Zweli Mkhize the charming schemer

2017-11-26 05:59
Zweli Mkhize. Picture: Leon Sadiki

Zweli Mkhize. Picture: Leon Sadiki

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No matter the weather, at every event in which he addresses an audience, Zwelini Lawrence Mkhize sips on warm water.

His support team constantly perform the delicate act of mixing cold and boiling water to get the temperature just right.

At times the concoction comes in a water bottle; at other times in a mug – but even in scorching hot areas such as Mtubatuba in KwaZulu-Natal, that warm water cocktail is at the ready.

It serves as a prop in a perfectly scripted presentation, and goes hand in hand with his cool, calm demeanour.

Mkhize always offers handshakes, hugs and selfies upon his arrival, making it a point to greet as many people as he can before taking to the stage.

While delivering his addresses, he clears his throat intermittently and always follows this up with a polite “excuse me”.

This action appears jarring when set against the measured, practised mannerisms and formulaic speeches he makes. His eyes often scan the room, betraying a sense of anxiety despite his monotone delivery.

The term “dark horse” has been used to describe his presidential ambitions.

It is befitting of Mkhize, who works quietly, keeps his moves to himself and maintains a small, close-knit caucus.

Those close to him say he plays his cards close to his chest, revealing his hand only at the most opportune times.

That is the mark of a consummate politician.

In political circles, he is credited for the warlord approach he took at the ANC’s 2007 elective conference in Polokwane in Limpopo, where Mkhize’s provincial homeboy, Jacob Zuma, was installed as president.

“Zweli was this warlord who commanded the ranks of this powerful voting bloc in Polokwane. He was in charge.

"Those delegates recognised only him,” a comrade, who is now a lobbyist for Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s presidential campaign, tells me excitedly one night in a Sandton restaurant.

It is a view with which many comrades concur.


KwaZulu-Natal is now deeply divided after Mkhize, its former party chairperson and premier, departed to serve in the national leadership as treasurer-general.

That province is no longer a kingmaker.

Khabazela – as Mkhize is often referred to – is battling for his lion’s share in his home province alongside frontrunners Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who also hails from KwaZulu-Natal.

Mkhize’s lobbyists in his home province have been counting on his impressive track record – from holding the posts of MEC for health and then MEC for finance and economic development, to his later appointments as premier and chairperson – to win hearts and minds.

KwaZulu-Natal is a far cry from what it was in 2007, as is the relationship between Mkhize and the president.

In January, Khabazela was intent on launching his presidential ambitions in his hometown of KwaDukuza on January 8 to coincide with the ANC’s 105th birthday anniversary celebrations.

He was the picture of composure as he waited to deliver his address.

That was until a commotion broke out, the source of which turned out to be the arrival of Zuma, who was not deployed to the event.

But being in the neighbourhood, Zuma decided to show up and say hi. Conspiracy theorists believe Zuma’s sudden appearance was no accident.

Clearly blindsided, Mkhize fumbled through what would have been a powerful opening for his unity campaign.

“When we go to the next conference, there is no faction that can win in the conference and then win the elections for the ANC.

"The conference must be won by the ANC. Therefore, as young people, you must refuse to be drawn into factionalism,” Mkhize said, taking aim at the ANC Youth League, staunch Zuma loyalists.

“Each time we tell you something, you must ask us how that is going to help the organisation and you must never agree to be recruited into factions.

"You don’t have any baggage, so you must stick to the policies of the ANC and make it strong and unite the ANC, because you want to inherit the ANC while it is still in charge of the country.

"You don’t want to inherit the ANC that has lost elections.

“Therefore, the message from our president and the national executive committee is that we depend on you as young people,” Mkhize said, competing with the excited din prompted by the president’s arrival.

The two men were associated with the dominant clique dubbed the Premier League, but allegedly fell out after Mkhize took issue with Zuma’s unceremonious 2015 axing of then finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in favour of little-known backbencher Des van Rooyen.

