Cele's dominance in KZN a sign of Zuma's fading star, insiders say

Ex-police commissioner Bheki Cele (centre) is on the comeback trail. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Ex-police commissioner Bheki Cele (centre) is on the comeback trail. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Former police ­commissioner Bheki Cele has made a spectacular comeback from the political wilderness, notching up the top spot in ANC ­nominations in KwaZulu-Natal and in the process, proving more popular than the province's current top five leaders.

The Mail & Guardian has learned that Cele is number one on the province-to-province list of candidates tipped to represent the party in the KwaZulu-Natal legislature.

Cele also made a strong showing on the national-to-national list of leaders elected to go to Parliament, where he came third after ANC president Jacob Zuma and deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa.

Cele, who is often described by his ANC comrades as "the general", fell out of favour with some of Zuma's supporters after his decision to challenge his dismissal in court. He was fired by Zuma last year after a board of inquiry, headed by Judge Jake Moloi, found him unfit for office following allegations that he signed two irregular leases for police office space with businessman Roux Shabangu worth R1.7-billion.

Prior to the ANC elective conference in Mangaung in 2012, Cele's foes linked him to a group called the "forces of change", which supported then-ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe to replace Zuma as ANC president. He was also mentioned in the intelligence report compiled by former spy boss Richard Mdluli, which implicated senior ANC leaders in a plot to topple Zuma as president of the ANC and the country.

Cele said he is aware of the rumours that his name had topped the province-to-province list in KwaZulu-Natal, but prefers to wait until the lists are released by Luthuli House after the party's national list conference in December for confirmation.

Intelligence report
He dismissed suggestions that he was linked to the forces of change and was among the anti-Zuma leaders mentioned in the intelligence report.

"There is no evidence that I was ever part of the forces of change and that I took part in any meeting to plot to topple President Zuma.
The so-called meeting [of plotters] never happened. I never had any problem with Zuma. I never challenged his decision to fire me. The decision to go to court was to challenge Moloi's conclusion that I was unfit for office.

"I still speak to Zuma. We have been warm towards each other ever since he was my commander underground in the 1980s and 1990s. Whenever I meet him, I greet him and say: ‘Mfana wam wa seNkandla [my boy from Nkandla]'," said Cele.

He downplayed his majority nomination, saying it does not mean he will automatically be nominated as premier or minister: "The deployment decision does not rest with me, but with the national leadership."

KwaZulu-Natal ANC provincial secretary Sihle Zikalala said: "I can't confirm or deny whether Cele is number one on the province-to-­province list. What I can confirm is that there is great support for president Zuma and deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, who are currently topping the national-to-national list.

"[The protocol is that] we don't discuss ANC lists in public. The list will be finalised at the national list conference. Bheki [Cele] is an NEC [national executive committee] member. He will always participate in the movement. I don't know if branches want him to be premier or not, but you would expect them to nominate him because he is a senior ANC leader.

"We are happy with the role he is playing in the ANC. The national leadership will decide who becomes premier after the elections," said Zikalala.

Some political observers believe Cele's return from the wilderness may be an indication that Zuma is slowly losing his grip in the ANC's biggest province. Early this year, Willies Mchunu, Zuma's preferred candidate for the position of ANC provincial chairperson, lost the contest to Premier Senzo Mchunu.

Willies Mchunu was also favoured by former premier and current ANC treasurer general Zweli Mkhize for the party's top position. Senzo Mchunu was once seen as a close ally of former human settlements minister Tokyo Sexwale, who was part of the forces of change faction and lost the contest for the position of ANC deputy president to Ramaphosa last December. Senzo Mchunu has also since distanced himself from the anti-Zuma lobby.

"I think JZ has lost ground in the province," said an ANC leader and unionist in KwaZulu-Natal. "People feel Nkandla is costly for the organisation [the ANC]. Even during Mangaung, there was a business grouping that was vocal, mobilising black businesspeople in KwaZulu-Natal, saying that Zuma had not done anything for black businesses in the province and the beneficiaries of his presidency were mainly Indians.

"At the time [of the ANC conference], the environment was too toxic. But there are people who are disillusioned. They [Zuma and his business friends] are an embarrassing ­episode because of the scandals," the ANC source said.

"The sense I get is that even hardcore loyalists are unhappy with Zuma."  

Hardcore rural
Some ANC leaders believe Zuma is unlikely to appoint Cele as KwaZulu-Natal premier or Cabinet minister.

"What Zuma is likely to do is to give him [Cele] a position of parliamentary counsellor or something similar," said an ANC leader in government, adding that party leaders close to Zuma would want Cele out of the province to dilute his support base. "Since he was fired, he has had time to interact with lower structures. He has been deployed to many by-elections in the province. Recently, he was in Nongoma, which is traditionally a hardcore rural Inkatha Freedom Party [IFP]stronghold.

"He made sure he was always available to ANC structures. People don't forget you when you are always close. Senzo Mchunu is not charismatic. He is a little bit bookish. If he were to contest Bheki, he would lose."

The ANC leader said that Cele knows his audience in the province. "This is the man who broke the IFP's back when he was MEC for safety and security. He went to IFP strongholds and recruited the warlords. He brought everyone close and looked after them business-wise when he was in the provincial cabinet.  

"KwaZulu-Natal people still feel he [Bheki] got a raw deal from Zuma. I don't know where he is located politically now, but I do know that he is loved all around."



Matuma Letsoalo is a senior politics reporter at the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003, focussing on politics and labour, and collaborated with the M&G's centre for investigations, amaBhungane, from time to time.In 2011, Matuma won the South African Journalist of the Year Award and was also the winner in the investigative journalism category in the same year.In 2004, he won the CNN African Journalist of the Year prize – the MKO Abiola Print Journalism Award. Matuma was also a joint category winner of the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the year Award in 2008. In 2013, he was a finalist for Wits University's Taco Kuiper Award. Read more from ML

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