of her duties by her indulgence of whisky and wine. This was disingenuous, firstly, because there is no evidence that South Africans drink more than any other similar society (and therefore have a drinking problem), secondly, alcohol abuse is a social problem and not a purely medical issue. Your argument, and that of the official opposition (and their bedfellows, the neoliberal press as well as the compadore “civil society”, chiefly epitomized by the TAC and such similar undesirables), is no different from accusing our country’s leadership of being unthinking gluttons on account of preference for a rich culinary taste in the face of poverty and/or obesity!

  • Samaita

    For the dangers of reporting on presidential affairs, please refer to the criminal defamation conviction of Simba Makunike in
    S v MODUS PUBLICATIONS (PVT) LTD & ANOR 1996 (2) ZLR 553 (SC) over allegations that Mugabe had secretly married Grace Marufu!!

    There is a world of difference between public curiosity and public interest. But I think the democratic space has been well-served by the discussion of matters that make Kgalema look in some way as human as Zuma. Those familiar with Henchard in Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge would remember that woman’s retort when brought before Mayor Henchard’s Court, “I will not be tried by a man who is no better than I”. In Shona we say, ‘Anganzi mururami ndiyaniko?” Which means, who is a saint?

  • Thomas Blaser

    As a public figure, your entire life is open to scrutiny. I think that is the prize of public office and necessary for transparency and accountability reasons. The question is how the private life is being outed. A series of sleazy and shoddy articles lack the neccesary grace. So it is less about if but how. Hypocritical moral crusaders and professional smear campaigners abuse this need for transparency but I think a democracy has to live with it.

  • Ishmael Malale

    The media are a watchdog, an intensifier of democracy, a outlet of discoveries, new or old ideas and an instrument of social dialogue and a peddler of lies. It creates and destroys personalities. It largely serves the agenda of its masters.

    Motlante was “unmarried”, “almost a monk”, “entranged”, “adulterous”, “father of unborn foetus in the womb of a much younger lady or girl”. He might soon be branded a rapist!

    This is south african’s uncritical journalism which is not pivoted on thorough research but complicated rumour peddling.

    We are not that gallible! We can see the actual political agenda underlying this juicy media “discoveries. The media want to discredit the leadership of the ruling party.

    The purpose is to create a perception to christian voters that he acted or is ungodly. He fails to keep a family together. He is a potential devorcee. We cannot entrust leadership in him!

    These efforts are futile. Motlante is such a great leader who is entitled to have sex with whomever he chooses. In any event, it is not a criminal offence to have sex with any younger lady.

    For those who indulge, younger ladies are energetic and stronger. Sex also enhances health and reduces stress. Procreation entails natural sex.

    We must indeed say that these stories are not taking democracy anywhere. We also pay for politicians who scream about spousal office secrets but do not care if they have or ever use their sexual organs!. it is not our business.

    We only need to engage them in the political arena not sexual spaces.

  • Ishmael Malale

    Blaser: you need sexual transparency and accoutability !. This is a different field broer! You cannot invade the bedroom of a leader on the basis of accoutability!. No law will protect that !

  • khosi

    @Vuyo, et al

    Your say: – ‘and such similar undesirables’
    Thanks baba, i have a new phrase now. Great contribution.

    But baba, when dealing with Pierre de Vos, you need to remember that Pierre de Vos is most likely to endorse the view that is held by the liberal media and, you guessed it, the ‘similar undesirables’. These people have decided that they want Mothlante and not JZ to be the next president. Well, its their democratic right to do so. But see, they will stop at nothing, including twisted hypocrisy, to see their view fulfilled.

    Using Pierre’s line of reasoning, there is no reason why he would conclude – ‘Let the President be’. But because Motlanthe removed Manto as a head of our health ministry and installed someone who will view the AIDS problem from their (similar undesirables) vantage point, Motlanthe is now a holy cow whose actions, in relation to the AIDS problem, cannot be questioned.

    Not matter how we got to know about it, we now know that our president is not following the ABC’s of HIV prevention. But Pierre is arguing that it his private matter, even if alleged Motlanthe is living a life that is counter his own governments messages.

    Well to me this goes to confirm that all the ‘similar undesirables’ do not care much about prevention, their objective is treatment. Which is why they were always at loggerheads with the TM administration. TM does not like hypocrites much. I also do not agree with such gutter reporting. But this is a trend that was endorsed by Pierre and his ‘similar undesirable’ when the Sunday toilet paper reported that Manto was a cured ‘kleptomaniac’. Pierre cannot suddenly turn now and disagree with this rubbish reporting, just because he happens to like the victim.

