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South Africa: Covid scandal could jab Health Minister Mkhize’s presidential ambitions

By Anna Maree
Posted on Tuesday, 1 June 2021 17:30

Virus Outbreak South Africa
Zweli Mkhize, South Africa's Health Minister in Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday, April 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

South Africa's health minister Zweli Mkhize is the latest and the most high profile government leader to become embroiled in the country's growing list of Covid-19-related scandals, so far totalling almost R2bn ($146m).

Formal investigations into the R159m ($11.5m) health department tender linked to Mkhize are still ongoing, but media reports are so damning that President Cyril Ramaphosa will be forced to act. He has previously promised that those involved in Covid-19 wrongdoing will be dealt with “harshly and appropriately”.

Mkhize, a former presidential hopeful, has admitted that the communications tender from his department to a company called Digital Vibes – a company run by his former campaign media manager – was irregularly awarded.

The contract was for providing communications about the government’s planned National Health Insurance in 2019. Months later, when Covid-19 struck, the contract was extended to cover the pandemic.

Among the suspected irregularities is a R3m ($217,741) payment to the company, for setting up an interview between the minister and the national broadcaster SABC, for the announcement of the second wave of Covid-19.

Mkhize has denied any personal links. “I did not participate in the company’s appointment process, I did not in any way influence the selection of employees or consultants of the company,” he said in a press briefing on 26 May. “Let me categorically state that I have not personally benefitted from this contract.”

Detractors of Ramaphosa have shown early signs of rallying around Mkhize with their mantra of innocent until proven guilty.

Daily Maverick, the online news site that first broke the story, published a follow-up, disputing this. It reported that the company paid for repairs at a property owned by Mkhize’s ZLM Trust, and that it transferred R300,000 ($21,775) to a company owned by Mkhize’s son.

Mkhize’s downplay of his relationship with Tahera Mather and his personal assistant Naadhira Mitha was also unconvincing. Journalists who covered the 2017 presidential race knew Mather as the go-to person for communications during his campaign to be elected president of the governing African National Congress (ANC).

Stepped out of the presidential race

Mkhize was the dark horse in the party’s leadership race, styling himself as a third-way ‘unity’ candidate in a battle that was highly polarised between only two players. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, fresh from chairing the African Union Commission, and backed by her former husband – then president Jacob Zuma – who eventually lost to then deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa. Mkhize withdrew before the vote.

His support came from small pockets of branches across the country, but he crucially lacked backing in his powerful home province of KwaZulu-Natal, which was split almost evenly between Dlamini Zuma and Ramaphosa. Despite this, Mkhize is a powerful player in the province, where he previously served as premier and ANC chairperson before being elected party treasurer-general in 2012, on a slate that saw Zuma re-elected president.

Lacking the necessary support, Mkhize stepped out of the presidential race at the eleventh hour during the ANC’s elective conference in December 2017, but he made a deal that saw him elected as member of the 80-strong national executive committee as the most popular candidate.

It was reported that he backed Dlamini Zuma with the hope of getting the powerful finance portfolio in her cabinet, but Ramaphosa gave him the health portfolio instead.

Although Mkhize was never in Ramaphosa’s inner circle, he became an important ally, especially in the battle to pull the KwaZulu-Natal province closer to Ramaphosa. Zuma, who hails from the province and lives there at his rural home in Nkandla, still has a big influence and has been openly hostile towards Ramaphosa; but Mkhize’s relationship with Zuma is said to be cordial, even warm.

Mkhize, who is trained as a doctor, shone in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Just over a month into a harsh lockdown, Bloomberg published an article speculating that Mkhize is a likely successor to Ramaphosa.

Shrewd political operator

If Mkhize himself harbours ambitions, the ANC’s conventions prohibit him from publicly expressing this, but in his home province, there is a lobby which believes he should run for president. His name is being mentioned alongside housing, water and sanitation minister Lindiwe Sisulu and the ANC’s current treasurer-general, Paul Mashatile, as possible challengers to the party throne.

His supporters say the revelations around Digital Vibes amounted to nothing more than “dirty tactics”.

“His leadership during the pandemic is excellent,” a Durban-based ANC member and health worker says. “People tend to forget how he took us through the dark days of the two [Covid-19] waves. His leadership was publicly praised.” With much of South Africa now in the third wave of infections, it would be illogical to replace Mkhize, he says.

One challenge is that Ramaphosa’s camp is well consolidated already ahead of the ANC’s elective conference at the end of next year, and it would be difficult to unseat him. It’s more likely that Mkhize has been eyeing the deputy presidency to position himself to make a presidential bid in 2027.

Xolani Dube, from the Xubera Institute for Research and Development based in KwaZulu-Natal, believes Mkhize is a shrewd political operator.

“He is not a populist but he’s got a bigger plan,” Dube says. The corruption allegations against Mkhize aren’t necessarily career-limiting, he says, because negative media reports, if repeated, serve to raise the profile of a leader amongst ordinary ANC members, who tend to lean towards underdogs. A good example of this is Zuma, who was elected ANC president despite corruption charges against him, Dube said.

One thing that could count against Mkhize, however, is his age. He will be 72 in 2027; and, if elected, will be 74 if he becomes the country’s president, should the ANC win the 2029 general elections. Only Nelson Mandela, at 75, was older. Mashatile, on the other hand, is only 59.

It’s still unclear whether Mkhize will be able to sit out the Digital Vibes storm. For now, Ramaphosa said, he is waiting for the outcome of the Special Investigating Unit’s probe before making any comments. Rumours of a cabinet reshuffle have been doing rounds for the past nine months, but could materialise soon to fill vacant positions after at least two deaths of sitting members.

Detractors of Ramaphosa have shown early signs of rallying around Mkhize with their mantra of innocent until proven guilty. It is likely that they could draw him in again as he was more closely associated with their camp ahead of the ANC’s 2017 elections than with Ramaphosa.

Should the president take action, alienating some of his current allies implicated in wrongdoing, there is still enough time for them to team up as a sizeable lobby around Mkhize and launch a bid to oust Ramaphosa as early as next year.

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