Natasha Marrian Political editor: Business Day
Zweli Mkhize: Seen as a dark-horse candidate for leadership of the ANC. Picture: BUSINESS DAY
Zweli Mkhize: Seen as a dark-horse candidate for leadership of the ANC. Picture: BUSINESS DAY

Zweli Mkhize, the softly spoken and deliberate ANC treasurer-general, seems intent on putting as much distance as possible between himself and the wrecking ball that is President Jacob Zuma.

Mkhize (61), once seen as the most loyal of Zuma’s supporters, burnt bridges when he showed himself to be one of those deeply critical of Zuma’s move to replace finance minister Nhlanhla Nene with the little-known David Des van Rooyen back in December 2015. Due in no small part to behind-the-scenes lobbying by Mkhize, Jeff Radebe and others, Zuma was forced to backtrack and reappointed Pravin Gordhan as finance minister.

It’s a wound that clearly still rankles with Zuma. Last year Zuma told a Gauteng ANC gathering that even those closest to him had not backed him when he had chosen a finance minister — a move which insiders saw as a direct swipe at Mkhize.

In an interview with the Financial Mail, Mkhize put further distance between himself and Zuma over the touchy issue of land reform.

"A lot of progress can be made within the existing constitution — maybe with one or other legislation — but within the constitution, we [have] a lot that can be done and achieved," he said. This contradicts Zuma’s claims that radical economic transformation, particularly when it comes to land reform, would entail changing the constitution to allow for expropriation without compensation.

Mkhize says: "We will be encouraging government to work on this process in a way that will ensure we progress within the constraints of whatever we have."

Clearly, there are two factions within the ANC jostling for supremacy when it comes to land. Little wonder that last weekend, the ANC’s national executive committee resolved to hold a special meeting to debate the land issue, presumably to resolve the deep differences.

Mkhize is respected by several key constituencies within the ANC. He has even been touted as a darkhorse candidate for the presidency of the party, despite most of the attention being on the two frontrunners — deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and Zuma’s former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Until now, the dominant thinking in ANC circles was that Mkhize would be lined up as deputy to Ramaphosa.

The relationship between Zuma and Mkhize was damaged after the Nene axing

Insiders, however, told the Financial Mail that Mkhize is increasingly becoming a serious contender ahead of the ANC’s elective conference in December.

As a leader, Mkhize is more of the Gordhan mindset, adamant that slowly building confidence in the economy is the key to boosting GDP growth. Unlike others in the party, who are often hostile to business — Nomvula Mokonyane and Mosebenzi Zwane, for instance — Mkhize is a supporter of government’s initiative to work with business and labour to boost investment.

Mkhize, as ever a disciplined party man, refused to answer the Financial Mail’s questions about succession. Instead, he says all ANC members should focus on "uniting the party".

"Unity is paramount, it is critical that instead of pulling in different directions we should unite the movement," he says. This is a coy response, delivered by many a presidential hopeful, but Mkhize is adamant that he will not get involved in succession talk until party processes are officially opened.

While he’s able to play politics adeptly, he speaks his mind when necessary.

Speaking of the debacle which has resulted in social development minister Bathabile Dlamini bungling the contract to pay out grants to 17m beneficiaries every month, Mkhize says: "There is no question about whether or not it (social grants) can be interrupted, it simply cannot."

Mkhize exudes calm, and good old-fashioned family values, when he speaks — not exactly something you could accuse Zuma of. He still keeps his ancestral farm in Willowfontein (near Nkandla) and is passionate about his grandchildren, and about animals. He is almost completely untainted by scandal — barring the R200m tender fraud scandal when senior government officials in the province were arrested, but which Mkhize denies any links to.

ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize and President Jacob Zuma. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize and President Jacob Zuma. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

He is fond of the winding anecdote so, on the discussion of social grants, the conversation wends its way to what happens when social services fail.

"When I qualified as a doctor there were wards that were dedicated to kwashiorkor, you walk in there and give the baby fortified foods and within two weeks or seven days, that changes," he said. But kwashiorkor, which can be a life-threatening form of malnutrition, is distinctly treatable.

Mkhize graduated with his degree in medicine from the University of Natal at the age of 31, at a politically charged time of PW Botha’s total onslaught in the mid-1980s. He opted for exile, first in Swaziland, then in Zimbabwe, before returning to SA in 1991.

Since then, he has risen through the ranks — health MEC, then finance head of KwaZulu Natal in 2004, then premier of that province in 2009 (during Zuma’s first term as president of the country), then ANC treasurer-general in 2012.

Physicians aren’t particularly known for their political acumen, but the fact that Mkhize has chaired the ANC in KwaZulu Natal for two terms, indicates that he’s adept at the political game.

His remarkable pivot away from Zuma, in a relatively short space of time, is evidence of this.

Not so long ago, Mkhize was seen as Zuma’s man. He was regarded as a key ally, and was thought to be the mastermind behind the so-called Premier League — an ANC faction that includes the chairmen of the party’s Mpumalanga, Free State and North West provinces. (He brushes off questions about this, saying it is not true).

But as much as the Nene clash clearly bruised the Zuma-Mkhize relationship, it was clear the gloves had well and truly come off when, in January, Zuma pitched up unannounced at a rally in KwaZulu Natal meant to be headlined by Mkhize.

Zuma’s move shocked Mkhize, say those close to him. Sources in the province say that shortly before, Mkhize had been lobbied by KwaZulu Natal’s ANC Youth League, which was backing Dlamini-Zuma for the ANC presidency.

Mkhize shrugged off their overtures, and urged them not to divide the party.

This was the reason why Zuma gatecrashed Mkhize’s rally, apparently — and since then, Zuma has pitched up at a number of other ANC events in the province.

Evidently, now that Mkhize is seen to be aligned to Ramaphosa, the battle lines have been drawn.

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