Once one of President Jacob Zuma’s staunchest allies, Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Bheki Cele is now emerging as a key organiser for the campaign to break Zuma’s influence over the ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal contingent ahead of the party’s elective conference in December.
The immensely popular Cele (65) has been appointed to the national co-ordinating team of senior ANC leaders from the various provinces that are backing Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa’s bid for the governing party’s presidency.
Cele has, in recent months, come out in tacit support of the Ramaphosa campaign, addressing ANC cadre forums in two KwaZulu-Natal regions in support of the branches that successfully challenged the Zuma-aligned KwaZulu-Natal provincial executive committee’s (PEC’s) 2015 election in the Pietermaritzburg high court.
Cele has backed the ANC “tradition” of the deputy president becoming president while challenging the notion of the obligatory election of a female candidate at party forums in Gauteng and elsewhere.
He has also thrown his considerable weight behind Ramaphosa’s anticorruption rhetoric, calling on ANC members not to endorse a candidate who fails to speak out on corruption — another perceived dig at Ramaphosa’s major rival for the party presidency, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
This is expected to turn into an outright endorsement of Ramaphosa — in addition to addressing party and other forums alongside him — as the campaign gains traction.
Last weekend Ramaphosa addressed a Young Communist League anniversary rally in Durban, the heart of Zuma’s support base, drawing a crowd of several thousand despite inclement weather.
Ramaphosa was accompanied by ANC members of the provincial legislature (MPLs) and regional leaders aligned to him. He also attended a Sunday service at the eThekwini Community Church, led by ANC MPL Bishop Vusi Dube, a highly influential figure in the city.
Cele will be playing an increasing role in the Ramaphosa campaign nationally and in KwaZulu-Natal in the coming weeks ahead of the conference, in a bid to sway KwaZulu-Natal’s 800-odd delegates in favour of Ramaphosa.
The sitting PEC has backed Dlamini-Zuma, seen as Zuma’s chosen successor, for the party presidency. The province’s branches have stood firmly behind Zuma at both Polokwane and Mangaung, but Ramaphosa’s backers hope that Cele and other key KwaZulu-Natal leaders will help to split the provincial voting bloc.
Cele, a former chairperson of the ANC’s eThekwini region, was his home province’s most popular choice for the national executive committee (NEC) at the ANC’s Mangaung elective conference in 2012, despite having been axed as police national commissioner not long before. The Ramaphosa campaign is hoping that Cele’s large following in eThekwini, the ANC’s largest and most influential region, and other regions such as the Lower South Coast, where he acted as an organiser after the ANC was unbanned, will help to consolidate gains made in the province.
A KwaZulu-Natal ANC leader involved in the Ramaphosa campaign told the Mail & Guardian this week that Cele’s political weight will be increasingly brought into play as the nomination process unfolds.
“He is part of the co-ordinating team nationally,” he said. “He is definitely a factor in terms of swaying people in the province away from the NDZ [Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma] camp. It is only him and Senzo [Mchunu, the former KwaZulu-Natal premier and ANC chairperson] who are addressing cadres’ forums across the province.”
Mchunu lost the contest for chairperson to Sihle Zikalala at the disputed November 2015 conference and was recalled as premier in a purge that saw the axing of other key provincial leaders loyal to him, including economic development MEC Mike Mabuyakhulu. Both leaders are understood to have fallen out of favour with Zuma as a result of the 2011 Ground Cover intelligence report by then police crime intelligence head General Richard Mdluli.
The 22-page document claimed Cele was being investigated for fraud, and linked Mchunu and other ANC leaders who had assisted in Zuma’s 2007 Polokwane victory to a plot to unseat him. Zuma fired Cele from his commissioner’s post in June 2012 after an inquiry into a R1.7-billion lease for police accommodation.
Cele has publicly held that he had been set up over the lease by senior police officials involved in the procurement process and that Zuma had an ulterior motive in removing him from the post. Cele was made commissioner after two terms as MEC for transport and public safety in KwaZulu-Natal, where he had held leadership positions since the ANC’s unbanning in 1990.
The eThekwini region is expected to be a major focus of Cele’s influence in the coming weeks in a bid to disrupt the Zuma camp’s biggest single voting bloc, which has more than 100 branches.
Cele’s relationships with the business community in Durban and in the province, built while in his influential portfolio, will also be brought into play.
The eThekwini ANC region’s substantial war chest — Cele had been its chairperson along with secretary John Mchunu — played a famous role in securing Zuma’s first victory in 2007. Disrupting — or diverting — the flow of cash ahead of December 16 would be a critical blow to the drive to elect his anointed successor.
Cele this week agreed to an interview with the M&G but, by the time of writing, had failed to respond to calls and emailed questions about his role in the Ramaphosa campaign.