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There is a strong need for redistribution in South Africa – Zweli Mkhize

By Crystal Oderson in Cape Town
Posted on Tuesday, 6 May 2014 16:10

Also known by his clan name Khabazela, Mkhize is difficult to read. It may be his medical training or having mediated in the bad-lands of KwaZulu-Natal, but his manner is calm and reserved yet somehow aloof.

The child of labour tenants in Willowfontein, Mkhize is a moderniser according to University of Cape Town professor Anthony Butler. Mkhize is also proud of his Zulu heritage and of being a descendant of the Mkhizes of Nklanda.

As a Zuma ally he has had to navigate the party’s internal politics with diplomacy

Mkhize graduated with a degree in medicine in the 1980s and worked for the African National Congress (ANC) in Swaziland and Zimbabwe before returning to South Africa in 1991. As regional treasurer in the Natal Midlands and later provincial chairman, Mkhize used his sharp wit and intelligence to play a leading role in negotiating a peace deal amid the political violence between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party in the 1990s.

A close presidential confidant, Mkhize was one of the architects of Jacob Zuma’s ascendancy. Ahead of the Polokwane ANC conference in 2007 there was a massive increase in ANC membership in KwaZulu-Natal Province, from which both Zuma and Mkhize hail.

After Zuma defeated Thabo Mbeki for the ANC presidency at Polokwane, Mkhize returned to provincial politics, first as a commissioner of finance and economic development and then as premier of KwaZulu-Natal. Aside from a row over spending more than R1m on private helicopter trips – for which he agreed to reimburse the state – Mkhize’s stint as premier was devoid of the type of spending scandal that has tarnished many of his counterparts’ careers.

From KZN to Jo’burg
2 February 1956 Born in Willowfontein
1986– Went into exile in Swaziland
1991– Returned to SA. Joined ANC’s national health secretariat
1994– KwaZulu-Natal commissioner for health
2004– KwaZulu-Natal commissioner for finance & economic development
August 2009– Chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal
September 2009– Elected premier of KwaZulu-Natal
December 2012– Elected treasurer of the ANC
August 2013– Resigned as premier of KwaZulu-Natal

But the lure of power at the centre won out when Mkhize was elected ANC treasurer general at its Mangaung conference in December 2012. As a Zuma ally, he has to navigate the party’s internal politics with some diplomacy. As ANC treasurer, he wants to reform party funding.

He advocates an open trust to which companies can give money, which would then be disbursed to political parties based on proportional representation. He has also criticised the ANC’s investment arm, Chancellor House.

In February, Chancellor House sold its 25% stake in Hitachi Power Africa to the parent company in Japan for an undisclosed sum. This followed concerns about conflicts of interest after Eskom, the state electricity company, awarded contracts to Hitachi. “Chancellor House should not take government contracts. We must regulate it, but the ANC cannot be banned from having an investment arm,” Mkhize told The Africa Report.

Mkhize concedes that the ANC faces problems such as ethnicity and corruption, and in some cases has lost its way. Like deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, he is calling for a renewal of organisational values. “We will clean most of those issues up. But there will be, obviously, a change of culture in terms of how things happen,” he says.

A strong supporter of the government’s National Development Plan (NDP), Mkhize argues this is the growth path the country needs to shake off the chains of its apartheid past. Critics on the left say the NDP will protect business owners too much and will not help the poor. “There are areas of debate that need to be worked upon and those areas of debate mean that the alliance partners [the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party] must create a forum where those issues can be thrashed out on an ongoing basis,” explains Mkhize.

State intervention is key to the development strategy: “I think you need a very strong state. There are a lot of things to be corrected… the amount of inequality. You know, there is a very strong need to deal with the issues of redistribution in the economy.”

ANC activists, especially those in Gauteng Province, see Mkhize as one of the party’s leading intellectuals and activists, untainted by scandal. Some suggest that he is presidential material and a politician to watch closely as the ANC prepares for its leadership conference in 2017.

The Africa Report: How concerned are you about trade union opposition to the National Development Plan (NDP)?

ZWELI MKHIZE: The NDP has been inspired by government, but it was created by people from very different political affiliations. If the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa have said they have problems with this, it doesn’t mean that the whole of South Africa has rejected the document. It means that we need to take seriously what they are saying and discuss with them, engage with them.

Are ANC members worried about corruption and the misuse of state resources?

It is a big concern. We’ve been tracking corruption over many years. It has become increasingly an issue. When these issues get projected in the media, it always sounds like it’s because the ANC is intrinsically corrupt. Therefore, the opposition is giving the ANC a tough time. The people who are very strong on the issue of corruption are ANC members.

Do ANC members care about the upgrade to President Zuma’s homestead?

The matter is debated every- where. People raise various issues. They want clarification. There have been comments about irregularities that are being investigated. There has been an explanation that the issue of upgrades is a proper government decision that is justifiable. The rest is for us to make sure that people see where things have happened and what corrective measures we will take.

