Zweli Mkhize’s road to ANC top job is littered with potholes
For the moment, it appears that the balance of forces within the ANC is against former Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize. There have been strong indications that the Hawks are preparing to formally charge him for his role in the Digital Vibes scandal.
This should lead to the ANC’s step-aside rule coming into force, along with its more recent proviso that anyone facing charges cannot contest for a leadership position. His announcement over the weekend that he will contest the ANC’s presidency, however, still has the power to change the party’s leadership race in important ways.
Mkhize also reportedly said that the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) report, which confirmed Daily Maverick’s earlier reporting about the Digital Vibes scandal, was part of a political smear campaign.
Reporting by Pieter-Louis Myburgh detailed how the money from the Health Department, when Mkhize was minister, was paid to Digital Vibes, which was run by his former personal assistant Tahera Mather. Mather hid the ownership of the company through a nominated person, Radha Hariram, who, in the real world, worked at a petrol station in Dukuza. Both the SIU and Daily Maverick found that this money then flowed back to the Mkhize family.
Mkhize is challenging the SIU report in court. The SIU is defending its findings. He has also argued that, as minister, he did not have the legal authority to order or manage how money was paid or to whom. The SIU has found that he sent a WhatsApp message to Precious Matsoso, then the Health Department director-general, in which he mentioned this contract and Mather’s company.
Meanwhile, Sunday World has reported consistently that the Hawks are preparing to charge Mkhize formally, and that Mather and her colleague Naadira Mitha collaborated with the SIU and had prepared a damning affidavit in which they give evidence against the former minister.
It should also not be forgotten that the chain of events includes Mkhize resigning as health minister hours before President Cyril Ramaphosa’s latest reshuffle.
Rather tellingly, he did not resign from the national executive committee of the ANC.
Mkhize’s apparent presidential bid comes after a long track record in the ANC. He was the leader of its KwaZulu-Natal province during the Jacob Zuma years, and was elected party treasurer-general at the 2012 Mangaung conference.
For a brief period in 2017, he emerged as a possible “unity candidate” during the ANC’s leadership race between Ramaphosa and Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. As the ANC treasurer-general at the time, he gave many media interviews (often arranged by Mather) and made himself easily accessible. (He has not done any potentially unpleasant interviews since the Digital Vibes scandal emerged.)
In the end, as the nomination process unfolded at the ANC’s Nasrec conference in 2017, he abandoned his bid, which resulted in the straight shoot-out between Ramaphosa and Dlamini Zuma, who were, in the end, separated by mere 179 votes.
This history may be important because it reveals one of the enduring dynamics of the ANC, that up to this point, it has been difficult for a person with a provincial support base to use a national office to grow it into a national footprint.
Two other people who have tried in recent times to make the leap from provincial to national power in the ANC have also appeared to fail in their quest: both former Free State Premier Ace Magashule and former Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza do not appear to have grown their constituencies.
It is not clear at this stage whether Mkhize has managed what they have failed to do, and what he has failed to do in the past.
It is also a strange quirk of our history, as John Mattisson has pointed out, that no former Cabinet minister has become ANC president. (The person closest to achieving this was Kgalema Motlanthe — he was a minister without portfolio for a brief time before becoming president in 2008.)
It is not clear at this stage that Mkhize can make history here. But it is clear that he has an uphill struggle ahead of him.
Of the provinces that have had their conferences so far, all appear to be backing Ramaphosa. The recently elected leaders of Limpopo, Mpumalanga, the Eastern Cape and the Northern Cape all say they want him to have a second term as ANC leader.
Of course, the one province that may go against this is KZN, which may back Mkhize. But KZN is not the unified and powerful force within the ANC that it once was. It failed to get a single leader elected to the ANC’s top six national officials in 2017. It should also be said that the provinces do not appear to be as united as they were before 2017.
Perhaps more important than the provincial picture is the bigger electoral picture facing the ANC. It is clear that one of the likely outcomes of the 2024 election is that the party will dip below 50% in the national vote and lose several provinces.
Even Mkhize’s own province of KZN may be on the verge of slipping, as only 45% of those who voted there in the 2021 local elections voted for the ANC.
The party itself has said in its recently published discussion documents that it believes the violence in KZN and Gauteng last year was a big factor in this. Puzzlingly, one of the guests at Dedani Mkhize’s wedding on Saturday, 21 May, was Ngizwe Mchunu, a former radio presenter facing charges relating to incitement during last year’s violence.
So if the ANC is correct in its analysis that the KZN violence has caused a loss of support, particularly in KZN, then Mkhize does not appear to agree.
This may indicate that he is pushing hard in one direction — to get elected in the ANC — in a way that may further alienate the party in voters’ eyes come 2024. In other words, if Mkhize were to be elected leader of the ANC, it is likely that it would lose more votes in 2024.
However, the claim, supported by Mkhize, that the SIU and the National Prosecuting Authority are being used/abused by Ramaphosa to keep Mkhize out of the race is now likely to gain momentum.
At a time when both institutions are trying to rebuild their legitimacy, this may make that process harder and lead to more contestation over their roles. As these matters come before courts, it is likely, too, that judges will have to make decisions on issues involving Mkhize and the SIU. And should those decisions go against him, he may try to claim the judiciary is biased in Ramaphosa’s favour.
This will bring the judiciary, once again, into the centre of the hottest political dispute in South Africa: who will lead the country into the future?
Symbol of corruption
Additionally intriguing is that Mkhize and others will likely position their campaign against Ramaphosa as the fight against White Monopoly Capital (yes, this Bell Pottinger-invented term is with us to stay).
It will be difficult for these claims to appear serious, though, as Mkhize himself is a fairly rich man. Over the weekend, News 24 reported that he and his family own several companies and properties.
It has also been reported previously by Daily Maverick that Mkhize received cuts from financing deals involving the Public Investment Corporation.
In a strange way, Ramaphosa could feel relatively comfortable in the face of a challenge from Mkhize, who can convincingly be presented as a symbol of the “old ANC of corruption”. As the prime example, Ace Magashule will have to sit out of this leadership contest. Ramaphosa’s supporters could advance the President as the only true leader who’s capable of continuing with the ANC’s stated policy of renewal.
In the past, Mkhize has shown himself to be a person of strong ambition. It is clear that he wants the top job or, at least, one of the top jobs in our politics. But the path to that position is complex and difficult. He may find that a decision by the Hawks to criminally charge him makes it impossible. DM