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Reporter’s Notebook: Interviewing Zweli Mkhize

South Africa

South Africa

Reporter’s Notebook: Interviewing Zweli Mkhize

In this most hurly-burly of the ANC’s years it is Zweli Mkhize, the Treasurer-General of the ANC, who is seen in some quarters as the man who could bridge the yawning divide between the populist party of President Jacob Zuma and the sober movement of deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. So it would be foolish to expect him to say anything dramatic at this stage of the game. But it’s the nuance of not saying anything that makes him so interesting. Especially over the course of an interview that took more than 50 minutes. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Some interviews can be in the works for ages before they actually happen. It was through no fault of his that our interview with Mkhize was cancelled at least once. All through the morning I fully expected a message cancelling the whole thing. Seriously, if you were a member of the top six, would you take questions on the ANC at the moment? Jessie Duarte is perhaps the only other member of that body doing long interviews at the moment, but she also appears to be rather selective about her outlets.

In the car with the EWN team coming along with Clement Manyathela and I to film and record the interview there was a long and vibrant discussion about why he had agreed to it in the first place. Being journalists, there was a hope that he’d picked us to make some dramatic announcement. A more sober school of thought suggested he’d been doing interviews at the rate of one every two weeks, and that perhaps it was a strategy to simply keep him in the news, a story here, a story there, so that his profile was relatively high when December rolled around.

Our country has really changed since that reshuffle from just a few weeks ago. More evidence of this was unfurled over one of the bridges across the M1 going into Johannesburg. It was a long sheet of material bearing a shower. We all know what that means. And once people get the activism bug, you have to bore them into submission to make them stop. We should be prepared for more.

Arriving at Luthuli House itself was to ponder what happened to the Wimpy that used to provide us with sustenance during those long disciplinary hearings, and coffee during those early morning Youth League protests. Crossing the road that used to be called Sauer Street and is now properly named Pixeley Seme Street, I had a slightly dark thought. This building has been upgraded substantially over the years. How would it look, I wondered, three years after the ANC were to lose power? It was just a “what-if”, an excuse to consider the resources that have gone into this building and how its physical situation could change if its political geography were to move from winner to loser.

Into the building itself, and the security check that can best be described as perfunctory. I wonder if they beef things up when Number One is in residence… and if it’s quite the same when it’s just Number Two? After a brief discussion with reception and a phone call we got the nod, pointing us to the lift and the instruction to press Button Eight. I like a good old-fashioned lift, me, you know where you are. Unlike the lifts in the main Joburg Council building or “New” Cosatu House, which are too new-fangled for words. And people.

Luthuli House is full of people who are very polite and helpful, you don’t get that sense of arrogance that is sometimes present at ANC events if you’re carrying cameras and recorders and tripods. But wandering along the corridor on the Treasurer’s floor I was struck by something I haven’t noticed on other floors. This floor, Mkhize’s floor, is simply much more diverse. To glance into offices on the right was to see black people, white people, coloured people and Indian people. It’s impossible to know if this is deliberate, or if it just happened, or if Mkhize has been deliberate in his choice of staff, if he’s trying to ensure some sort of what was once called “one-nationism”. Perhaps he wants everyone to know that he believes that there is a space for everyone. Or maybe it was just the luck of the draw.

Amazingly for an experience at Luthuli House, there was no waiting. In fact, we were ushered into his office early, and told we could set up and get going. In what was the complete opposite experience of every single time I’ve been to that building before, we were rolling 10 minutes early.

To meet Mkhize is to receive a firm handshake, a direct look in the eyes, and a quiet, really understated verbal greeting and “how are you”. He’s not like the “hail fellow well met” of characters like Malusi Gigaba or Fikile Mbalula, or the supreme confidence and massive grin of Cyril Ramaphosa or President Jacob Zuma himself. You almost get the feeling that Mkhize might have been one of the quieter students of his class at medical school, and has become more public through his political career.

Eventually, finally, after what seemed like years of our lives, the video recording people were ready. Manyathela sat to my right, Mkhize right in front of us.

My first question was a deliberate opener, a question that might look soft, but wasn’t. “How,” I asked, “would you describe the state of the ANC at the moment?” It’s one of those questions with traps either way. If he’d said things were fine, well, we would know he’s living in the la-la land occupied by Zuma and all who populist with him. If he’d answered “terrible”, there would be repercussions. Of course, being Mkhize, he saw all of the traps and moved around adroitly. He used the word “challenging” a few times, the kind of phrase that is both honest and sort of neutral.

It set the tone for the rest of the interview. We tried several times to shake Mkhize, but he was not going to say something he didn’t want to say. One of the differences between a pre-recorded interview with a camera, and something that is, say, live on the radio in a shorter format, is that it’s actually harder to put someone on the spot. You can’t really interrupt, cut off, or demand an answer in the same way that you can in a phone interview on live radio. Mkhize is also one of those who uses the deliberate tactic of using long answers. He is careful to explain everything, to make sure he doesn’t go too far, to pull himself back if he has to. It’s easy to be frustrated by this, but also, considering his position, what else could one expect?