Are you concerned that after 20 years in power the ANC will follow the path of liberation movements in Zambia and Zimbabwe and lose popular support?

The ANC still has quite a large support [base], but the further away you move from the days of the liberation struggle, the less you keep institutional memory and sentimental attachment to the struggle. Mistakes that happen in government will impact the image of the party. The ANC is fairly open about debate. You can raise your views. There is a lot more to challenge and criticise in a ruling party simply because it is in government.

You played a key role in peace negotiations between the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1990s. What factors made the difference?

When the political parties were unbanned, we were supposed to have got everyone together. That was the plan. We ended up having to sit down with all the leaders of these parties. But there were people whose careers depended on their participation in violence. We had to calm that down and have an open dialogue where people understood there should be no no-go zones. A lot of it was not government, it was parties who were dealing with that. People underestimate the role of the political parties in creating stability in the country.

The ANC membership in KwaZulu-Natal shot up before the Mangaung conference. Was that due to the work of yourself and others like President Zuma recruiting new members?

It was a combination of issues. The leadership of the ANC had been from three different areas in the province, and so it took a while to get them to accept each other’s authority. It was also important for the ANC to focus its energy less on all the other parties and focus on what the ANC is all about.

It is very important for the ANC to guard jealously its values and character

Is ethnicity a problem for the ANC?

In general terms, no. In fact, wherever you go, you will find that people are pretty integrated. Ethnicity arises when there are contests […] linked to some kind of leader- ship issues where a leader would want to use that as a way of proving their advantage. The ANC took a conscious decision to manage the demons of tribalism and ethnicity. There’s nowhere in the structures and policies of the ANC that you will find anything that will encourage or even tolerate ethnicity. You will find [ethnicity and tribalism] every now and again because not all leaders are equally developed to be able to make people focus on the issues instead of trying to look for narrow, parochial interests around which they might want to define themselves or their cause.

As a former premier, do you think South Africa should devolve more power to its nine provinces?

I would be more for a bit of a balance, but you cannot weaken your central government. There are services, activities and powers that need to reside in the centre so it can intervene in areas of need. We don’t want South Africa to be turned into 10 different countries. There’s work that can be done at the local and provincial level, but you cannot allow a situation where everybody is running their own show. There are things that work better if they are centrally coordinated. The provinces give people closer contact and access to government. But if you weaken national government, it is going to result in the inability to hold people accountable at a local level.

Do you support reform of the proportional representation (PR) voting system?

We must not have short memories. Why did we have the PR system? We had it to have all the small parties [in parliament]. It starts with Madiba [Nelson Mandela] making a strong point that there are the serious concerns of minority communities that must be taken into account […] So you must design a system that allows even the smallest voice to be heard.

As a medical doctor, how do you rate our health service?

If you want to compare it to the early 1980s and 1990s, the country is in a better situation now. The economic status of our people has improved. There are things that we don’t see as much, like poverty-related infestations of parasites or malnutrition. There was improvement until [the rise of ] HIV and its concomitant infections with tuberculosis. But in the past four years there has been a turnaround because of antiretroviral treatments. Tuberculosis is still a problem, especially the multi drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Are we really going to see the National Health Insurance (NHI) system?

The people who are trying to oppose the NHI are not reasonable. We should be investing in institutions to manage it, to build up the infrastructure and change the attitude of those who are managing the health services.

What is your view of the growth of opposition parties – to the left and right?

It should be natural to get a lot of parties. If you go back, the IFP was part of the ANC, then it broke off. The Pan African Congress was part of the ANC, then the United Democratic Movement got formed out of the ANC […] the Congress of the People, the Economic Freedom Fighters, etc. There’ll always be some who will want to break away from the ANC because it’s a very broad organisation. That is a normal dynamic [for] a political party. And there will be some who will not join the ANC. The ANC must be aware that there are issues that are making some people move. It would be very important for the ANC to guard jealously its values and character.

Can the party’s pan-African supporters be confident the ANC is here to stay?

The ANC has been a source of inspiration over many years, not because it was running a country but because it represented particular values. Most of the African countries which participated in the fight against apartheid have been supporters or have active members of the ANC. Where we’ve lost members, they’ve also shed some blood. Where we’ve had to make contributions, they’ve put in money for the ANC. There is a very strong bond that will continue.

How do you respond to the calls on social media for you to stand for the ANC presidency?

No, I think it’s a debate that is mis- placed. Firstly, we are more than a year away from the conference, so we are not short of a president. Secondly, I don’t believe we want to get into this discussion. You need to understand people’s sentimental reasons, but it’s not something that I think we must sit here and start debating.

Do you ever want to return to your profession as a doctor?

I still miss my patients and I still miss working with people. But I don’t think there is enough time to deal with that. I’d like to see myself being able to make a contribution at any time. ●

Interview by Crystal Orderson in Cape Town

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