South Africa: Zweli Mkhize steps up his campaign even as law enforcement closes in

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Thursday, 2 June 2022 16:58

Swearing in of Zweli Mkhize as minister of health
Swearing in of Zweli Mkhize as minister of health (photo: Government of South Africa)

South Africa's former health minister Zweli Mkhize has stepped up his campaign to become president of the governing African National Congress (ANC), even as law enforcement agencies close in on him.

His former associates have also turned against him and told investigators that at least R20m ($1.2m) out of the R150m their company, Digital Vibes, scored from a health communications tender, was meant to fund Mkhize’s presidential campaign.

Despite a real possibility of being arrested and charged with corruption before the ANC’s elective conference in December, a step that would put him out of the running, Mkhize is continuing the campaign he started in earnest six months ago.

Hurdles in his way

“He is very much still in the race,” one of his campaign managers tells The Africa Report, “but as you know, in the ANC, you are not allowed to run a public campaign or give public indications that you want to run”.

Mkhize used the traditional wedding ceremony of his son, Dedani (who was also, incidentally, implicated in receiving kickbacks from Digital Vibes) last month to gain an endorsement from a group of traditional Zulu indunas, or regiments, who called on Zulu people to unite behind Mkhize’s campaign.

Even though such indunas carry no official status in the ANC, they have the ability to appeal to some ANC members in KwaZulu-Natal, traditionally the province with the biggest voting bloc in the party.

Mkhize used the public occasion to claim that the allegations were a smear campaign to keep him out of the leadership race, and that an investigation into a loan granted by the Ithala Development Finance Corporation to his wife, May Mkhize, a businesswoman, in 2006, is also now being reopened for that reason.

The Daily Maverick reported that some of the kickbacks from Digital Vibes were being used to repay this loan.

Quiet campaign

It is the third time since his resignation from President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet in August last year that Mkhize’s leadership ambitions have been raised at a public gathering. The previous two times were also non-political events, and included a prayer service.

One of his campaign managers says Mkhize has been lobbying support outside of the public eye, and that his campaign has found some sympathy from seven of the 11 regions in KwaZulu-Natal, containing 700 out of the 900 branches in the province.

He also claims Mkhize has strong support in the Eastern Cape province, where a recent elective conference was won by Ramaphosa’s faction, Limpopo province, which is set to have its elective conference this weekend, as well as in the North West province.

Mkhize is a medical doctor who was hailed as one of the stars in Ramaphosa’s cabinet in 2020 for his handling of the country’s Covid-19 response. He resigned after the damning corruption allegations against him were made public and is supposed to step aside from all his ANC duties, including any leadership campaigns, should he face corruption charges.

Challenging the step-aside rule

This latter issue is top of the list for Ramaphosa’s detractors, since his ticket has been an anti-corruption one, and the “renewal” of the ANC.

This lobby wants to use the party’s policy conference, held in July – a few months ahead of its elective conference – to start taking steps to do away with the decision that forces ANC leaders to step aside when they are charged with a crime.

At the same time, the support for the scrapping of this rule could also be a measure of the support Ramaphosa’s detractors, such as Mkhize, will get at the elective conference.

They argue that the original decision by the party in 2017 was centred around party members stepping aside on the basis of their conscience, but that the party’s national executive committee changed the spirit of this resolution by passing guidelines that compel those with charges against them to step down.

Step aside guidelines could be challenged on the basis that these are not valid until adopted by a national conference of the party

“Comrades feel that the guidelines sort of shifted the focus from that revolutionary morality to being a technical instrument that becomes the decision of the National Prosecuting Authority, which sits outside of the ANC, to charge someone or not to charge another person. They feel that opens up the risk of law enforcement agencies being seen or perceived to be abused in order to trigger this rule,” Mkhize’s campaigner says.

Some legal experts have argued that the step aside guidelines could be challenged on the basis that these are not valid until adopted by a national conference of the party, but it’s not clear whether Mkhize’s lobbyists would be using this argument at all.

No bad blood

Mkhize’s campaigners are quick to point out that, even though he might challenge Rampahosa and enjoy support from the latter’s detractors, there is no bad blood between the two.

“Mkhize was the one who tasked Ramaphosa to come in and stand as deputy president in 2012, and they [have] had a fantastic working relationship since then,” the campaigner says.

Mkhize, the ANC’s treasurer general from 2007 to 2017, is said to have the ear of former president Jacob Zuma and also worked well with Ramaphosa. Some believe it’s not impossible that Mkhize could attempt to strike a deal with Ramaphosa, in light of plans for the latter to become deputy president.

It’s difficult to imagine such a scenario at this point, as there is wide agreement that Ramaphosa’s incumbency is so strong that nobody could successfully challenge him. However, there are a number of candidates vying to become his deputy at the moment, and Mkhize could prove to be the most powerful – and politically senior – of that lot.

Mkhize’s campaigner says accepting Mkhize as a running mate would present a problem for Ramaphosa’s public image as a corruption fighter, and could dent the public’s trust in him.

They wanted to transcend what they considered the divisive campaign of Ramaphosa and the Zuma camp

Mkhize, a former premier of the KwaZulu-Natal province, has strong ambitions. He made an attempt at the presidency ahead of the ANC’s elective conference in 2017, when he was dubbed a “unity” candidate in a campaign run by himself, the ANC’s current treasurer general Paul Mashatile, and now deputy president David Mabuza.

They wanted to transcend what they considered the divisive campaign of Ramaphosa and the Zuma camp, led by Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who is now back to being a cabinet minister.

Will he succeed?

The anti-Ramaphosa lobby has been pushing back hard this week, with former spy boss Arthur Fraser laying charges against Ramaphosa. Fraser alleges that there was an attempt by Ramaphosa to conceal an alleged theft of “in excess of $4m” from Ramaphosa’s farm in Limpopo in February 2020.

Over the weekend, Ramaphosa’s detractors also retained their leadership in the Ekurhuleni region in Gauteng, a province that Ramaphosa hopes to get support from for his leadership election.

Mkhize is working closely with suspended ANC secretary general Ace Magashule, the campaigner says.

Although Magashule is suspended, he still has knowledge and networks in the party, and, while he isn’t allowed at work, he could help play a role in ensuring that delegates sympathetic to Mkhize get accredited for the conference, the campaigner says.

Funds could also be a problem for Mkhize, following the fallout with Digital Vibes, but some say he has found alternative sources amongst government contractors in the KwaZulu-Natal province

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