Newsmaker – Senzo Mchunu takes KZN reins

2013-09-30 08:00

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New premier a popular chairperson and the preferred candidate for 2014.

KwaZulu-Natal’s new premier, Senzo Mchunu, is seated in the middle of a trestle table in a small marquee set up on the playing surface of Pietermaritzburg’s Dales Park.

On Mchunu’s right sits Willies Mchunu (unrelated), his ANC deputy and the man he beat for the provincial chairperson’s job in March.

To Mchunu’s left is Peggy Nkonyeni, KwaZulu-Natal legislature speaker and another would-be former contender for both positions.

Seconds before the three are ushered in – along with provincial director-general Nhlanhla Ngidi and Nkonyeni’s deputy, Mtholephi Mthimkhulu – a senior fixer from the premier’s office dictates to protocol officers who should be seated where.

They settle the microphones and Mchunu sweeps in with his entourage.

It’s classic ANC KwaZulu-Natal – make that KwaZulu-Natal government – political choreography. Clichéd but effective: a portrayal of unity at the most basic level that ensures the first glimpse the faithful get of the new premier on TV is of him smiling next to the equally pleased-looking comrades he defeated.

The former education MEC and teacher from Hlabisa in Zululand has been acting premier since his predecessor, Zweli Mkhize, finally made the move to Luthuli House last month to take up his full-time job as ANC treasurer-general.

Mkhize made the ANC top six at its national conference in Mangaung in December, and the decision to move him to Johannesburg came in July.

The ANC has still not finalised its premier candidate for KwaZulu-Natal – nor any other province – but Mchunu is a popular chairperson and the province’s preferred premier candidate for 2014.

Seven months – the minimum period for which he’ll be in the hot seat – is a long time in politics.

Mchunu’s brief comes with the daunting task of maintaining or improving the ANC’s 62.9% of the provincial vote in what is likely to be its most difficult election since 1994.

Being chairperson of the ANC’s biggest stronghold comes with its own stresses to go with the benefits.

Mchunu (55) says his initial programme will focus on completing the work of Mkhize’s administration and familiarising himself with the premiership ahead of elections.

“I must first remind you that our term of office is ending in seven months, having started in 2009. I’m saying that so you don’t assume there is going to be quite a lot (of change) going forward,” he says.

Mchunu is particularly aware of the need to make sure there’s no upsurge in political violence ahead of the elections, a situation he faced in the 1990s at Empangeni, where he was the party’s first northern Natal secretary in 1991.

He was elected provincial secretary when the ANC regions merged in 1994, a position he held until June 2012.

From 1997 he served as a member of the provincial legislature, where he was chairperson of the education portfolio committee and he became the education MEC in May 2009.

Mchunu’s steady rise through the ANC ranks came despite repeated sniping campaigns by his enemies – who went so far as to accuse him of being an agent for the apartheid government.

A hard grafter, who as secretary ran the ANC machine that ousted the IFP from the province, Mchunu is married to Thandeka, the mayor of the uThungulu District Municipality, and has four children – two sons and two daughters.

He doesn’t talk much about his private life, though.

He’s clearly a man very focused on his work.

“In the remaining seven months of our term, the focus will be on ensuring peace and stability in the province, which can only be achieved if all of us can cooperate on putting a premium on human life and preventing killing as we move to elections in 2014,” he says.

Mchunu, who is not a fan of blue-light convoys, comes with a reputation for having been a hands-on education MEC who displayed a real belief in the importance of good schooling.

He currently commutes between his Empangeni home, and Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

His immediate tasks will be to familiarise himself with the premier’s office and appoint a replacement for himself as education MEC.

“Right now I have been appointed premier. I need to consult and apply my mind to the new position. I want to know my way around the office corridors and get to know people in that office better.”

The new education MEC, he adds, will be named on Thursday.

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