  • Roch

    I believe the media should report this kind of behaviour. A president should conduct himself in such a manner that the people look up to him. He should not only run the country in the best interests of the people, but strive to set a pristine moral example. I might be a bit old fashioned on this one.

  • Mzo

    khosi // Jan 28, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    “Pierre cannot suddenly turn now and disagree with this rubbish reporting, just because he happens to like the victim”.

    I share your sentiments. I’ve pointed out before Prof’s tendency (particularly in the Hlope JP debate) and, generally, the liberal’s tendency to justify some things when they happen to be done by their favourite people. For example, it would be a sign of incompetence when Hlope JP’s decision is overturned on appeal and yet it when it comes to the likes of Nicholson J, they simply got it wrong. Pure hypocricy!!

  • Anonymouse

    Ishmael – “You cannot invade the bedroom of a leader on the basis of accoutability!. No law will protect that !”

    And what about Bill Clinton’s romps with lolipop-sucking Monica? On what basis was that done?

  • Ishmael Malale

    Anonymouse, Monica allegedly sucked Clinton’s cigar in an office not a bedroom!, in America not South Africa.

    There is not any universal moral prohibition to sexual conference amongst members of society. What you regard as sexual promiscuity may just be acceptable in a particular social group which does not ascribe to your sense of morality.

    Morality is merely a system of ideas, philosophy which seeks to control indescretions of mankind, which philosophy is not ossified into a rigid grammar of conduct but fluidy and in constant flux. It may be generally endorsed in society but not universal polity.

    Sex is an inevitable natural duty of procreation with intrinsic risks and implications. Sex with a condom or without a condom is not a moral question per se.

    Pregnancy or no pregnancy does not pressupose condom/less sexual encounter. I suppose the students of Prof are sophisticated enough to fathom my point. There cannot be any suggestion of infraction on AIDS policy. This is simplism at its best!

    You cannot impeach a President in South Africa on account of adultery or sexual promiscuity!

  • Pierre De Vos

    Vuyo, Khosi and others: My position is more consistent and not at all hypocritical as you suggest. I think that if one is a public figure in a democracy one must expect reporting of one’s life – its the price to pay for all that power and perks. The law will not and should not protect one against reporting of one’s private life – unless the reporting invades one’s RIGHT TO privacy, which will happen when it goes into salacious details, say, of one’s sex life. At the same time I do not think this information should really matter to us voters. It is only where the private behaviour says something to us voters about the public abilities, competence and honesty of an official that we should take note.

    In the case of Dr Tshabalala-Msimang, she went out warning people against alcohol abuse (see while she was abusing alcohol. She also had a liver transplant after her liver allegedldy gave in from the alcohol abuse and was miraculously bumped to the top of the list for that. Alcohol abuse by the Minister was therefore relevant to our judgment of her job. On her stealing: she was convicted of a crime in Botswana and a matter of public record. She is a thief. This is not a private matter and has NOTHING to do with privacy – the issue addressed in this post. I think we as voters have a right to know of the criminal convictions of any sort of our politicians – these are public issues and has nothing to do with privacy.

    On President Motlanthe: After he recommended the firing of Vusi Pikoli to Parliament, I have fallen out of love with him. His recommendation might well be illegal. I am not a fan of him – anymore. At the time when Max Du Preez wrote about Thabo Mbeki’s alleged womanizing, I said that this was not information that was really relevant for us to make up our minds on whether Mbeki was a good or bad President. My view thus stems from a rather libertarian view of sex, not from hypocrisy or racism.

  • PAuL Brislin

    Obviously, sensationalism tactics by the media are here to stay. Everyone from the Pope of the Catholic Church to our current acting President is prey. More often than not there are possible traces of ‘hidden agendas’ in such publications, although I am not certain that this is in fact the case in this very one.

    Let’s face it, news of public figures being involved in adulterous scandals does not come as a great shock. Morality (not sure what that means anymore) has been watered-down somewhat since the days of Adam and Eve.

    The truth of the matter is even though the article might be infringing KM’s constitutional right(s) it would be a bigger deal if he actually instituted action against the publishers. One should just label the said article as a bad read and nothing more.

    To the Media: We are a curious nation; do not fill our curiosity with BS!!

  • spoiler

    It would appear that moral turpitude rather than rectitude is a prerequisite for political office, both here and the rest of the world. That said, we should still demand that our politicians at least aspire to occupy a higher moral plateau as they are after all looked up to (or is that down on?) by the electorate. Wasn’t JZ the trumpeter of some moral regeneration organ? Hardly a stirling example is he? A recent personal experience has led me to believe that KM’s infidelity is more or less the norm among the members of our dear liberation movement turned ruling party.

