Johannesburg - As the battle to succeed President Jacob Zuma as leader of South Africa’s ruling party grows increasingly bitter, ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize is positioning himself as the one candidate who can stop the African National Congress from splitting apart.
“If I was to be elected there are specific things that I would contribute to the ANC that would take it forward - unity is the one main issue,” Mkhize said in an interview on Tuesday at Bloomberg’s Johannesburg office. “I have got the advantage of being able to work with literally any leader in the organization.”
Mkhize has emerged in recent weeks as a potential successor to Zuma, who’s due to step down as ANC leader at its elective conference in December and as national president in 2019. He’s won support in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga - two eastern provinces with the biggest number of ANC members. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former chairperson of the African Union Commission and the president’s ex-wife, were previously seen as the only two serious contenders for the top post.
The party’s elections come at a time when it’s riddled with divisions over Zuma’s leadership and his immersion in a succession of scandals. Disputes over who will get to vote have ended up in court in four of the nine provinces. Political uncertainty has also weighed on the economy, with the nation having fallen into a recession this year, business confidence at a three-decade low and the unemployment rate at a 14-year high. The rand has given up almost all the gains of as much as 10% this year to trade little changed against the dollar.
The ANC is working to resolve its internal differences to ensure the conference goes ahead as planned and avoid a repetition of previous splits that spawned three opposition parties - the United Democratic Movement, Congress of the People and Economic Freedom Fighters, according to Mkhize.
“We have seen enough offshoots of the ANC,” he said. “We cannot allow the ANC to split on the basis of that slate is in, that slate is out.”
While the party has dominated South African politics since it took power in the country’s first multiracial vote in 1994, disgruntlement with Zuma’s rule saw its share of the vote tumble to an all-time low of 54% in last year’s municipal elections, and several senior party leaders have warned that it’s at risk of losing its absolute majority in 2019. Mkhize doesn’t share that view.
“The ANC still has enough support to be able to win,” he said. “The real issue for the ANC is not so much the strength of the opposition but its ability to deepen unity and ensure internal cohesiveness and then deal with the weaknesses that people are raising around the image of the organization. You can’t drive the party to a point where it splits.”
Mkhize, 61, trained as a medical doctor and spent five years in exile in Swaziland and Zimbabwe during apartheid rule. He returned home in 1991 and rose through the ranks of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, being appointed as the region’s premier in 2009. He relinquished that post in 2013, the year after his appointment as the ANC’s treasurer-general.
While Mkhize didn’t directly criticise Zuma, he said the ANC’s next leader must make it a priority to fight corruption and ensure those who commit crimes are brought to justice.
“There is nothing that should absolve anyone from criminal investigation or prosecution only on the leadership in the government or in the African National Congress,” he said.
Mkhize rejected suggestions that he was Zuma’s favoured successor and that the president had expressed support for Dlamini-Zuma as a decoy to throw his opponents off track.
“People will create stories and sometimes throw dust, throw doubt,” he said. “I’m Zweli Mkhize. I’m not anybody’s compromise. I am my own person and I have my own record as part of the leadership of the ANC.”
Mkhize said he hasn’t considered accepting another position in the ANC leadership should he fail to win the presidency since he hasn’t been nominated for any other posts, but he will bow to the party’s judgment.
“I didn’t just initiate a campaign,” he said. “People have approached me for nomination and I have said, ‘nominate and I will accept.”’
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