Zweli Mkhize was seen as one of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s likely successors.
Even if he did not challenge the president, he was expected to run for ANC deputy president next year, with the intention to position himself as an obvious choice to fill Ramaphosa’s shoes when he leaves as party president in 2027.
There was an appetite for his candidacy, especially in business, where he was seen as cleaner than deputy president David Mabuza. Others regarded him as more clued up on issues than outgoing human settlements minister Lindiwe Sisulu (who was moved to the tourism portfolio on Thursday evening) and as having a better track record in government – whether as premier, MEC for finance or health minister – than another deputy president candidate, Paul Mashatile.
Mkhize’s name was among those his province intended to sell to other provinces to be negotiated a spot in the top six. The negotiations were still fluid, but the list also includes outgoing public service and administration minister Senzo Mchunu (the new water and sanitation minister), provincial chairperson Sihle Zikalala and provincial secretary Mdumiseni Ntuli.
But Mkhize’s return to the top six was not entirely reliant on his home province doing his bidding. He had a wide appeal earned during his time as premier of KwaZulu-Natal – and later as the treasurer-general of the ANC. It was not going to be a difficult task to sell his name to party structures.
His close association with former president Jacob Zuma did not become a hindrance, and Mkhize somehow managed to keep a more positive public profile.
It was Mkhize and a group of powerful provincial leaders, later dubbed the premier league, who found Ramaphosa to bring him back to active politics. Mkhize, Ace Magashule, David Mabuza and others met on the eve of the Mangaung conference to convince Ramaphosa to accept running on the same slate as Zuma.
At the time, Zuma’s leadership was losing credibility at an alarming rate. Some key members of Zuma’s top six, his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe, treasurer-general Mathews Phosa and deputy secretary general Thandi Modise (the new defence minister) had turned against the president. Allegations of corruption were creeping up. Zuma’s image needed some sprucing up by having credible leaders by his side. As a result, the Mangaung conference replaced Motlanthe with Ramaphosa and Jessie Duarte took Modise’s place while Mkhize replaced Phosa.
The role played by the unassuming Mkhize in Zuma’s ascendance to power and his protection is often understated, because unlike Zuma’s other cheerleaders of the time, Mkhize never shouted from the rooftops to declare his desire to kill for the former president. However, he played a bigger role than most of those who shared the stage with Zuma outside court cases.
Their relationship can be traced back to when the two led the ANC in KZN. When Zuma left the dual roles of ANC provincial chairperson and ANC national chairperson after he was chosen as ANC deputy president in Mafikeng in 1997, he preferred Mkhize to succeed him. However, Mkhize was narrowly defeated by Sbu Ndebele.
When Mkhize eventually took over the ANC in KZN, he marshalled a united delegation that made it possible for Zuma to triumph against Thabo Mbeki in Polokwane in 2007.
Mkhize was closer to Zuma than most ANC leaders who were seen around the former president. When Zuma got into trouble – which was a regular occurrence – he turned to Mkhize. He became Zuma’s sounding board, often providing counsel, and even cleaning up after the scandal-prone leader.
It is now history that Mkhize and Zuma subsequently had a fallout. It is not clear what caused the rift. However, the turning point in the relationship between the two was in 2015 when Mkhize sided with Ramaphosa and Gwede Mantashe in opposing Zuma’s catastrophic decision to fire Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister. Mkhize is said to have been one of the ANC leaders who twisted Zuma’s arm to remove Des van Rooyen a few days after his appointment as Nene’s replacement – and bring back Pravin Gordhan. Mkhize is said to have stepped in again when Zuma wanted to appoint Leanne Williams, an associate of Gayton McKenzie and Kenny Kunene, as national police commissioner in 2017.
Mkhize’s rise to the treasurer-general position was seen as a step towards the Union Buildings. Even though that path took a detour in 2017 when he did not make it to the top six, the plan was very much on track until the Daily Maverick revealed that Mkhize’s associates Tahera Mather and Naadhira Mitha had scored a communications contract worth a whopping R150m from his department.
Mkhize first confirmed the contract in a reply to Freedom Front MP Phillipus van Staden on June 4 2020. Mkhize told Van Staden that Digital Vibes were paid almost R36m for Covid-19 communications strategy and R2.1m to organise media interviews. The Daily Maverick published even more damning allegations that the company paid for renovations in one of Mkhize’s homes in Johannesburg, and that his son Dedani received payment of nearly R1m that went to the establishment of family businesses.
On Thursday, Mkhize finally fell on his sword after being away from work for two months. Ramaphosa was forced put Mkhize on special leave in early June following the string of Daily Maverick reports.
There have always been corruption allegations surrounding Mkhize but he has denied them all. In 2010 the Sunday Tribune published allegations that his wife Dr May Mkhize and daughter Nokulinda had conducted business with the KwaZulu-Natal government back in 2010 when he was premier.
Mkhize took the newspaper head on and eventually was granted an apology after approaching the press ombudsman. Those familiar with this episode say the publication merely apologised for an error that resulted in Nokulinda’s response being left out of the article. But for Mkhize the apology was a victory and showed the allegations against him were false.
Though Mkhize has created a public profile of a caring leader who is extremely polite during press briefings, he is known as a ruthless politician behind the scenes. He is known for confronting political opponents and journalists alike.
It is too early to say if the Digital Vibes scandal could be the end of the kingmaker’s political career. At 65, Mkhize has ample time to lie low, mobilise allies, and re-emerge as a rebranded leader to rescue the ANC.
In the meantime Mkhize’s absence presented a headache for Ramaphosa, who had to go out searching for a new health minister. The president did not have many options. There was home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi, who was widely regarded as a disaster of a health minister. Then there was Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who held the position in the early years of our democracy.
Some suggested Gwen Ramokgopa, recently elected to the national working committee, could be in the running. Chairperson of the health committee Sibongiseni Dhlomo, who was KZN health MEC for several years, was also an option.
Had it not been for the personal protective equipment scandal that rocked Gauteng, Bandile Masuku’s name would also have been thrown in the hat.
In the end, Ramaphosa settled on Mkhize’s deputy, Joe Phaahla, for the position.
But the health minister headache reflected the crisis facing the ANC. The party is running out of credible and competent leaders who can be trusted with the public purse.