Zweli Mkhize and the unbearable darkness of being ANC treasurer-general
Until recently, the Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, was on the relatively short list of ANC people without serious corruption claims against them. Now, however, it appears there are questions he would rather avoid answering.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Hawks confirmed they had signed an arrest warrant for the secretary-general of the ANC, Ace Magashule. The move underscores the problem of corruption in the party. But it also reveals, again, how few national leaders the party has who do not have such a problem.
On Tuesday morning Mkhize published his first denial of a report in Daily Maverick by Pieter-Louis Myburgh about payments made to the ANC by a person who had benefited from the “tall trains scandal”. Mkhize said he is not guilty of wrongdoing. But the nature of his response and the fact that he would not answer detailed questions about the issue before the claims were published raise serious questions about his version of events.
In the last few months, Mkhize’s profile has been sky-high. He has led from the front in dealing with the pandemic. To many, almost certainly most South Africans, he has been a trustworthy leader during this time. He has answered questions about science and politics, dealt carefully with issues like the closure of schools or the ban on the sale of alcohol, and even managed to sidestep disasters like the Eastern Cape’s “ambulance scooter” scheme.
Considering the corruption claims that are plaguing the ANC, it could even be argued he’s one of the few people who could credibly have their face on an election poster and still see the ANC winning elections.
However, the claims made this week about his conduct while he was ANC treasurer could seriously damage him. They emanate from Lucky Montana, the man who ran the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) during the State Capture era.
The scandal that defined Montana involved a company called Swifambo that ended up providing Spanish-made locomotives to Prasa that were famously too tall for our railway system. Montana gave several radio and television interviews in which he appeared to lie with a straight face, saying the locomotives worked. He did not mention that they only worked in certain parts of the country and not across the full South African network.
This makes it difficult to always believe what Montana says. However, the context is important. The events that he described to Daily Maverick this week fit into a timeline that has already been established. This timeline now shows that a beneficiary of the Swifambo contract, Maria Gomes, placed money into ANC bank accounts. Montana says this was at the behest of Mkhize.
Both Mkhize and his wife, Dr May Mkhize, were contacted before the publication of these claims. Both declined to comment. Dr May Mkhize even refused to confirm whether she had been to Gomes’ home.
It was only after the publication of the claims in Daily Maverick that Dr Zweli Mkhize published a response. He said in a short statement that both he and the ANC have “previously issued statements on this matter refuting the allegations that it had appointed individuals to receive and channel monies on behalf of the ANC, flowing from the PRASA Swifambo tender”. He pointed out that he “still stands by those previous statements and it therefore serves no further purpose in our view for him to be mudslinging with Mr Montana in the media instead of subjecting these allegations to a formal and independent process”.
From his Twitter account, he then tweeted the statement he gave to Parliament on the matter previously, including the line that he “had found Mr Montana to be a restless and paranoid individual who had insecurities about his future at PRASA”.
Mkhize’s response begs the question: why refuse to answer questions from Myburgh before the publication of this report, or even to provide this statement? The fact remains: he did not respond to detailed questions that may in fact illuminate the issues.
Some of the answers to these questions may well lie in the actual structure of the ANC itself and its recent history.
Mkhize was the treasurer-general of the ANC from December 2012 until December 2017. It is well known that funding for the party is a major issue, and there has been strong evidence of possible corruption in this issue.
In the recent past, there have been claims that Edwin Sodi has been financing the party after receiving tenders through the Free State provincial government. Before then there were claims that others had received tenders and given some of the money to the ANC. Before then, and for many years, there have been questions about how the ANC would literally sell access to ministers at party events. Even before that, the ANC’s investment vehicle, Chancellor House, received money through contracts with Hitachi to build the boilers at the Medupi Power Station. Those boilers did not work properly and are partially responsible for the load shedding we suffer today.
Through all of this time, the person who was treasurer-general of the ANC would have been at the interface of it all. Mkhize, Mathews Phosa before him, and Mendi Msimang before them. Amazingly, even Thomas Nkobi, the treasurer of the ANC in the years leading up to 1994, has not had his name spared. While Nkobi did nothing wrong during his time in that office, Schabir Shaik named his companies after him, and both Shaik and Nkobi Holdings were found guilty of corruption in 2005 relating to the Arms Deal.
It seems almost undeniable that the ANC has financed itself through corruption in the past, and perhaps through almost all of our democratic history.
As many noticed just a few weeks ago, the moment Sodi was arrested for benefiting from the Free State contracts, the ANC ran out of money to pay its staff.
It is this that may have got Mkhize into trouble. He would have known about the payments to the party, where they came from and how they got there.
And it may also be this which has prevented the relevant ministers from signing off on the regulations that would lead to the full implementation of the act to regulate political parties. And for the current treasurer-general, Paul Mashatile, to say he wants to go back to Parliament to change the law before it’s even implemented.
Then there is the figure of Montana. Why has he decided to come forward now? And to speak to Myburgh no less, a person he has allegedly thrown a brick at in the past.
Montana may now be in a situation in which he has realised there is no way he can escape the consequences of his alleged corruption at Prasa. He has said he will be going to the Zondo Commission himself. But, having seen what has happened to Sodi and others, he may now believe that his own future physical accommodation could have certain limitations.
And thus, he may have decided to take people down with him.
Montana is surely not the only person who feels this way, who realises that the Zondo Commission will have an important impact on their future, and that there is no escape from it. They will believe their best tactic now is to ensure that other people are dragged down with them. If enough other people are implicated, perhaps they will find a way to stop the commission from continuing. And that might be the only way out.
Montana’s comment to Myburgh, that: “The ANC response failed the true test of accountability and transparency” appears to show that he is willing to take down others in the party.
This leads to the bigger problem for the ANC: that to try and reform it, to remove the corruption from the party could be like a circular firing squad. If one person falls, so, too, do many others.
It is for this reason that so few people have actually obeyed the ANC National Executive Committee’s “line in the sand” decision that people who are implicated in wrongdoing must “step aside”.
Through all of this it should be remembered that there is no claim that Mkhize took money or received money for personal gain. This is an important distinction politically because he could claim that anything he did that was wrong he did for the ANC, not for himself.
But in the eyes of the law that won’t matter: corruption is corruption.
Mkhize may also find that people are no longer shocked by anything in the ANC. When politicians and the politically connected steal during a pandemic while people around them are dying, why should anyone care about what Mkhize did several years ago? Perhaps that is what will save him from having to answer any further questions on the issue.
But until Mkhize does give detailed answers about how the funding of the ANC worked during his time as treasurer, these clouds are likely to hang heavy and low. And they could, one day, prevent him from taking the top job. DM
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