The merits of Zweli Mkhize (from 2013)

IT IS unlikely that President Jacob Zuma will retire to his Nkandla security estate before his second term expires in 2019. His successor will probably aim to serve out two full terms as African National Congress (ANC) and state president. For these reasons, age may play a significant role in the forthcoming leadership succession process.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was born in 1949. If she were to be elected ANC president at the movement’s 2017 conference, she would be 68 years old. She would be 70 by the time she reached the Union Buildings. Cyril Ramaphosa is no spring chicken. Born in November 1952, he would be ANC president at 65 and state president at 66.

At 52, ANC Gauteng chairman Paul Mashatile is just young enough to bide his time. (In any event, his province’s current marginalisation makes a 2017 run impossible.) Malusi Gigaba was born only in 1971.

Zweli Mkhize, however, is a man in a hurry. Born in 1956, he probably cannot afford to wait for a rival to serve even a single term.

The present dominance of KwaZulu-Natal may also be a passing phenomenon and he will want to fully exploit the coherent political machine he helped to build.

Mkhize undoubtedly has the demeanour of a potential president. Like Ramaphosa, he came from a humble background and internalised a strong sense of personal discipline. The child of labour tenants in Willowfountain, he was rescued from farm labour by the sacrifices of his family and by his keen intelligence.

He is a moderniser but he has negotiated the traditional politics of KwaZulu-Natal with great dexterity. He is proud of his heritage as a descendant of the Mkhizes of Nkandla.

He claims that he cannot wait to retire from politics and devote all his time to his real passion: breeding Nguni cows in the thornveld.

His interest in politics was awakened by the protests of one of Pietermaritzburg’s most extraordinary eccentrics, the late David Cecil Oxford Matiwane in apartheid times.

The Latin-spouting Matiwane would arrive in town dressed in a suit to which he had pinned dozens of political pamphlets. He would encourage people to take them off his suit and keep them and arrest almost invariably followed. Mkhize was awestruck.

He qualified as a doctor despite his student political commitments, and he completed his internship in Durban in 1983.

He worked briefly at Edendale Hospital before going into exile in 1986. He practised medicine and worked for the ANC in Swaziland and Zimbabwe, before returning to South Africa in 1991.

He rose steadily from ANC regional treasurer in the violence-wracked Natal Midlands (where he was involved in peacemaking in the 1980s and 1990s) to provincial ANC chairman.

He was MEC for health from 1994 to 2004 and formed a close political alliance with Zuma. After a term as finance and economic development MEC, he became premier of KwaZulu-Natal in 2009. At Mangaung, he was elected the ANC’s treasurer-general.

Mkhize has been deeply immersed in the intricate game of provincial patronage politics, but he has escaped major scandal. He was recently attacked for spending R1.2m on 45 private jet trips when he was premier but disarmed critics by agreeing to repay the money if asked to do so by his successor.

He appears to be equally comfortable with diverse constituencies, from traditional leaders to businesspeople and the media. He can speak coherently for 30 minutes without notes. His family is a model of sanity and charm despite the obvious demands made on them by political life.

Mkhize has an interest in public policy and his views on economic and social policy seem to be broadly orthodox or conservative. He backs the National Development Plan.

He exhibits only one weakness. Despite his age, he is essentially a provincial politician who was elected to the national executive committee as late as 1997. It remains to be seen if he can use the office of treasurer-general to cement national political alliances. He will be hard to stop.

• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.

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