“My name is Zwelini Lawrence Mkhize, and you can call me Zweli or ZL.” Dr Zweli Mkhize was not sure that he perceives reports of ANC branch members who wrote “unity” on ballot papers during branch nominations in Mpumalanga as being a tacit endorsement of him for the ANC leadership top job. He was in conversation with Mail & Guardian editor-in-chief Khadija Patel at a Critical Thinking Forum hosted by the Gordon Institute of Business, under the theme “The future of the ANC”.

Seen by many as a compromise or unity candidate, Mkhize, treasurer general for the ANC, says unity within the ANC must centre around the non-negotiable values of: what first brought the party together; changing the lives of people; putting an end to poverty and unemployment; free and fair engagement and the restoration of stability of the party.
Even with the persisting divisions and tension ahead of the elective conference, he does not believe that the ANC has reached a point of no return.

Despite a late start, the audience waited patiently and in great anticipation to hear from the man who will possibly be the next president of the ANC and the country in 2019. The conference took place against the backdrop of political uncertainty in Zimbabwe, as reports filtered in of an apparent “coup” and President Robert Mugabe being confined to his house in Harare, a development that gripped the country and the world. The crisis in neighboring Zimbabwe was an opportunity to question whether the ANC has effectively channeled democracy and leadership in the region and the continent. Mkhize believes that South Africa has in some instances had a positive impact on deepening democracy in countries such as Angola, where they have studied the South African Constitution as a reference on how to govern their own country. In Mozambique, South Africa was a part of negotiations to avert a political crisis; and all the post-apartheid presidents have contributed to the process of ensuring stability in Africa’s Great Lakes region.

Stability within the ANC itself is however under threat. With less than a month to go before the 54th ANC elective conference, divisions within the party are cause for grave concern. Among the several issues plaguing the party, he argued that the main issues the party should focus on are integrity and ethical leadership. It should be broadly understood that all leaders have a responsibility to conduct themselves in a manner that respects the resources they have access to; appropriately represent the people they are presiding over; and put the wellbeing of the people ahead of individual aspirations and agendas. It is as a result of abuse of authority and the manipulation of processes to remain in positions of power that has created a culture of factions. “A faction protects corruption,” said Mkhize. Members of factions are compelled to vote according to them, even when it defeats logic or is clearly not in the best interest of the party and the country. 

The next leader of the ANC must strive to undo this practice, as it may be the undoing of the party. The issues are not easy to fix, especially when the front-runners in the race for the leadership, as Mkhize admits, were — and perhaps still are — willing participants in the culture of factions, through pushing for certain individuals ahead of others. Slates started within the party in 2002, but were emphasised during the fight between former president Thabo Mbeki and the incumbent President Jacob Zuma. The commitment to lists in the party cascaded to branch level where members would engage to ensure particular individuals occupied particular positions. Members of branches, who have a responsibility to engage on issues, nominate leaders and hold them accountable, are unable to perform their duties because of the tendency of gatekeeping in order to influence and guarantee outcomes. Asked why the party is not dealing with factions that protect patronage,  Mkhize merely stated that the ANC “must deal with these issues”.

He expects that the upcoming ANC conference will be an opportunity to address such issues, but, while making no false promises about an immediate resolution, he stressed that the party appreciates the urgency of the situation. South Africans have become impatient with the lip service paid to remedying gross acts of corruption, poor service delivery and failure of governance.

“Unity is about good governance. It does not mean that we will have a situation where we will not pursue acts of disciplining individuals because we are united. We must unite against misconduct, unite against party ill-discipline,” said Mkhize.

When asked what his intention is regarding Jacob Zuma — whether he would allow the law to take its course or whether he would shield him from prosecution, should he become the president of the party in December and of the country in 2019 — Mkhize answered: “I think we need to leave the [process of the] law to the institutions of justice.”

An audience member asked about why there is seemingly limited youth participation in senior leadership in the party. The perception created is that there is no room for young people in leading the party. Mkhize referenced ANC leaders such as John Dube who was aged 42 when he led the party, and Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, who were both in their early 30s when they got into the NEC. His assertion that “there is always space for young people in the party” was met with laughter from the audience, but he drove his point home by asking the audience why the many young delegates at the conference will vote older candidates into leadership positions. “Young people should never believe they are inadequate. There is a need to connect with the youth constituency. Young people who are part of problematic trends of slates and debating individuals instead of ideas and principle are not helping the organisation to progress,” he said.

To attract even more young people to the ANC, the party must demonstrate that it is committed to resolving the high rate of youth unemployment and lack of opportunities, which are ticking time bombs, said Mkhize. It is closely linked to the challenge of accessing education that can produce skills in line with the direction the world of work and innovation is going. Not all young people need to go to university. Young people should be encouraged and supported to take up learning opportunities presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Such skills can be produced through targeted efforts at scale, to meet vacancies in the market. Agreements between the public and private sectors to absorb graduates into the world of work should be accelerated. The experience gained from the exposure may go a long way towards preparing young people in their pursuit of entrepreneurial endeavors. Finally, none of these solutions are possible if there is no growth in the economy. A growing economy will create much-needed opportunities across all sectors.

At pains to dispel the notion of being a compromise or unity candidate, Mkhize reminded the audience of the importance of leaders being judged and voted for based on merit and competence to take on the role of president. Thus he expects voting delegates to consider his candidacy based on the same criteria as they would CR17, NDZ17 and any other candidate.

A short history

Zwelini Lawrence Mkhize, born February 2 1956 in Pietermaritzburg, is a doctor, legislator and politician, and current treasurer general of the ANC. He studied to become a medical doctor at the University of Natal, and worked at McCord Hospital and Edendale Hospital before being forced into exile in Zimbabwe. Upon his return to South Africa in 1991, Mkhize began serving the ANC as a member of its national health secretariat. He was MEC for health in KwaZulu-Natal from 1994 to 2004 — the longest-serving health MEC in the country. In 2004, he was appointed the MEC for finance and economic development in KwaZulu-Natal and became premier of the province in 2009. He was elected as the ANC’s treasurer general in 2012. He also served as the chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal from 2009 until 2017. (Acknowledgements to Wikipedia)