Sihle, Zuma and redemption
By Mondli Makhanya
For some of those who had witnessed close-up how outgoing KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala and his crew had hounded his predecessor Senzo Mchunu out of office some years back, there was more than a hint of schadenfreude when the former got a taste of his own medicine.
After defeating Mchunu following a brutal and, some say, money-fuelled campaign, they engineered his ouster from the premiership.
In his place, they installed Zikalala’s deputy, the hapless Willies Mchunu, who just looked like one of those worn-out VO Martel sales reps from the 1980s.
They ran rings around him, pulled him by the nose and made him sing for his supper while he enjoyed the benefits of warming the seat for Zikalala ahead of the 2019 general elections.
The poor guy ended up collapsing right in the middle of his final state of the province address in February 2019, a sure sign of elder abuse.
Those were the halcyon days for the motley lot that is now known as the radical economic transformation (RET) forces. They were solidly in charge in several provinces, their high priest was running the country and they were confident of more years of looting if the 2017 Nasrec elective conference went their way.
In KwaZulu-Natal, Zikalala was running the provincial party and the sticky-fingered Zandile Gumede had been elected chairperson of eThekwini, the country’s biggest ANC region.
Both leaders worshipped at the altar of Jacob Zuma and it was always going to be so. Going to Nasrec, they were going to deliver the ANC presidency to Zuma’s preferred successor, who would hopefully ensure that his dirty legacy endured.
But politics cannot always be choreographed to perfection.
Having dealt harshly with their opponents in 2015 and having not been gracious in victory, Zikalala took a divided province to the conference, with the vanquished supporting the elevation of Cyril Ramaphosa above the officially KwaZulu-Natal-backed Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. As history records, it was a disastrous outing. For the first time since the first post-unbanned ANC conference in 1991, KwaZulu-Natal was not represented in the party’s top six.
Since then, this has been the source of much hurt for the province that prides itself as the conductor of ANC affairs.
Following Ramaphosa’s triumph in December 2017 and his move to the Union Buildings in February 2018, Zikalala made calculations that can be seen as either principled, smart and opportunistic or just plain stupid. He started gradually drifting towards the victors, aligning himself with the president of the party and the republic. This is natural human behaviour, whether in a stokvel, high politics or the corporate sector.
It might have worked out well if the man Zikalala was aligning himself with was serious about power. Instead of consolidating power, Ramaphosa spent his time marvelling at the length of his Ankoles’ horns. When he took the odd interest in politics, it was to preach about forging a false unity with the thieving faction of the ANC.
While Ramaphosa was doing so, his unrepentant foes were undermining his hold on the party and plotting his eventual downfall. This was much to the frustration of his own allies, who wanted to reinforce the change programme that he had sold them.
The likes of Zikalala, who had believed they were joining the winning side, were now being seen as turncoats by the constituents they thought would follow them to the victor’s camp.
The ANC’s two most senior leaders in the province – Zikalala and provincial secretary Mdumiseni Ntuli – became pariahs among the people they led. Asking zombified Zuma supporters to abandon their man was a step too far. Even more so since the person they were being asked to pledge allegiance to was as strong as a leaf in a forest.
But once Zikalala had indicated where his loyalties lay, there was no going back. He also suffered the fate of so many politicians in all three tiers of government. In some political circles, they call this disease “impakamo” (elevation).
This is when the blue-light convoys, reserved seats and other trappings of high office cause politicians to forget how they got there in the first place. Once elevated, he became a “big man”, distanced from the ground that he would need to get him re-elected and possibly hoisted even further up the food chain.
His only chance of further elevation now is if Ramaphosa rewards him with something sweet for his past loyalty or if his comrades so badly want to get him out of the province that they push him for a national position. The latter would render him grateful and beholden to them.
Although he claims to have resigned of his own volition and for the good of the ANC and the province, Zikalala knew from the time he was ousted and then excluded from the provincial executive committee that the guillotine was waiting to fall. So he reasoned that he should save himself the indignity of being mercilessly forced out of office.
It was telling that, in his farewell address, he pledged fealty to Zuma and downplayed his allegiance to Ramaphosa.
It seems like he realises that he backed the wrong horse and that his political redemption lies in dancing to the Nkandla tune again.
He was, after all, one of the stormtroopers who led the anti-Thabo Mbeki mutiny in Polokwane, a pivotal moment in his own career trajectory.
–Mondli Makhanya is Editor-in-Chief of City Press