He was among a handful of candidates contesting for the presidency at the ANC’s previous elective conference who had a shot at the top spot
There are two major political upshots from the Digital Vibes saga. The first is that the scandal has effectively put an end to any prospect of former health minister Zweli Mkhize reaching the presidency, and the second is that while President Cyril Ramaphosa’s careful political manoeuvring around the issue has been heavily criticised, it very likely spared him from creating a dangerous foe.
Just a month and a half into his tenure as health minister, Mkhize sent a WhatsApp message to his then director-general, Malebona Matsoso, asking her to sort out “contractual arrangements” for the firm Digital Vibes. The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) report into the communications tender received by the company says this supports allegations by a whistle-blower that Mkhize had a “vested interest” in ensuring that the contract was awarded to Digital Vibes, which was linked to his close associate, Tahera Mather.
The report was released by Ramaphosa on Wednesday, after he had received it from the SIU three months ago. He was under pressure to make it public and was eventually forced to do so.
Does the Digital Vibes scandal mark the end of Mkhize’s political ambitions? It very likely does, particularly if there is follow-through by the law enforcement agencies that are now taking forward the investigation started by the outstanding SIU into the R150m communication contract to the company, which was not only linked to Mkhize’s close associates but which his family — his son in particular — apparently benefited from.
Mkhize, who was among seven candidates contesting for the presidency at the ANC’s previous elective conference, at Nasrec in 2017, was among a handful of leaders in the party with a shot at the top spot after Ramaphosa’s two terms.
While he may not have contested for the top post in the next conference in 2022, he was in with a shot for the post of deputy president — but he is not any more.
“It’s gone. This thing is going to destroy him,” says University of Johannesburg politics professor Mcebisi Ndletyana. “Of all the people who [might have mounted] a presidential challenge, he, through his move for the post of deputy presidency, would have stood a chance; but it’s gone now.”
Mkhize, who was a former ANC KwaZulu-Natal chair and national treasurer, is no lightweight politically.
The province is the largest ANC structure, commands significant influence in its national executive committee and sends the largest delegation to an elective gathering. It is also big on national politics, wanting to exert its influence.
Its stature in the party may wane in the future (it faces serious electoral challenges after the departure of former president Jacob Zuma) but for now, it is likely to continue to hold substantial sway in the party’s direction.
Mkhize, as a leader from the province, could have used this to his advantage, says Ndletyana. Business liked Mkhize; he was affable and charismatic, and he handled the initial stages of the Covid crisis well.
Ndletyana says Mkhize also had a ruthless streak, which made him decisive and potentially a strong leader after the perceived indecisiveness of the Ramaphosa era. But the dodgy communications contract has changed all that.
The SIU report paints a grim picture of the hoops through which officials apparently jumped to secure the contract for Digital Vibes at huge expense to the state and at a time when SA was in the grip of a global pandemic, coupled with intense economic hardship and mental anguish as the death toll rose.
For Mkhize’s part, the report shows that there is evidence that his son directly benefited financially from the contract. It shows that Digital Vibes first received a contract with government from an agency that fell under the co-operative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta) department, when Mkhize was minister of that portfolio.
It also contains the damning WhatsApp message linking him to officials pushing the contract through. And the report shows that the SIU felt his explanation for allegations that renovations to one of his family properties valued at just over R6,000 were paid for by money scored from the contract was implausible.
All of these factors do not bode well for the former minister, who resigned in August. There is also an affidavit from the former spokesperson of Cogta, Musa Zondi, saying he found it curious that one of the beneficiaries of the Digital Vibes tender, Mather, acted as Mkhize’s personal spokesperson when he, Zondi, was formally appointed as his spokesperson during Mkhize’s time at Cogta.
The Digital Vibes contract with the Cogta agency cost over R3.9m. “Why didn’t he tell the SIU about the Cogta contract? I don’t see him coming back from this,” says Ndletyana.
Experience that cost SA dearly shows that the ANC has in the past elected to its upper echelons those accused and even convicted of corruption – think Zuma and Tony Yengeni. But the party was punished repeatedly at the polls for this. It is maybe two elections away from losing power should it fail to change its ways.
Just this week Ramaphosa asked voters for “another chance” as he launched the party’s manifesto ahead of potentially the toughest election it has ever fought, to take place on November 1.
This brings us to the second political takeaway from the Digital Vibes saga — its impact on Ramaphosa. Due to his handling of it, it is unlikely to be dramatic. It will be difficult for Mkhize to say that Ramaphosa is using state agencies against him (the tired old Zuma/Ace Magashule narrative), simply because Ramaphosa has allowed processes to take place as he watched from a distance.
Ramaphosa’s soft handling of Mkhize during this time will make it difficult to mobilise support using a “victim” narrative as Zuma did against former president Thabo Mbeki in the run-up to Polokwane or as Magashule sought to do after he was charged with corruption and subsequently suspended from the ANC.
Ramaphosa was, in fact, overly generous towards Mkhize — though the scandal was causing outrage among South Africans, he left him in his post until it became untenable and Mkhize himself opted to resign.
Ramaphosa even praised Mkhize’s work amid the pandemic when announcing his departure. On Wednesday, he again sang Mkhize’s praises at a media briefing at the ANC headquarters — saying the allegations against him did not detract from the fact that he had “served the nation well”. He said: “I think many people remember how he served the nation … I may well have been the face, but he was the soul.”
He spoke about Mkhize’s work during his tenure as health MEC in KwaZulu-Natal at a time when the government was gripped by Aids denialism, and said Mkhize needed to be recognised for that.
But Mkhize had resigned amid the Digital Vibes allegations and that needed to be recognised too, Ramaphosa said.
Ramaphosa wants Mkhize in the situation which he embroiled himself in. In Mkhize Ramaphosa sees a potential competitor with capacity to turn tides against him at the next ANC congress using KZN as a trump card. Ramaphosa however has a powerful ally from KZN, Senzo Mchunu, who enjoys respect and support from the Zulus. The current Minister of Water and Sanitation Minister, Mchunu ran for the Secretary General position in the previous ANC congress and lost by a razor thin margin to Ace Magashule. The diminutive Mchunu’s attempts to secure a full tenure as Premier of KZN was frustrated by Mkhize and former President Jacob Zuma who lobbied for the incumbent Sipho Zikhalala.
Ramaphosa also explained why he had taken his time to release the report. “I am rooted in doing things in terms of the process, and we need to look at that report, at the suggestions and recommendations … and do things in a processed manner that … will be fair and give people the opportunity to respond,” he said.
Ndletyana says Ramaphosa had to tread carefully to avoid alienating Mkhize’s constituency in KwaZulu-Natal. The ANC in that province had to be carefully managed after Zuma’s arrest — his release on medical parole has to a degree calmed tensions between the province and Ramaphosa.
It is somewhat tragic that Mkhize is likely to exit the political stage with a rather sullen whimper instead of a bang.