Political stardom beckons for virus point man, Zweli Mkhize

Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize has won such praise for his handling of the coronavirus crisis that he’s being touted as a possible successor to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Advised by a panel of top scientists, Mkhize has crisscrossed the country assessing the health system's ability to cope with an anticipated surge in cases.

A medical doctor, he's made scores of television appearances to educate the public about the disease. Alongside Ramaphosa, he's been a driving force behind one of the world’s strictest lockdowns that’s helped limit infection-related fatalities to 186 since the first case was detected two months ago.

"I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Mkhize as South Africa's next president," said Xolani Dube, an analyst at the Xubera Institute for Research and Development in the eastern port city of Durban. "Covid came as a golden opportunity for him to shine. Everyone knows him now."

The elevation in Mkhize's political standing mirrors that of other politicians credited with leading effective responses to the pandemic.

His German counterpart, Jens Spahn, who's made no secret of his ambitions to one day become chancellor, is riding a wave of popularity, while South Korean President Moon Jae-in's approval rating has hit a record high for any democratically elected leader of the Asian nation at the same point in their term in office.

Prior to becoming health minister, Mkhize served as treasurer-general of the ruling African National Congress and premier of KwaZulu-Natal. He retains strong support in the province, which has the biggest contingent of party members, and plays a key role in the ANC's internal elections.

Leadership Ambitions

Mkhize made his presidential ambitions known when he ran for the leadership of the ANC in 2017. Ramaphosa eventually beat Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in that contest by a razor-thin margin. While Mkhize failed to secure the nomination from any of the nine provinces, he polled the most votes in the election of the party's National Executive Committee.

Dlamini-Zuma, now cooperative governance and traditional affairs minister, has borne the brunt of a public backlash against a raft of unpopular lockdown rules, including bans on tobacco and alcohol sales and a night-time curfew. Deputy President David Mabuza, another possible future presidential contender, has been largely absent from the public eye during the crisis.

Ramaphosa, 67, has acknowledged the pivotal role being played by the 64-year-old Mkhize. He "has been doing a truly outstanding and sterling job for the whole nation", the president said in Durban on May 5.

Running Mate

With coronavirus infections only expected to peak in South Africa in August or September, being the point man in tackling the disease could still backfire on Mkhize, according to Dube.

"It's still early to tell whether he has done a good job," Dube said.

"Having to deal with the virus is a double-edged sword. It can end Mkhize's career, in as much as it can end Ramaphosa's. Their reputations are hanging by a cotton thread."

Mkhize may have to bide his time should he make another bid for the presidency. Ramaphosa, a lawyer and former labor union leader whose leadership has also been lauded during the pandemic, is eligible to run for a second term as ANC leader in late 2022 and only has to step down as president in 2029.

"If Ramaphosa wants to continue for a second term, then Mkhize would be an ideal running mate as he would be able to secure the very important KwaZulu-Natal voting block," said Susan Booysen, director of research at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection in Johannesburg.

Should Ramaphosa step down "Mkhize would have a huge amount of public support" to take over, she said.

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