Could Zweli Mkhize take the Number One spot? And if he did… then what?

Reports emerged this week that the ANC in Mpumalanga was going to support ANC Treasurer Zweli Mkhize for the position of party leader in December. Coming in a week in which the party’s KwaZulu-Natal leadership lost a crucial court case, and as divisions in the party deepen, it appears that a realisation is dawning of just how close the party could be to an irrevocable split. Coming with that realisation is the search for candidates who can keep the party together, and get it over the existential hurdle that December is becoming. This means it may be time to consider the possibility of Mkhize becoming leader of the ANC, and then President of South Africa. On the national campaign trail he may be the one person who could bridge the urban/rural divide. But his Achilles’ heel could well be the ANC itself, and whether he would be able to exert control over it. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

At the start of the year it seemed overwhelmingly likely that Christmas Day would see either Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa or Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in charge of Luthuli House. At the time it seemed prudent to consider what would happen if either Ramaphosa or Dlamini-Zuma took the ultimate prize. But, when you consider that the risk of the ANC splitting is now so high, it now appears also prudent to consider what would happen should a unity ticket win. In other words, it is important to imagine a situation in which Mkhize leads a unity slate and eventually, in 2019, becomes president.

The first point to make about a Mkhize victory in December is that it should make the transition of power a much easier road. It appears at the moment that if Dlamini-Zuma wins, members of that faction would demand the removal of Ramaphosa as Deputy President. If Ramaphosa wins, he could not allow President Jacob Zuma to retain his control of the spy agencies, police and National Prosecuting Authority.

But a Mkhize victory would mean that the chance of huge turbulence in the days after the conference and leading into January would be considerably reduced. Mkhize may live as leader of the ANC with Zuma in the Union Buildings for several months. And Zuma may feel that he can trust Mkhize enough to know that he need not have to cling on for dear freedom, or worse. Ramaphosa would have to live with it, with no other options.

One of the arguments in favour of a Mkhize victory in the ANC would be how he could translate on the campaign trail in 2019. It is well known that many, probably most, urban voters cannot stand Zuma, and by implication, Dlamini-Zuma. Either of them near an election poster is likely to lose the ANC Gauteng, and possibly other provinces. Mkhize would probably be able to regain some traction for the party in those urban areas. He would do well in the tarred middle-class areas of Soweto and poorer dirt-roads parts of Tembisa. His sophistication would also stand him in good stead in front of upper middle-class audiences where he could face difficult questions about Zuma’s legacy (last year he was even able to survive Daily Maverick’s The Gathering).

There would be another huge advantage for the ANC with Mkhize as its electoral figurehead. Before Zuma first became party leader in 2007, the party did not have a huge majority in KZN. While it did have control of the province, Zuma brought with him a huge increase in votes cast for the party there. Of course this was tied to the decline of the IFP. But this increase in votes in that province in 2009 elections served to mask the decline of the ANC’s share of the vote in other provinces. At the time this appeared to be because of Zuma’s campaigning efforts in that province, and his ability to speak to voters there. In the 2016 local elections the ANC’s support there began to slip, with the IFP gaining several councils despite having done almost nothing to win votes. With Zuma off the political stage, the ANC may find that it battles in that province. Mkhize may be able to mitigate that damage.

This means that the main advantage Mkhize has is the fact that he would bring both rural voters in the country’s biggest rural province and urban voters from the biggest urban province of Gauteng.

Opposition parties are likely to try very hard to make the 2019 election about corruption. In the wake of the Zuma era, they would be foolish to try to make it about anything else. Here Mkhize seems to have the advantage of having almost never been mentioned in the same headline as the word “scandal”. This, of course, could change if he becomes a stronger contender in the ANC’s contest, and his rivals break out more dirty tricks.

But while Mkhize may have kept his nose clean, he would face a major battle in what many believe is the institutionalised corruption of the ANC. Were he to be the new leader, the fact that he would be a compromise between the two main factions may mean he lacks the political power and authority to actually take this on in any meaningful way. Imagine, for example, what action he would be able to take against someone like Ace Magashule in the Free State as the #GuptaLeaks continue to roll? Probably very little.

And of course, his main problem will be what to do about Zuma himself. It seems likely that Zuma would rather break the ANC (and the country) than risk losing power, which would certainly result in him going to jail. This means it would be difficult to imagine a scenario in which Mkhize becomes ANC leader and in fact allows the NPA to properly prosecute Zuma. The fact that he is being backed by the ANC in Mpumalanga, and thus its leader David Mabuza, who himself faces corruption claims, means that he would probably have no choice but to allow the NPA to remain politicised. This in turn would weaken all efforts to fight corruption, which would weaken the ANC’s 2019 chances.

Many of the problems that Mkhize would face would probably stem from his path to power. If Zuma’s path to power was marked by a fight-back against the corruption charges stemming from the Shaik trial, Mkhize’s would be marked by the fact that he would be a compromise candidate. He would have ascended to power because factions have allowed it, not because factions demanded it, as the Zuma faction did in 2007. This may mean that he would be vulnerable to swings and sways in the power dynamics in ANC structures.3

Tied to this would be the same tensions and troubles that have led the ANC to this situation, where it appears on the verge of being divided permanently. Mkhize is a wise man, but it may require the wisdom of Solomon the king, and the bravery of Solomon Mahlangu, to resolve the party’s problems over the longer term.

This may mean that in terms of actual governance, the ANC under his leadership would be in no better position to make hard and fast policy decisions than it is while it’s trying to decide between two leaders.

All of that said, when you consider available options and the problems that could face the country if the ANC simply imploded while Zuma were still in legal power in the Union Buildings, a Mkhize victory may be one of the better options the party has. It would probably allow it to stay in government longer, and to hold off the inevitable split. But it would not be a long-term solution. DM