South African Communist Party (SACP) KwaZulu-Natal provincial secretary Themba Mthembu is unlikely to survive the party’s upcoming congress as the backlash in the party over his continuing relationship with former president Jacob Zuma is increasing.
The congress has been postponed until next month while the SACP deals with grievances against Mthembu, who has held the position since 2002, from party branches in the province.
They have complained about both his approach to Zuma, whom he invited to his budget speech as KwaZulu-Natal agriculture MEC in February, and his relationship with the ANC. They have also accused Mthembu of gatekeeping and “imposing” leaders on lower level SACP structures in a bid to maintain his own power base.
Mthembu was appointed as MEC by Premier Willies Mchunu, a keen Zuma loyalist, in 2016 as part of the Cabinet reshuffle, which took place after the November 2015 provincial congress. Mthembu replaced Cyril Xaba, who was axed with other allies of former premier Senzo Mchunu, who was himself recalled by the ANC after losing the race for chairperson to Sihle Zikalala.
Mthembu is a former ally of SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande who, with Mthembu, had backed Zuma during his 2007 corruption trial. Mthembu was appointed to the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature in 2009 after Zuma became president.
His appointment as MEC was announced by the ANC without consulting the SACP about it, which was eventually agreed to. SACP deputy secretary general Solly Mapaila told the media that Mthembu’s acceptance of the post had been “conditional”.
Mthembu this week downplayed the complaints against him, saying they were “being blown out of proportion” and linked them to the SACP’s provincial leadership contest.
Mthembu, who has confirmed that he will stand for re-election when the congress takes place, said the complaints had been resolved and the province was waiting for the SACP national leadership to announce a date for the conference.
But a senior party member, who asked to remain anonymous, said Nzimande had written to the province informing them that the congress should be postponed until the political and organisational issues were resolved.
“There are major problems relating to Mthembu over his stance in the province over Jacob Zuma and his relations with the ANC, which in a way seems to contradict the SACP’s national stance. There are also many grievances from branches who have written to head office complaining about him interfering in branches and imposing leaders on lower structures,” the SACP member said.
“The national leadership feels that it would be a mistake to push ahead with congress now as the congress will either collapse or some of the branches will go to court. Mthembu was a close ally of Blade but there are now issues. He is seen as looking after his career in government rather than the interests of the party, which is why he is still close with JZ, who retains great influence in the province, despite the SACP’s stance on state capture.”
A member of the SACP KwaZulu-Natal leadership said the provincial structure had received a letter postponing the congress by two months.
“There are a number of grievances from branches, who have gone to national to have their complaints dealt with. The congress will only take place after they are resolved,” he said. “There are discrepancies in the preparations for congress and that is what the branches want resolved.”
Mthembu said some branches had been excluded because they did not meet the criteria to attend congress but that their grievances had been dealt with.
“There are some complaints but they all proved to be rubbish,” he said.
He added the SACP Johannes Nkosi district in Durban had asked him to stand for re-election although he was “old”.
Mthembu defended his invitation to Zuma for his budget speech.
“Anybody can walk in and attend a budget speech. It was not a matter of providing the former president with a platform. The former president came to listen to my budget, not to participate, and left, that’s it. They are making noise about nothing,” Mthembu said.
SACP spokesperson Alex Mashilo said an audit of branches and individual memberships had been conducted to ensure that minimum standards were met.
“There were audit issues that had to be attended to and carried out to their logical conclusion to ensure that when congress convenes it does so legitimately,” Masilo said. “It is only fair that, when an organisation has procedures, they are followed.”
He said that where there had been grievances, they were being considered.
“When a congress is coming, there are grievances and it is important to give people a hearing and take their concerns into consideration to ensure that the process is entirely legitimate.”
He said members of the central committee deployed in KwaZulu-Natal and the provincial working committee had met over the weekend and would meet again soon to set a date for the congress.