Making a swift recovery, Mkhize the medical doctor appealed to big business like a rampant rash.

A comfortable replacement

At engagement after engagement, those aligned with so-called white monopoly capital warmed to Khabazela, despite his oft-stated support of “radical economic transformation” – a term dreaded by this crowd.

His way of effecting such transformation would be to include small and medium-sized enterprises in the greater economy.

The role of government, insists Mkhize, is to reform the procurement process so that up-and-coming entrepreneurs are paid for their work within 30 days, keeping their cash flow stable.

By August, Mkhize was clearly a comfortable replacement for Ramaphosa among those circles.

In the branches, where the final say about leadership succession takes place, his addresses were delivered to a packed audience.

“Abantu bathu unity” became his rallying call. At his speaking events, T-shirts imprinted with the face of Oliver Tambo were handed out.

On one such occasion in KwaZulu-Natal, he addressed the branches this way: “Let the branches nominate who they want to.

"Do not pressure them to pick a particular slate. There must be no bullying, intimidating or a threat of the loss of positions or the disbandment of structures.

“The processes must be impeccable so that the conference is not disrupted by appeals or court cases. I don’t want my name to be used to entrench factions.”

Meanwhile, in what appeared to be a reconfiguration of the Premier League, Mpumalanga chairperson David Mabuza and his counterpart in Gauteng, Paul Mashatile, started singing the same song of unity.

Those close to the three men speak of the creation of a new voting bloc, with Mpumalanga taking up the vacuum left by KwaZulu-Natal, given that the former is now the most consolidated province.

It is said that Mabuza, the kingmaker of next month’s conference, is selling himself as a package and bargaining for all three to be given space.

Like Mkhize, Mabuza’s next move is a mystery.

Subsequently, Khabazela was dogged by rumours that he and Zuma had, in fact, made up and that he was no longer just a dark horse, but a Trojan horse as well – the candidate whom Zuma would endorse at the eleventh hour, abandoning Dlamini-Zuma.

Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, who was instrumental in ensuring Zuma’s installation as ANC boss in 2007, tweeted that Mkhize was “Zuma lite”, implying that the rumours could be true.

Mkhize’s lobbyists admitted only to the strong bond existing between the two men, saying Mkhize “would never throw the old man under the bus”.

After yet another OR Tambo lecture, this time in Gauteng, Mkhize told City Press that the claims were “just speculation”.

“There is no such thing. All the candidates have some kind of relationship with President Zuma or another, and it is different for each one.

"So, on that issue on being said to be manipulated and so on, I think it does undermine the will of the branches and their right to make a nomination.

“It is not correct and I think when members approached me [to be a presidential candidate], their approach was not because they thought that I was a plan B.

"They thought that there were specific contributions that they wished that I should make, based on experience and on how we have worked together in the past. That is really the core of the issue,” he explained calmly.

In a year of observing Khabazela, I notice that the demographic he seems to be most comfortable addressing is children aged about eight to 14.

At one address, he spoke to kids who benefit from his foundation.

Mkhize introduced himself as BabuMkhize.

Grinning like a Cheshire cat – albeit with great decorum – he made a show of name-dropping some of these new young friends.

Regarding the issue of technological revolution, Mkhize emphasised the need for all young kids to have access.

In mock disappointment, he recounted how his grandchildren were always excited to see him, leading him to believe that he was the favourite grandparent.

It took him some time for him to realise that he was favoured because he did not mind parting with his smartphone when visiting the grandkids.

The next generation of leaders were amused at how easily he could be manipulated by their peers.

But grandkids, big business and overzealous lobbyists will all be absent when Mkhize comes face to face with the power-wielding branches of the ANC come December.

As nominations end today, many have opted to call on him to serve as deputy rather than give him the nod for the top job.

But all is not lost.

There may be a plot twist, and 25% of the conference may opt to raise his name from the floor – failing which, he will be relegated to the national executive committee.

Read more on:    anc  |  jacob zuma  |  zweli mkhize  |  anc leadership race  |  anc votes

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