    Should the media report on it – yes, its news and out there so they should. Should we be concerned by it. Well it depends on your own moral convictions and whether you think that being a faithful monogamous husband or wife is a prerequisite for high political office. As Pierre points out it could be, but in the absence of any evidence that one or both of the presidential mistresses is one of Mad Bob’s spies, in this case its probably not worth worrying about too much…

  • Pierre De Vos

    Ishmael, you are blaming the media. Oh the dark forces again. But the media got fed the story by someone. By whom? Someone within the ANC surely? The same goes for the stories about Blade Nzimande. Blaming the media is maybe a bit too easy when tehse stories are spread by political enemies of the gentlemen involved. Media is doing the dirty work, but their dark agenda is to sell as many newspapers as they can to an audience hungry for gossip and fighting. Maybe you should look a bit closer to home and ask who spread these stories to the media. I have a hunch such stories are fed by people within the ANC/SACP. Ask yourself you whobenefits from these gentlement being discredited? Political opponents within the alliance surely? Or is it the CIA? Scorpions? Tooth fairy?

  • ozoneblue

    Now I wonder if Motlantle has been practicing safe sex and what the HIV status of his partners are ? Surely the Constitution guarantees our right to know.

    And how old are they ? In South Africa women only reach the age of consent if they are older than 31 – just before they are due for their first constitutionally guaranteed botox treatments.

  • ozoneblue


    “Media is doing the dirty work, but their dark agenda is to sell as many newspapers as they can to an audience hungry for gossip and fighting.’

    That is when they are not busy conducting off-the-record workshops with the director of the NPA.

  • The Big Slipper

    I like the way some people here are pointing out that it should have been published because it shows KM is a bit dubious for presidential material, but the same people support JZ for the job – the man with the plan when it comes to HIV safety (that was irony in case anyone missed it).

    I also enjoy the fact that the more counter-revolutionary among us cannot do anything right – if we believe the media has gone too far, it is because we ‘like’ KM and are therefore hypocrites because we have previously supported the media. If we support the media, like in the Manto liver-transplant saga, we are neo-liberals and support the dark forces that go bump in the night.

    Here’s a bit of a newsflash for you ANC supporters out here – you don’t have to just blindly do what you have always done. Generally I’m a fan of our press, but sometimes I do feel they cross the line – it doesn’t make me a hypocrite, it just means I have a brain. The fact that it’s KM they’re reporting on here is irrelevant – I don’t actually think much of the man (I used to, but not anymore) to be honest.

    Dear ANC supporters – if you support a movement, an organisation, a person – whatever – it does not mean that you have to support every single action that they may take…it’s ok to disagree occasionally, that’s what democracy is. Unfortunately, your party has taken the art of silencing dissent back to a new level in its history, firing people and badmouthing them (in the neo-liberal press), so perhaps you may think that it is incorrect to disagree. But you are wrong – in the world outside of ANC-land, most people find it perfectly acceptable to disagree with organizations and people that they support and admire most of the time.

    I’m just saying – think about it. I think the press was a bit over-eager in this regard. And all that means is that I can critically analyse facts, and put an opinion across without letting emotion, fear or stupidity cloud my judgement.

  • The Big Slipper

    And Ishmael – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the media does nothing to discredit the leadership of the ANC – they just report on the actions of the ANC leadership. If your esteemed leaders weren’t jumping the list and getting liver transplants after alcohol abuse, weren’t threatening judges, weren’t uttering racist comments about Jews, weren’t telling people that they used to beat up homosexuals if they saw them walking in the street, weren’t telling people that they would kill for each other, weren’t muttering conspiract theories about dark forces, weren’t getting sentenced to jail time for fraud and corruption – and I could go on and on and on – …well, there probably wouldn’t be much to discredit them with hey?

    Again I beg…think about it…t…h…i…n…k….

  • spoiler

    Well put TBS. I wonder who did spread the story about KM. Isuppose we should be asking who his adversaries are in Luthuli House, those he has recently angered…

    Just a thought, knowing that dirty tricks like this are unfortunately part and parcel of the plotical game all over the world, shouldn’t that be an incentive to politicians to keep their pants up. Clearly not.

  • Samaita

    Do South Africans have the right to know when their President has been blessed with a baby while in office?
    If so, do they have the right to ask who the mother is?

    What is the ANC policy , if any, on romance in the office?

    As regards the age of the pregnant one, I just think that when you are KM’s age, you must pick a young one above 18…full stop! What is the point of a 60 year old cheating with a 60 year old, unless she has money?

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