Former health minister won’t admit plan to challenge Ramaphosa, but a campaign seems to be under way
Former health minister Zweli Mkhize may be coy about his ambition to challenge for the ANC’s top job in December — but he cannot deny that a campaign to have him run against President Cyril Ramaphosa has resumed.
Mkhize’s Willowfontein homestead in Pietermaritzburg is buzzing with aides and his diary is full of appointments with visitors from as far as Limpopo — it resembles a command post and a nerve centre for his political future.
When a Sunday Times team visited Mkhize’s home on Friday, there were at least nine vehicles in the yard — some with registration plates from outside KZN.
For a man who was removed from public office, Mkhize is in demand.
We are told we ambushed Mkhize — who was in a relaxed mood, in his tracksuit — by bringing our lensman Sandile Ndlovu. So he changes to a white shirt with brown imprints.
After exchanging pleasantries and hearing his analysis of the ANC and the country, we ask Mkhize if he is on the campaign trail to take on Ramaphosa and if anybody has lobbied him to run.
“The only time anybody can talk about being approached is when the branches do proper nominations. If people are talking in-between I think that we should not comment about that, otherwise it becomes ill-discipline — except that you always take very seriously any views people are making about their feelings and possible preferences,” he said.
After a few attempts to get an explicit yes or no answer, we realise that is the closest we’ll get to Mkhize talking about the ANC’s national conference.
Mkhize is fighting for his political life after the findings of an SIU report into the R150m communications contract with Digital Vibes led to his resignation last year.
He says the resignation was not an admission of guilt, but was designed to give the president a chance to appoint someone to carry on the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. It was also not ideal for him to remain in government while challenging the SIU report because he had to cite the president in his court papers.
Asked if he does not anticipate a situation where — if he is elected president — the allegations against him will overshadow his presidency, he said the solution was to allow all investigative processes to take place.
“You need to respect the processes that are in place and make sure everybody subjects themselves to them.
“President Mandela at some point was called to court and he had to go to court. President Mbeki, at some point there were a lot of issues and allegations about [the] arms deal and so on.”
We have seen high-ranking leaders kind of paying lip service to unity, but a certain level perpetrating a lot of factional mobilisation. We need to be upfront and say the ANC cannot survive internal factions
But Mkhize is not shy of speaking about a missed opportunity to succeed former president Jacob Zuma when he turned down an offer to become Zuma’s deputy at the party’s national conference in Mangaung 10 years ago.
“When Mangaung came there were views that it was the right time for me to consider nomination [for ANC deputy president]. It was not a public nomination but discussions …
“I felt that what was important was to maintain diversity in the leadership — uniting the people of SA and dealing with the demon of ethnicity. It’s very important to keep the balance so I felt at that point the responsible approach was that rather someone else, and the incumbent was then approached,” Mkhize explained.
Mkhize at the time was chair of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal and among senior leaders who approached Ramaphosa to stand for deputy, a position that eventually propelled Ramaphosa to the highest office.
Mkhize’s backers are relying on party structures in KZN to raise his name. They have been hard at work mobilising party structures, especially in influential regions like eThekwini.
Mkhize spoke of an ANC in deep trouble after the Polokwane conference. At the time it was important to look beyond himself and prioritise the organisation, he said. There was so much anger post Polokwane that even the leaders could not control the membership.
“I still feel the trauma of the removal of ANC presidents prematurely. It’s what we call a bad precedent; that if you start, it never ends. It’s not good for the country or the ANC.
Mkhize paints a picture of an ANC leadership under Ramaphosa that has failed to unite the party — which has led to hopelessness about the direction the country is taking.
What would it take to remedy the situation?
“The trust deficit within the ANC and the population — as we approach conference this year we must confront all of those issues and ask each other difficult questions and get a commitment from each other that we will resolve those issues, so that people can remain believing in the ANC,” he said.
“We have seen high-ranking leaders kind of paying lip service to unity, but a certain level perpetrating a lot of factional mobilisation. We need to be upfront and say the ANC cannot survive internal factions.”
Asked how the party can balance unity and renewal, he said: “I don’t believe you can argue that you compromise on corruption to unite. When you build unity you do it so that you can be consistent when handling investigations or actions on individuals impartially, so that everyone knows this is the route. It must never be that you are exchanging unity for promotion of corruption.”
It is unclear which faction of the ANC will support Mkhize, but there is speculation that Zuma’s supporters are behind him and that he may be working with NEC member Lindiwe Sisulu and suspended secretary-general Ace Magashule ahead of the December conference.
“I’ve worked with many comrades in the ANC, I still relate and talk to them — secretary-general and minister Sisulu — in the past two weeks we were asked to assist with discussions with amakhosi and she was there, there are many other comrades I talk to.”
On his relationship with Zuma, Mkhize admitted that an impression was created in 2015 that they had fallen out after he spoke against the decision to remove then finance minister Nhlanhla Nene. He said the matter was resolved at a later meeting.
“Don’t ever think that there will be an issue that would require you to align yourself with Mkhize or Zuma. There will never be such a situation.”
Mkhize said he and Ramaphosa have maintained a respectful, comradely relationship.
“We had a good relationship of respect for one another; that has not changed.”