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ANC Leadership Race: Zweli Mkhize’s tricky path to the Third Way

ANC Leadership Race: Zweli Mkhize’s tricky path to the Third Way

On Wednesday afternoon the ANC’s Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize told EWN that he would accept a nomination by ANC branches to the position of party leader. While there are some technicalities around how and when the nominations process actually starts, what he was really saying was that he was ready to run. In other words, he is now publicly, if not officially, joining the race in which Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa are front-runners. It has always seemed unlikely that a compromise candidate could emerge that would satisfy both camps. But slowly, ever so slowly, the chances of some sort of grand deal may actually be improving. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

As we get closer to December the damage that the ANC leadership race is doing to the ANC as a whole is becoming more apparent. This week, Sindiso Magaqa, a former secretary-general of the ANC Youth League, died after being shot in July in an incident suspected to be linked to the succession battle. Over the weekend it appeared that the smear season had begun, with claims emerging around the private life of deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, who still publicly criticises President Jacob Zuma allies who have been accused of corruption. And around the country, local ANC structures are being dismantled by provincial leaderships who disagree with their choice of candidate. It can sometimes seem as if the party is in a death spiral and is unable to stop from literally killing itself right in front of us.

But, at the same time, quietly, another process is unfolding. The leaderships of ANC provinces have been holding joint meetings to discuss the people they are backing for the top position. Some meetings have the air of simple strategy sessions, such as when the leaderships of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal and the ANC in the Free State meet, or when Gauteng and Limpopo get together. But there have been other meetings, involving Gauteng and Mpumalanga.

Mkhize has spoken at length about the importance of these meetings, suggesting that they might be the key to holding the ANC together. His main point is that if everyone goes to the ANC’s conference knowing the position of everyone else, there will be no surprises. And it’s when people can’t predict the response of the other side that political accidents happen. Of course, as we know from similar situations throughout history, talking is always good. It can resolve tensions and lead to a bargaining process.

It may well be with this in mind that Mkhize has now said that he is available for the top position. It is hard to determine how exactly is this process being structured, but he may well be positioning himself to take advantage of whatever deals can be struck through it.

All of that said, there are still strong reasons why it may be difficult for the opposite parts of the ANC to reach any kind of compromise. To perhaps over-simplify, the Dlamini-Zuma/Zuma camp may feel strongly that they need to find a way to protect themselves from any possible criminal charges emanating from the strong evidence of corruption against them. And they need to keep the patronage taps flowing. The Ramaphosa side may feel that, on their version, this is the fight for the very soul of the ANC. It’s hard to see where, and what kind of, the middle ground may lie here.

But of course, there is one very good reason that could push the two sides together. The fact that it is becoming more and more apparent that the ANC is in dire risk of losing the 2019 elections. Last week’s survey suggesting that only 47% of people would vote for the ANC in an election “tomorrow” had a very high number of “undecideds”, with 24% of those polled saying they don’t know how they would vote. Those people are surely awaiting the outcome of the ANC’s leadership contest. Any divisive outcome to December could ensure that in 2019 those people take their votes elsewhere.

An undeniable fact from this ANC contest for the electorate is that both of the main candidates are flawed. Dlamini-Zuma has an electorally unfortunate surname. She has also been a less than stellar candidate on the campaign trail, to put it extremely mildly. You can imagine how much worse she could be as the main symbol of the party, refusing to answer questions, conducting herself as if she is above mere citizens and generally ignoring the concerns of urban voters (if she wins, the ANC will almost certainly lose Gauteng in 2019). Ramaphosa is also flawed. There is his wealth, his previous public praise for Zuma, those emails (which may not be much of a factor now, but could become more important if Kenny Kunenes and Steve Motales of this election cycle improve their aim) and, of course, there’s always Marikana. It may make more sense for the party to choose someone who has not had any mud thrown at them at all, who has a clean reputation and would appeal to both rural and urban voters.

Mkhize is often thoughtful, careful and respectful. He was able to keep the KZN ANC unified for a long period, and may have gained the necessary experience to keep the ANC itself together as a whole. But, by putting his name out there in the way that he has, he may be inviting comparisons with Tokyo Sexwale, who also tried to run a unity campaign through the media in 2007. As you may remember, it was not successful.

The political equation necessary to get him into the top spot will probably have a lot less to do with his actual suitability, and more to do with hard-headed political calculation. In other words, as with political decisions everywhere, it’s not about whether a candidate is the best person for the job. In this case, it would be about the calculations of the two main camps. For Mkhize to have a chance, it would probably require a situation where both of the front-runners realise they cannot win a fully functioning ANC and therefore a compromise was in their best interests. In other words, the Zuma/Dlamini-Zuma side would have to both be worried about losing and be assured that Mkhize would keep them out of jail. The Ramaphosa side would have to know that they might lose, but that at least a part of the ANC’s soul could be saved with Mkhize leading the party.

Of course there is another calculation that may be made here. Mkhize has indicated that he is closer to Ramaphosa than to the other side. On issues of corruption, the Pravin Gordhan removal, and his tone towards the Guptas generally, he has given indications that he could even be a part of Ramaphosa’s campaign. This then could be a much more strategic move. It could be that Ramaphosa may have much more to fear from the hacking of his private correspondence, and that in fact Mkhize is manoeuvring himself to take over as the “reformist” candidate. Knowing that if that doesn’t work, he could still be accommodated in a good spot on Ramaphosa’s slate.

Mkhize’s public entry into this race is surely an indication of how high are the stakes and how complicated the situation is within the ANC right now. By putting himself out there Mkhize may invite some kind of smear campaign against him. His history may come back to bite him. He does seem prepared prepared for any fight that may lie ahead. What we can say with absolute certainty is that making predictions in this race is a very brave thing to do. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma accompanied by Dr Zweli Mkhize during his visit to Jolivet St Jones Baptist Church (Echibini) near Umzinto. 03/05/2014 (GCIS)

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