ANC treasurer general Zweli Mkhize smiles, as if humouring a naughty child, when asked whether he would accept a nomination to run for president of the party at its elective conference in December.
“Nominations aren’t out yet … Your question shouldn’t be that; your question should be: You have been nominated, do you accept it or not? You make an assumption,” he scolds gently.
Mkhize is speaking to the Mail & Guardian on the sidelines of the ANC’s six-day national policy conference at Nasrec in Johannesburg this week. He’s in a relaxed mood. He should be.
Appearing steadfast and stoic when much seems to be crumbling in the ANC, and sensible and smart at a time when the organisation is being threatened by a reckless dumbing down, Mkhize is emerging with a credibility that ensures he is very much in the running for a tilt at the presidency of the ANC.
His hand would be further strengthened if the party does reach a compromise over its leadership at the end of the year and/or adopts recommendations from the policy conference that aim to do away with factionalism and “slate politics”.
These include making amendments to the ANC constitution to see the expansion of the “top six” into a “top eight”, with an additional deputy president and an additional deputy secretary general.
The suggestion that the losers in the contests for the presidency, the deputy presidency positions and so on could run for other positions at the end of the year — ending the rigid slates that have been a feature of recent leadership contests — is also being discussed.
The ANC will make amendments to its constitution at the beginning of the December elective conference, binding the rest of the meeting to these changes, according to party spokesperson Zizi Kodwa.
Mkhize dismisses the idea that a compromise in December would merely gloss over the cracks in an organisation that secretary general Gwede Mantashe has readily admitted is suffering a public credibility deficit because of a host of internal problems and misbehaviour by cadres deployed into government.
“[Compromise] doesn’t mean we are going to bury everything under the carpet,” says Mkhize.
Running through a list of “challenges”, including factionalism, divisions, corruption, membership irregularities, ill-discipline and people who get influenced for personal and private financial gain, Mkhize stresses that a “clear stand” is required by the ANC to deal with and dismantle these problems.
The former KwaZulu-Natal premier and provincial party chairperson says unity in the organisation is “paramount” and any brokered compromise regarding the leadership succession, if it does transpire, would be “not so much about obfuscating the negative tendencies that need to be uprooted simply for the sake of unity”.
He reiterates that trying to find consensus was “not about agreeing to disregard irregularities so that we can be united. We are united in stamping out the wrong tendencies; we are united in pulling the leadership together and saying we can find a way of getting a united leadership [after December] … It mustn’t mean that we look at ignoring the wrong things that people have done or the wrong things that have taken place in the organisation.”
In recent months Mkhize, who has a long-standing relationship with President Jacob Zuma, has come out to publicly criticise the latter’s midnight Cabinet reshuffle in March, confirming that Zuma did not consult the ANC before taking his decision. Mantashe and ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa also confirmed this publicly.
On the eve of the policy conference, Mkhize also appeared the most proactive member of the ANC and government in adding substance to the notion of “radical economic transformation” by announcing, with the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa, the creation of a “transformation fund” aimed at integrating more previously disadvantaged people into the sector.
At a conference where the markets became jittery as delegates discussed nationalising the Reserve Bank and at which KwaZulu-Natal pushed for the expropriation of land without compensation, Mkhize calmed business with his five appearances at the Progressive Business Forum breakfasts taking place on the conference sidelines.
His input was not always in sync with the messaging of the ministers present, however. When Minister of Small Business Development Lindiwe Zulu, for example, asserted that the new mining charter was progressive and that those against it were simply defending their own interests, Mkhize said that tension over the charter was a problem and that mining companies had come to the ANC with concerns that they had not been adequately consulted.
The 61-year-old’s depth of knowledge on various nagging economic issues was evident, as was his charm. At one breakfast, discussing the need to reduce data costs to kickstart the “fourth industrial revolution”, Mkhize told the anecdote of his five-year-old grandson who “knows when gogo’s data is finished” before impressing on his audience the urgency of ensuring a democratised digital revolution in South Africa for the next generation.
At the same briefing, he disarmed a South African National Taxi Council official who had accused the government of ignoring the industry. Running through the numbers of an industry that apparently caters for a million dependants and generates R16-million a day, Mkhize concluded: “If you harness this, you are actually a candidate for radical economic transformation … we must ensure there is growth, employment, transformation.” He then invited the taxi bosses to meet him.
He consistently said that the base of the economy is too narrow and that it has to be broadened, but also asserted the need for the private sector to play a key role in the economic transformation agenda.
Mkhize has held the sensible line, together with ANC policy heavy-weights such as Joel Netshitenzhe and Enoch Godongwana, that the ANC will challenge capital over issues such as wages and working conditions, but that it also understands the need for the government to engage with business to turn the economy around.
This was welcome sanity at a conference where Zuma acolytes had stumbled from one gaffe to the next.
Cue ANC Women’s League president Bathabile Dlamini excusing her organisation for drafting in “expert” men to argue its viewpoints because women get “emotional”. Or State Security Minister David Mahlobo telling journalists — to side-splitting laughter — that he had known a year before the 2016 protests in Vuwani, which left more than 30 schools burned and vandalised, that violence could potentially erupt, yet had apparently sat back and done nothing.
A trained medical doctor who lived in exile in Swaziland and Lesotho in the 1980s, Mkhize’s mild demeanour and occasional remoteness hides a ruthless streak, one that he sometimes bared while serving in the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government, first as health minister, then heading economic development and finance and, finally, as premier.
This trait was perhaps a prerequisite for his 1990s return to a KwaZulu-Natal Midlands area bathed in the blood being spilled between the ANC and the United Democratic Movement led by Sifiso Nkabinde. Mkhize was later involved in brokering peace in the region. In 2017, any mediation within the ANC will involve a similar level of patience in attempting to smooth out the party’s personality disorder.
He dismisses the suggestion that he, and other more serious-minded members of the ANC, had been trying to reclaim terms such as “radical economic transformation” and “white monopoly capital” at the policy conference.
Recognising that “there has been a lot of narratives out there that are creating a bit of a pollution in the policy debate space” with “people [who] may be wanting to take advantage” of these ideas, Mkhize says some ANC leaders had been “clarifying” what were, essentially, resolutions taken at previous conferences, but appeared as “phrases and statements that are not properly elaborated” on in contemporary discourse.
“We will not tolerate it [radical economic transformation] being polluted for any other interests … On its own it’s not a terminology that we expect must be confused or confusing; that is why we engaged big business to say what is in this radical economic transformation. It’s something that when we go into the details, everybody understands that is what we need,” says Mkhize.
Pressed on whether he thought the polluters were the Gupta family, Mkhize says: “No, I think there are lots of people that are discussing the issue, if I can leave it open like that, because more people are interested in influencing the ANC. But my point is that it must not be done in a surreptitious, clandestine manner. It must be done openly, where we sit down, we agree, disagree, I understand you, I don’t agree with you.”