Zweli Mkhize – the ANC’s ultimate Dark Horse candidate

Dr Zweli Mkhize, Treasurer-General of the African National Congress, is now the third force in what was meant to be a two candidate succession race between Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa. Can the good doctor saunter through the middle of the field and step onto the podium? First, the physician must heal himself – or, more accurately, everyone in his party. But is there a scalpel in the world sharp enough for such surgery? By RICHARD POPLAK.

The Residence Boutique Hotel in Houghton Estate, Johannesburg, is a ludicrously overstuffed parody of opulence. Everything the stereotype of poor people might think applies to the stereotype of rich people is gloriously in evidence – Rolls Royces! Chandeliers! Butlers with top hats! Portraits of 17th century Dutch tulip bulb barons! The coffee machine resembles the bridge of a steampunk Zeppelin; the barista’s PhD thesis must make for fascinating reading.

As it happens, one of these Houghton Estate follies has already made an appearance in the ANC succession race. It was at the nearby Nr 10 2nd Avenue that the justification for assigning Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma a presidential VVIP motorcade was concocted. According to the story that was shovelled into reporters’ notebooks, a comrade paying her a visit was approached by four men wearing balaclavas – which is always a bad sign. In an incident that no one who worked at the hotel was able to corroborate, this comrade narrowly escaped a hijacking, and since that unhappy day in April, many millions of rand have been expended on keeping Dlamini Zuma safe from misappropriated winter couture.

Just another reason that The Residence seems like the perfect place to meet with the Treasurer-General of the African National Congress.

“To see most clearly the manifestations of human instinct, it is useful to start with the rich,” wrote the American polymath E.O. Wilson. Man, is that ever true. And while we don’t often think of high-ranking members of the ANC as rich folk in the classic sense of the term, rich they are indeed. They serve as members of of the global elite, and their loyalty extends to that creed alone. Their instinct, of course, is to protect their own interests, which is to say, party interests, and thus to protect the membranes that limn bubbles like this one. The only mystery is how benevolent or destructive these new monarchs will prove over the course of their tenure.

Perhaps the most mysterious in this regard is Zwelini “Zweli” Lawrence Mkhize, scion of the Mkhize clan of Nkandla, a proud family that remained proud despite being reduced to labour tenancy by the vicissitudes of colonialism. Zweli, the fifth child of seven, became a medical doctor by the age of 26, was exiled in the mid-’80s, was deployed into the ANC’s health secretariat upon his return in 1991, acted as a peacemaker during the hellish Natal Midlands violence that followed, and then became KwaZulu-Natal’s long-running health MEC. He’s most famous among a certain circle of political operatives as one of the architects of Jacob Zuma’s ground game at the ANC’s Polokwane National Electoral Conference, a historic moment that will forever be remembered as South Africa’s most resonant palace coup. Zuma was once Mkhize’s big brother.

Insiders insist that the relationship has since turned toxic, largely on account of the Nkandla debacle. We’ll have to take their word for it.

Through his quietly disparate career as a technocrat and fixer, Mkhize has kept his hands as clean as any politician is able. Sure, a mini-scandal erupted after he was accused of spending R1.2-million on private jet trips during his premiership, but that’s small beer in the scheme of things. (He offered to pay back the money, but no financial concession was ever demanded of him.) Recently, it was alleged that Mkhize attempted to quiet the Khwezi rape saga for the benefit of his mentor’s political future – allegations that Mkhize countered with a remarkably detailed statement. Outside of the distasteful association with uBaba – former Zuma-booster Julius Malema has dismissed Mkhize as “Zuma-lite” – there’s very little holding the former KZN premier back. He has always been the most obvious dark horse in the stable.

According to people within his camp, this is very much by design – he has kept a sharp medical practitioner’s eye on the top job. At 61, he is younger than frontrunners Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma, but not young enough to have to bide his time. (In the ANC, whose youth league president is nudging 40, Mkhize counts as an Emmanuel Macron moment.) It’s now or never. So on with the show.

When I meet the Treasurer-General inside a warren of conference rooms, he appears wan and wiped out, his pallor matching his sombre blue pinstriped suit. Despite his obvious exhaustion, he is measured and polite, if a tad chilly – I have never found him to be anything but. Consistency is the man’s hallmark.