Mkhize does suggest that some of the “challenges” in the party are caused by simple structural factors, there’s an election for leadership, it’s a difficult country to govern and so this is the kind of situation that would inevitably develop. At one point he suggested that it was a “pretty hectic” time in the ANC. Hard to disagree with that.

Eventually I got around to asking if Zuma’s decision to remove Pravin Gordhan had made the December conference harder, the divisions sharper. Mkhize was all diplomat, “It’s come at an environment that was already full of controversy, so whatever had had happened that would have made the situation a lot more tricky to manage. I’d say it’s come at a difficult time and so the issues would have been difficult without it, and so it would have been difficult if it hadn’t happened.” This seems to be a nod to the real structural problems within the party, that Zuma’s decision really just released tensions that had been building up over several years.

During the interview I made a quick note to myself. Stephen, I thought, don’t ever let yourself be put in a position where you have to take questions from Clement Manyathela. The man doesn’t stop, he’s fierce and he doesn’t take prisoners. He wanted to know, demanded to know, if Mkhize still stuck by his public statement immediately after the Gordhan removal, that the reshuffle was wrong and that the ANC’s leadership had been ignored. The answer was long and detailed. Essentially, Mkhize stuck to the ANC line that once a structure had met, in this case the national working committee, their personal statements no longer matter, they have reached a resolution and they moved on.

And of course, he wasn’t going to give us any details about those conversations, or whether Zuma actually apologised, or had to apologise. We had to be satisfied with the promise that the conversations had been “frank” and “robust”.

Then, to the subject of the marches. It was an opportunity to try to knock Mkhize off the fence. Zuma has said the protests that erupted after his reshuffle showed that “racism” was resurfacing in society. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, that populist-in-training, had tweeted that the marches were “rubbish” before deleting the tweet and promising an investigation into who tweeted it. The results of which we still await.

Mkhize believes that the marches show the ANC needs to take the concerns of people seriously, particularly considering that there had been a downgrade into junk status. He was very much with the Ramaphosa line, that these marches were serious, and the party needs to take them seriously. What about the comments of Zuma and Dlamini-Zuma, I asked, did he see them?

The man really is a loss to the diplomatic service. He didn’t see the Dlamini-Zuma tweet, and if people were racist during the marches, they must be condemned.

Mkhize also answered a few other points of interest, he wasn’t at that birthday celebration for Zuma last week because “he was busy in the office” and we shouldn’t read too much into the fact only one member of the top six did go (do you need more than one guess… yes, it was Jessie Duarte), and interestingly, he doesn’t know if the ANC paid for it. Surely, I asked, you must know, you are the Treasurer-General. Well, he parried, his office didn’t pay for it, but another might have. Hmmmmm.

Manyathela wanted to know one simple question. Was Zuma still the right leader for the ANC? Mkhize was never going to give a straight answer, he spoke at length about how “a capable leader must run a capable party and run a capable state” for the benefit of everyone. Manyathela’s surely unanswerable point was that Zuma has been divisive; he used the examples of the Andile Lungisa issue, Zuma’s treatment of the stalwarts, etc. Again and again Mkhize refused to comment on one leader, and went back to his point that it’s a complex and difficult environment, and problems like this are to be expected.

There is one thing that Mkhize was absolutely certain of, though: he strongly believes that the ANC will not split. He says that ANC members and leaders will know and realise that it’s in their best interests not to push too far in the quest for positions, and know they must not damage the party. It’s tempting to believe him. But important also to realise quite how far and hard Dlamini-Zuma is pushing at the moment.

By now, we’d sailed past the promised 30-minute limit to the interview and were heading North past 50 minutes. It was time to press “stop” and say our thank yous and cheers and hope to see you soon. There is often a slightly awkward moment at this point, the camera people demand that you sit still and talk to each and “just look natural” while they take cut-aways and generally faff about.

As we were leaving I noticed something about the way Mkhize was dressed. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I know hardly anything about clothes; I’m one of those men who relies almost entirely on the fashion sense of their wives. But there was something unflashy about him. Smart, but not fashionable, perfectly sensible, in the way that our former Finance Minister used to dress, if you like. It certainly gives the impression he has not fallen for the kind of labels that are so attractive to some of our other politicians.

Mkhize is also polite, he has that trick so hard to achieve of appearing unhurried, as if he has nothing else he has to go and do that day that is more demanding and more important than talking to this gang of media people who’ve invaded his office space. And again, there was the firm handshake, and the walk down the corridor, trying to peer into as many offices as possible along the way.

Leaving Luthuli House was to wonder, once again, who will win in December. And could it be that a compromise, somehow, could end up saving the ANC and perhaps saving the country from years of difficult divisions and splits. And could it be that the person who will be the result of that compromise, our next president, was the man we had just spent an hour with. DM

Photo: (Higher Education and Training Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande; ANC Treasury General, Dr Zweli Mkhize; ANC Stalwart/Rivonia Treason Trialist, Andrew Mlangeni and Human Rights Lawyer Advocate George Bizos). Funeral service of ANC Stalwart/Rivonia Treason Trialist Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada at Westpark Cemetery in Johannesburg. South Africa. 29/03/2017. Siyabulela Duda



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