Zweli Mkhize: a presidential candidate in his own right
Since being ditched as Cyril Ramaphosa’s running mate, Zweli Mkhize has come out as a presidential candidate, stressing that the eyes of the world will be on the ANC elective conference
The general public perception is that the ANC national conference is going to be a two-horse presidential race in the same way that Polokwane was a contest between Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki.
It is assumed that, despite a total of seven ANC leaders having expressed interest in succeeding Zuma as the ruling party's leader, the contest would really be between Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and party national executive committee member Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
But there is another presidential campaign that is increasingly forcing pundits to question this assumption.ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize finally came out this week to stake his claim in the race for the party presidency - a stepping stone to becoming the country's next head of state were the party to win the 2019 general elections.
The medical doctor with a long history of political activism in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and in exile is positioning himself as a "third way" candidate, one who can reunite the ANC's many and disparate factions.
It is a strategy that failed to deliver the presidency for businessman Tokyo Sexwale in 2007, although a last-minute deal with the Zuma camp did guarantee him positions in the post-Polokwane NEC and cabinet.
But Mkhize seems to be in it to win it, and is not entering the race merely to get himself accommodated by whoever wins in December.
I met him in a Sandton hotel boardroom this week for this interview. I broke the ice by joking that he looked more presidential than usual. His support staff - present in the room for the interview - laughed but Mkhize did not give much away in terms of reaction.
Beyond the crisis
However, it is something many keen observers of ANC politics have been remarking about for a while, that Mkhize has been quietly cultivating an image of himself as a real presidential prospect.
During the interview, one thing that became clear was that he was already thinking beyond the current ANC and government crisis - to the day when the change of leadership at party level happens.
December 18, the day on which the newly elected ANC president will be announced, would be a make-or-break moment for the ruling party, he said."Everybody realises that the impact of the leadership of the ANC [that is] elected is not something that will be felt five years from the December conference. Or two years, or even one year ... It will be felt in the first hour. That's when the impact will be felt," Mkhize stressed.
The eyes of the world, through scores of foreign journalists expected to cover the conference, would be trained on South Africa to see what kind of new leadership the ruling party's conference produces.
The party would then have to put its best foot forward, argued Mkhize, as the leaders it produced might be the difference between the country regaining the confidence of the world or being written off.
"Everybody must say: 'Wow ... let's give them a chance. We feel like the ANC is serious to turn things around.' That's the message that the leadership must first convey before they [even] speak ... Just the mere announcement [must boost confidence]," Mkhize said.
But is he the kind of leader who can do that for the embattled ruling party, which will be going into the conference deeply divided and facing the real possibility of a split?
For much of the past two years, Mkhize was being touted as Ramaphosa's possible deputy if the latter were to win the race in December.
But this past week, Ramaphosa's campaigners decided to drop Mkhize as a running mate in favour of another presidential hopeful, Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, because she could help them win the women's vote from Dlamini-Zuma.Rev up his campaign
The move caused Mkhize's supporters to demand that he rev up his own campaign.
What would be his main focus were he to be named the new ANC president on December 18?
He told me that he has a three-pronged approach to fixing problems within the party and in the government.
To him, problems in the party and problems in the government are directly linked.
The state, he has often argued, cannot function effectively if the ruling party is dysfunctional.
"The first priority is around the unity of the ANC, its renewal and [to have] a leadership with integrity. [This is] to keep the image it always had and generate confidence in it.
"The second issue is to emerge with a clear resolve to strengthen government to make sure you have clean governance and convincingly uproot corruption," Mkhize said.
For this, he believes that there should be new systems of governance that are efficient.
In a previous interview, he had suggested that there be an overhaul of government systems to remove the red tape which rendered it inefficient.
Radical economic transformation
"The third one [priority] is rebuilding the economy through radical economic transformation and to encourage growth, job creation," he said.Although talk of "radical economic transformation" tends to scare off business leaders, Mkhize insists on using the phrase, even on platforms where he is addressing the private sector.
It should not be a threat to anyone, he has argued, as the phrase refers to the "speed in which the racialised economy is transformed".
At a meeting organised by Investec on Thursday with women business leaders, Mkhize argued strongly for economic transformation - saying that the concentration of the economy in a few hands was unsustainable.
After the meeting, however, Mkhize acknowledged that some of the resistance he gets from business leaders about radical economic transformation was out of fear that it would be used as a cover to improperly benefit a few.
But if you want to know the exact policy changes that would be in place if Mkhize becomes the next president, you may have to wait until after December.
He is quick to remind business and reporters like myself that he cannot give details about exact policy because "the ANC is about collective leadership and the members of the ANC decide the policy direction".
What is clear is that big business has developed a liking for him and, ever since the political and economic crisis sparked off by Zuma's sacking of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister in December 2015, has seen him as a key figure in its engagements with the ruling party on policy matters.
Although he only rose to national prominence after being elected ANC treasurer-general at the Mangaung conference in 2012, Mkhize has extensive experience in government, having served as an MEC in KwaZulu-Natal from 1994 to 2009.
Thereafter he became provincial premier, a position he stepped down from in 2013 to take up his full-time duties at Luthuli House as treasurer.
As health MEC, he was one of a few ANC leaders who campaigned internally for the party to break with Mbeki's stance on the link between HIV and Aids.
In the years that followed, he was to be seen in the province as Zuma's right-hand man as the latter went into battle with Mbeki.
However, his relationship with Zuma has soured, and particularly worsened when Zuma fired then finance minister Pravin Gordhan and several others in a cabinet reshuffle earlier this year.
Which explains why he does not even feature on the slates circulated by Zuma supporters, who want Dlamini-Zuma to succeed Zuma as president.
During the interview, Mkhize was careful not to bad-mouth his rival candidates, but it was clear from his comments that he believes that a victory for Zuma supporters at the conference would cost the ANC at the polls in 2019.
"You have to have a leadership elected in the best interest of the ANC and the best interest of South Africa. Simply because the ANC is an instrument for South Africans to transform themselves. You cannot have an ANC that's satisfied to be located at the periphery of society. The ANC has to locate itself at the centre of society, as the leader of society."
But before it gets to that point, the ANC has to get to the December conference in one piece.
He is worried about the credibility of processes leading to the conference - often a hot issue when the stakes are high.
"The highest risk [would be if] the conference has to suffer a credibility crisis or a lack of credibility," he said.In the past, many ANC conferences faced the threat of a legal interdict, but this time, Mkhize said, the stakes were too high to leave the fate of the ANC hanging in the balance, for the courts to decide.
"If you get a conference that is questionable, it's going to put the country in limbo until the courts pronounce. And that's not really what you want to see.
"What you want to see is a process that is so credible that its leaders emerging out of there are accepted, and those who participated are satisfied that they have been able to get involved - where those who won have won and those who lost have lost."
Mkhize does not share the fear of those who say there is a risk of the conference being "stolen" by one of the factions.
Stealing the conference
"I don't think there is a risk of stealing the conference. The risk we have is manipulation by some of those in leadership when they begin to steer the direction, to determine the direction of nominations on the basis of slates," he said.
The process leading up to the conference has to be credible, especially because a disputed result may lead to the one thing the ANC cannot afford: another breakaway.
"There are not enough pieces [of the ANC] to break," said the man who grew up in Willowfontein, Pietermaritzburg - clearly mindful that disputes over the Polokwane and Mangaung conferences led to the formation of COPE and the EFF, respectively.
Mkhize projects himself as a leader best placed to reconcile and unite the two main factions that have emerged - around Dlamini-Zuma and Ramaphosa.
However, the biggest test would be whether he would still be committed to this unity if things do not go his way on December 18...