Why on earth, I want to know, does Zweli Mkhize want the trouble of becoming president of the ANC, the Ford Kuga of political parties, when he could simply retire as a cadre in good standing and tend to his beloved Nguni cattle? He reminds me that the request came from the branches, and that a cadre in good standing cannot refuse such entreaties. “One has made oneself available,” he says. “And I think one can benefit most where we can build unity, and manage the diversity of views within the congress.” A roving, restless fidelity is either a sign of a loyal party cadre, or a deeply cynical me-firster. Mkhize’s people obviously insist that he is the former. Later, he tells me, “Over the years, one has been able to work with any leader.”

Mkhize, the wags tell us, presents the possibility of a “unity candidate”, a bridge-builder who mushes together the warring factions under the banner of self-preservation. Two days before our conversation, Zuma reshuffled the recent reshuffle of his Cabinet – his 12th such endeavour – and South African Communist Party President Blade Nzimande was stripped of his Higher Education portfolio. This was obvious retaliation for Nzimande’s outspokenness regarding State Capture and the Guptarisation of the ANC, and the rupture has clearly pained Mkhize. Insiders say that he is genuinely upset by these rifts, and intends on bringing a physician’s hand to the healing process.

“We were not expecting the Cabinet shuffle,” he says. (His use of collective pronouns can be a bit baffling – one is never clear who counts as “we”.) “There are tensions based on decisions that have been made by the alliance partners – for instance, the May Day challenge [a crappily conceived cross-country rally instigated by Cosatu]. The main issue is to get an urgent meeting between the ANC and the SACP – this is something that needs to be dealt with immediately.”

For Mkhize, the unity tent is capacious enough to accommodate further reconciliations. So far as I understand him, he wants the state and the business community to stop colluding in order to steal every damn thing, and instead to start working together for the purposes of building a functional society.

“We want to create a capable state, with efficient service delivery and that is strongly against corruption,” he says. “We want to discipline capital for the purpose of building the economy so that we work towards radical economic transformation.”

It’s rather startling to hear him borrowing a line from Dlamini Zuma’s lyric sheet, and I remind him that the recent ANC National Policy Conference agreed to endorse the Ramaphosa-friendly “radical socio-economic transformation” as its preferred pick-up line.

He offers a tiny shrug by way of reply. “No, we didn’t do that. It’s more about preparing for the fourth industrial revolution, and developing clear, strict policy frameworks, and about how the issue of anti-competitive behaviour, if left unchecked, can be destructive.”

Mkhize plays the committed Davos deliverologist far more convincingly, I’d argue, than Cyril Ramaphosa does. Indeed, he evinces the best possible iteration of an ANC-led South Africa – a gently neoliberal, slightly less murderous social democracy that prizes innovation over theft, and goes bust in 2022 instead of 2018. One imagines that “the market” would come to love Mkhize after his first international dog-and-pony show.

But there remains a hitch. Surely unity is impossible while Zuma walks this earth a free man, swanning around with his stolen millions, issuing executive orders at the behest, we are now told, “of the bloody Russians?”

“Look,” he says, “this State Capture plays itself out in public, and it’s an issue we have to deal with. The party initially thought we could investigate it ourselves” – he’s referring here to the hilariously botched ANC internal probe into the matter – “and now we have supported a judicial commission of inquiry, as mandated by the Public Protector, to investigate this in all of its dimensions.”

Okay, but why do we need a commission of inquiry when there exists more than enough evidence for the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, or Hawks, to start charging, and for the National Prosecuting Authority to start, you know, prosecuting? Besides, isn’t the game rigged before it gets started, considering the President gets to pick the head of the commission investigating Himself at his own (totally evil) discretion?

Mkhize subtly, nearly imperceptibly, arches a left eyebrow, which I take to be a sign of displeasure: “We do not have in South Africa a case of a corrupt judiciary. I’m not even sure that question is a fair question.”

He’s less interested in what the current NPA will do than what the institution will leave for posterity, and perhaps for a more motivated National Director of Public Prosecutions down the line: “The important thing about the inquiry is that it will leave no ability to dispute the facts. That way you’ll be able to get closure.”

