South Africa: Cyril Ramaphosa vs Zweli Mkhize, a vengeful duel to lead the ANC

By Romain Chanson

Posted on Tuesday, 22 November 2022 16:15
South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa vs Zweli Mkhize (photo: JA)

Among the candidates for the presidency of the African National Congress (ANC), Cyril Ramaphosa will face his former health minister. Ousted from government by the president, Zweli Mkhize is hoping to get his revenge.

Among the candidates for the presidency of the African National Congress (ANC), Cyril Ramaphosa will face his former health minister. Ousted from government by the president, Zweli Mkhize is hoping to get his revenge.

Cyril Ramaphosa may have thought he had got rid of Zweli Mkhize. On 8 June 2021, the president sacked his popular health minister in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, with South Africa the worst affected country on the continent.

Mkhize was not dismissed without reason: an investigation by the newspaper Daily Maverick implicated him in a corruption case related to his handling of the epidemic. The president placed his minister on “special leave” and had him replaced. This suspension was supposed to allow Mkhize to prepare his defence.

Under Mkhize’s leadership, the health ministry hired the services of the company Digital Vibes to carry out communication missions. Worth R150m (about $8.6m), the contract included services that the ministry was already able to provide, such as organising press conferences. The problem was that Digital Vibes is run by Mkhize’s relatives. He and his family are said to have benefited from the contract. Was it fraudulent? An investigation is underway.

Time in the desert

On 4 August 2021, Zweli Mkhize ended his special leave and submitted his resignation to the president. After being overexposed in the media during the pandemic fight, the former health minister began his time in a political desert. The Daily Maverick got carried away and saw his resignation as “the end of his long political career”.

But the man thought to be on the sidelines  took advantage of this separation to mobilise his supporters. He is now nibbling at the president’s ankles in the hope of capturing the leadership of the ANC at the party’s conference, which is scheduled for 16-20 December. Mkhize is now seen as Ramaphosa’s strongest opponent.

The 66-year-old was exiled to Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and Zimbabwe during the apartheid regime. He is a doctor by training who joined the ANC in 1991. From 1994 to 2004, he held the portfolio of health minister for the province of KwaZulu-Natal before leading the entire province in 2009.

Twice appointed minister, elected to the highest echelons of the ANC, Mkhize is a party stalwart. “He is seen as a man of great ability. He is a very serious candidate, respected in political circles,” says Susan Booysen, a political scientist and ANC specialist.

The Zulus with Mkhize

Mkhize is a child of Pietermaritzburg, the capital of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), and can count on the voters of this province, the most influential in the ANC in terms of delegates. The province will support him at the elective conference in December. His candidacy was preferred to that of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a minister and ex-companion of former president Jacob Zuma. Successfully turning away local activists from the Zuma family is a master stroke. Whoever holds the KZN can hope to conquer the ANC.

[Ramaphosa and I] are not enemies but we are very different,

Emboldened by his conquests, Mkhize allowed himself an initial attack on Ramaphosa, though he refrained from calling him by name. “We cannot afford another five years of a directionless and deeply divided leadership,” he said, on camera, in a short campaign clip posted on social networks. The tone remains cordial: Mkhize knows never to insult the future. “[Ramaphosa and I] are not enemies but we are very different,” he said in an interview on state television in October.

To each his own (legal troubles)

The two men have one thing in common. They both have [legal] cases pending against them. The case against Mkhize was explained above, while the case against Ramaphosa is still coming to light. The president is suspected of having hidden a large sum of money of suspicious origin on his cattle farm in Phala Phala. Several investigations are underway.

The impeccable “Mr Anti-Corruption” suit worn thus far by Ramaphosa is fraying, and his opponents have been pulling at the seams to expose him. But Zweli Mkhize is not yet playing that game. If you mention your opponent’s legal troubles, you risk having your own come back to haunt you.

Mkhize is wiser than his supporters. Unlike the president’s opponents, he has not denigrated the work of the Zondo anti-corruption commission, which has implicated 200 ANC members. He only points out its flaws. Although he did not initiate it, the commission is intrinsically associated with Ramaphosa and his desire to clean up the party.

Mkhize is also not campaigning against the controversial recall resolution. This resolution requires ANC members who are targeted in corruption cases to take a leave of absence from the party while legal proceedings are underway. It’s a measure hated by the anti-Ramaphosa crowd but supported by the fringe calling for a clean-up of the ANC. “The main candidates are careful to do and say things that are acceptable to both sides if they hope to win,” says political specialist Booysen.

Ramaphosa’s strength is that he has made the themes of anti-corruption and ANC renewal in the post-Jacob Zuma years indisputable. The man who celebrated his 70th birthday the 17 November on the sidelines of the G20 in Indonesia is letting his lieutenants campaign for him. The feedback from the field is good, the lead is wide. “Ramaphosa has more support in the provinces than Mkhize, who is solely dependent on the KZN,” says Eric Naki, a political columnist at The Citizen, while Booysen sees a confident president: “For the moment, Ramaphosa is sleeping soundly,” she says.

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