South Africa: What KwaZulu-Natal’s support for Zuma means for President Ramaphosa

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Wednesday, 27 July 2022 19:24

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa, left, after receiving the final report of a judicial investigation into corruption from Chief Justice Raymond Zondo at Union Building in Pretoria, South Africa, Wednesday, June 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

The victory of South Africa's former president Jacob Zuma's supporters in the governing African National Congress (ANC) in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal could hardly have come as a surprise to President Cyril Ramaphosa. But it is a blow to his campaign to be re-elected at the party's national conference in December.

Even though Zuma is unlikely to run for president again, the newly elected KwaZulu-Natal leadership have provided his supporters with a rallying point since most of Zuma’s key supporters in the ANC have either been sidelined or forced to step down from their positions.

For starters, the province has already indicated that it would challenge one of Ramaphosa’s key anti-corruption reforms in the party as early as during the policy conference this weekend.

The rule, which forbids those who have been criminally charged or convicted to run for positions, has seen a number of Zuma’s supporters disqualified from leadership races, but it has also affected some of Ramaphosa’s supporters, some of who have stepped down only to have charges dropped later.

Some critics have called for the rule to be modified because of this.

New leadership

Siboniso Duma, the newly elected provincial ANC chairperson, was chosen with a convincing margin, with 930 votes against Sihle Zikalala’s 665.

What makes Duma’s victory so significant is that someone like him was able to unseat a sitting premier, despite all the advantages incumbency presented Zikalala.

Duma, whose lobby group in the province called itself the “Talibans”, is a senior member of the provincial legislature, where he’s served the ANC for more than a decade.

In the party itself, his most significant position thus far was deputy provincial chairperson of the ANC Youth League (he was elected in 2010), and, later, member of the provincial executive committee.

Teamwork

It’s with his youth league comrades that Duma, now in his mid-40s, teamed up to win at the conference. Bheki Mtolo, mayor of the Greater Kokstad municipality in the south-western part of the province, was elected to the key position of secretary, beating the incumbent, Mdumiseni Ntuli.

Newly elected provincial treasurer Ntuthuko Mahlaba is perhaps one of the most controversial members of the new leadership. He was charged with the murder of a former youth league leader, Wandile Ngobeni, in 2019 while he was mayor of the Newcastle municipality. A few months later, the charges were withdrawn after the state’s main witness was killed.

In October last year, Mahlaba was found guilty of theft, assault and malicious damage to property after he incited violence against an employee of a fibre cable contractor in town. He was sentenced to two years in prison or to pay a R20,000 ($1,188) fine.

Mahlaba was part of a delegation that visited Zuma at his homestead ahead of the provincial conference, ostensibly to seek his counsel for the conference.

Current premier unwanted

ANC members in the province cite Zikalala’s flip-flopping loyalties as one of the main reasons why he was voted out, but they are also unhappy about the loss of outright control of a number of councils after last year’s local government elections.

Zikalala declared soon after his election as provincial chair, in July 2018, that the party in KwaZulu-Natal would no longer support Zuma during his corruption trial. He made a few about-turns since, but some people say they were unconvincing.

Their aim isn’t really to run the ANC, but to run government and to run tenders.

Even though Zuma is unlikely to be in the running for the position of party leader again after stepping down five years ago, many in the province argue the long-running corruption charges against him amount to persecution.

Those who support around him say they want “Radical Economic Transformation” (RET), pointing to an overhaul of the economy and the way government business is doled out.

Violent protests and looting erupted in the province last year when Zuma was sent to prison after defying a constitutional court order to testify in an inquiry probing the corruption (Zondo Commission) that took place when he was president.

Divisions

At least one observer to the weekend’s conference in Durban remarked that there was a lot of Zulu tribalist mutterings in lobby groups on the sidelines, which worried them, since the ANC is supposed to reject divisions on ethnic grounds. One feature of many of Zuma’s supporters is, however, their loyalty, based on ethnicity.

Mostly, however, the contestation is about control of resources, says Cyril Madlala, an independent political analyst. He argues that those vying for positions are using Zuma’s name just because it is an easy way to attract sympathy and support.

“Their aim isn’t really to run the ANC, but to run government and to run tenders,” he says of those who competed in the provincial leadership elections.

The “Talibans” appeared splintered going into the conference, but “there was a lot of last-minute negotiations”, Madlala says.

Any competition for Ramaphosa?

Two months ago it seemed that Ramaphosa had a strong chance of being re-elected, as the newly elected leaders in four out of the nine provinces have already pronounced in his favour.

KwaZulu-Natal will constitute the party’s biggest voting delegation. Duma has declined to make any public pronouncement about who the province will back in December, but he did hint that Ramaphosa could be in for some surprises.

Allegations that he tried to cover up the theft of up to $4m in cash hidden in the furniture on his game farm in Limpopo have severely damaged his reputation amongst those who supported him.

Express yourself

“We’re going to the policy conference,” Duma told delegates as Ramaphosa prepared to address the conference closing session on Sunday night, “and in December we’ll have a chance to choose new leadership, where we will express ourselves.”

Thus far, the anti-Ramaphosa camp nationally has been fractured, with the former health minister, Zweli Mkhize, emerging as the only possible candidate with a fighting chance.

Mkhize resigned as health minister last year after allegations that he and his family members benefited from kickbacks from a Covid-19 communications tender awarded by the national health department to one of his close associates.

Although it appeared that there was some friction between Mkhize and Zuma, the two are at peace now, Madlala says. “Don’t write him off. He’s much better than some of the other possible candidates.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options