Most folks, however, don’t want closure. They want blood. In this, Mkhize is not their man. Still, he ran KZN for years and, after he vacated the premiership in 2013, the province became famously divided between the Senzo Mchunu and Sihle Zikalala factions, who are locked in an existential battle and whose fate now lies with the gods. Still, Mkhize now has a bigger assignment to wrangle, and he feels like the structures are in place to support a smooth transition to sanity.

“All of what we’re seeing right now,” he says, “shows the strength of the system. Let’s allow that process to take shape.” Mkhize does not appear ever to have taken a snap decision in his life. He is a deliberator, not a speculator. Trust the courts, mistrust the panic – the doctor’s in the house.

Who supports a Zweli Mkhize candidacy? This, of course, is the only question that counts. But there are other questions close on its heels. Is he running to insinuate himself onto Ramaphosa’s slate as deputy president? More to the point, if the ANC top six balloons into a top nine, as some observers think it might, can Mkhize act as the duct tape that holds the factions together going into the 2019 national elections?

One of the rumours doing the rounds is that Dlamini Zuma has been slated as a decoy candidate for Zuma’s real pick as successor – the good doctor himself. But this is stupid. Zuma’s sangomas may be wily, but no one can roll the bones with that amount of precision. The consensus position is that, right now, Mkhize is backed by Mpumalanga premier David “DD” Mabuza. By diligently building his province’s delegates into the second largest bloc in the country (after KZN), DD ipso facto become the ANC’s kingmaker. DD’s money and smarts were always going to make him the dark horse in this campaign – any candidate he backs that isn’t Ramaphosa or Dlamini Zuma is, by definition, the dark horse’s dark horse. Not a bad position, given all the political cacophony.

“To win at conference, all you need is one united province behind you,” insisted Julius Malema last week, when he promulgated this theory in detail. The story goes like this: after Zuma shoves his ex-wife’s candidacy down the throats of the ANC’s poobahs, DD gets into a flap because of the lack of consultation. (The honour of thieves, and all that.)

This brazen act of political brinkmanship causes a split in the formerly coherent Premier League (which included the Free State and North West), and sends DD shopping for a new candidate. He and ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, are sworn enemies – DD is banting, while Gwede is everything – and the latter’s alliance with Ramaphosa negates the possibility of support.

DD, according to many, is vastly, almost absurdly corrupt, but so it goes in Sodom – there are no good humans. Ramaphosa’s slate has proved remarkably mutable, and DD has made guest appearances on the ticket as deputy president.  – Daily Maverick.

Mkhize’s people, however, insist that such oleaginous politicking is wasted: the treasurer has locked up Mpumalanga, chunks of KZN, a slice of Gauteng, and is gaining support in the Eastern Cape. If that’s true, the numbers could be enough to put him on the podium come December 17. That said, none of this can be proved. So, we’re back in “Hilary Clinton wins the White House” territory.

Mkhize’s people insist that he’s being smart: he avoided establishment cock-blocking in KZN by getting the buy-in of the South African National Civic Organisation. (There has been some recent confusion over whether they back him or not.) They dodged the ANC Youth League and appealed to students via the South African Students’ Congress. Every interminable Oliver Tambo lecture has been addressed to voting delegates, rather than drunken punters. It’s been a targeted and focused campaign that is concentrating on amassing ground support, secure in the knowledge that DD is, for now at least, enjoying the spectacle.

When I ask Mkhize about DD acting as his purported patron, he brushes it off. “No. The issue here is about the branches and their support. The vibe I get on the ground is that there’s enthusiasm about the message.”

And the message is a clear one – Mkhize is a competent, long-serving cadre who is not Cyril Ramaphosa, and nor is he Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. His Zulu ethnicity helps quell passions in KZN, while his urbane sophistication helps shake political Martinis in Gauteng. This is what counts for ideology in a party that rotted out a long time ago.

And so we wrap up, and Mkhize retreats into another overstuffed cranny, swallowed by the colonial baubles and mawkish Africana, a dark horse galloping towards an uncertain future, guided less by his own beliefs than by the contradictions and absurdities that define his milieu. – Daily Maverick.

October 2017
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