KwaZulu-Natal premier Willies Mchunu. Picture: JACKIE CLAUSEN
KwaZulu-Natal premier Willies Mchunu. Picture: JACKIE CLAUSEN

The collapse of KwaZulu-Natal premier Willies Mchunu during his state of the province address on Wednesday morning has sparked speculation about his health, as well as whether he will relinquish his position for elections. 

Proceedings in the legislature were delayed for an hour following Mchunu’s collapse. Sihle Zikalala, the provincial ANC chair and MEC for economic development, tourism and environmental affairs, delivered the address on on Mchunu’s behalf.

The 71-year-old premier took over in 2016 after his predecessor was forced by the provincial ANC leadership to vacate his position. Mchunu has spent a considerable amount of time on sick leave — he is understood to have been on sick leave since November last year — and has often been hospitalised. It is suspected that he has a heart condition.

After his collapse,  Mchunu was checked by health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo before emergency medical personnel were summoned to the scene. Mchunu was then taken away in an ambulance.

ANC provincial secretary Mdumiseni Ntuli told the media at the time that the premier was  recovering in hospital. It was reported that he returned to the event later. 

In Mchunu’s absence, Zikalala was acting  premier, often getting the nickname “permanent acting premier”. It was widely expected that Mchunu would relinquish his position and retire after the elections on May 8. His name does not appear in the list of ANC candidates heading for the National Assembly or the provincial legislature.

The ANC’s deployment committee has sought three names for premier candidate from the provincial party structure. The committee will eventually decide who will take over as premier should the ANC win the province.

Zikalala’s supporters say he is the right person for the job, but his detractors say he doesn’t have the required expertise to hold such a demanding, high-profile position. 

Mike Mabuyakhulu, Zikalala’s deputy in the provincial ANC hierarchy, is out of contention after being arrested with a group of officials late last year and is facing charges of fraud, corruption and money-laundering after being accused of pocketing millions allegedly meant for a jazz concert that never took place.

Another politician in contention is long-standing MEC for co-operative governance and traditional affairs Nomusa Dube-Ncube, whose supporters say it is time that the province is led by a woman. 

Thabani Khumalo, an independent political analyst, believes the ANC leadership needs to address this issue soon. He said any instability in the provincial government, even for a few more months, would be untenable.

“I think the ANC leadership should take a decision now to allow Mchunu to retire and focus on his health and allow someone younger and more energetic to take over. I think it would be wise for the ANC to make Zikalala premier for the remainder of this term.

“If they were to take someone else [as acting premier], this would create divisions at a time when the ANC is focusing on elections. After the elections they can then relook at this position and see who is the best candidate.”