Episode 2 – Zweli Mkhize’s bad medicine

Episode 2 – Zweli Mkhize’s bad medicine

In December 2022, the 55th – and possibly last – elective conference of South Africa’s governing African National Congress will take place against a backdrop of sociopolitical chaos. In the limited audio documentary series, The Highwaymen, investigative journalists Richard Poplak and Diana Neille take a road trip across South Africa in search of answers to how the country got to this breaking point, and how the lives and careers of three senior ANC figures – Ace Magashule, Gwede Mantashe and Dr Zweli Mkhize – may be representative of the rise and stumble of our once-vaunted democratic project and, by extension, liberal democracies everywhere.

In episode two, Poplak and Neille visit KwaZulu-Natal, the diva of South African provinces, a place with a deep and complex history of political violence that has not abated, and one which has suffered a string of disasters, uprisings and climate catastrophes in recent years. 

One of its most famous sons is Dr Zwelini Lawrence Mkhize, a former uMkhonto weSizwe militant, a doctor in a white coat and a prominent member of South Africa’s political elite, who has played an outsized role in shaping this troubled province. 

Below is the full transcript of episode two, with links to the clips, documents and articles gathered and referenced in the reporting and research for it. 

Richard Poplak: It’s May 2022, and the maw of the N3 highway has been swamped by what climate activists are calling the rain bomb. 

NEWS CLIP:… This is quite a serious situation here… I don’t think this road is going to hold out for long. The water coming through here is absolutely treacherous. It’s unbelievable! 

Richard Poplak: A few weeks earlier, the worst floods in recent memory decimated KwaZulu-Natal, causing landslides and building collapses, and washing whole areas into oblivion. More than 430 people died and parts of the province became completely inaccessible. 

Add this to the damage to lives, livelihoods and infrastructure caused by the July 2021 riots just 10 months before, and you could rightfully say the province feels like it’s under siege. 

Uprising on the streets, uprising in the sky. KZN can’t get a break.

Diana Neille: So finding time to record an interview – among all this chaos – with S’bu Zikode is not easy. Zikode is the founder of a grassroots movement that represents shack dwellers and indigent people, called Abahlali baseMjondolo. As a leading figure for some of the country’s poorest people, it’s his constituents who have been hardest hit by the rain bomb.

NEWS CLIP: This is the first time this has ever happened in our family, that a massive number of people just died in one day, including babies, including our aunts, and… it’s just unbelievable. 

Diana Neille: Zikode arrives for our interview at a local studio in an  SUV with lights flashing, and four impeccably dressed bodyguards. 

This is how even the most radical South Africans roll if they hope to stay alive.

S’bu Zikode: Unfortunately, the human rights perception does not approve of this scenario, but this is KwaZulu-Natal. 

There would be something seriously wrong with me, speaking as I speak, without any security measures, because that’s what we get killed for: To tell the nation, to tell the world, what South Africa has become. 

Diana Neille: If the foreseeable future for the middle class and the wealthy is the enclaves protected by Zain Soosiwala and Mohammed Ismail, who we met in episode one, then Zikode represents the reality of the many more people who live on the other side of those electrified fences. 

He also represents the sort of person activists once believed the ANC would protect and nurture. 

S’bu Zikode: It is unfortunate that the freedom that we all received in 1994 became a fake freedom, a freedom that marginalise the majority. It’s a freedom that really says, when you are poor, you have no rights.

Diana Neille: Zikode was radicalised by what he saw around him after he arrived at the Kennedy Road Shack Settlement in Durban in 1997. Twelve thousand people, six taps, no functional toilets.

S’bu Zikode: One of the days, I saw small kids… playing around the pit latrine toilets, and there were worms crawling around the toilets, and one of the babies, worms were surrounding her face, and I realised that, actually, the baby was eating worms. I was devastated, I could not hold it.

Diana Neille: Some time later, Zikode says he saw an infant killed by rats. This is a friendly reminder that this podcast is set in the 21st century.

S’bu Zikode: [I]t cannot be acceptable, it should not be normal, that our children have to grow up under these conditions, and have to die this way.

So I will say, out of anger, hunger and frustration, after lies were made… then the residents were forced to find a collective force. 

Abahlali was formed in 2005 in one of the shack settlements here in Durban, called Kennedy Road… We were formed to fight for, protect, promote and advance the interest and dignity of the shack dwellers and the impoverished in South Africa.

Diana Neille: Today, the organisation has more than 100,000 members in branches across the country. It’s the biggest social movement to have emerged after apartheid. 

Having advocated for the rights of the poor; having demanded land for shack dwellers that is coveted by powerful, politically connected cadres, and having insisted on the rule of law for everyone, equally, Abahlali has found itself in constant conflict with the ANC. 

This has come at a grave cost. In the 17 years since its founding, 24 of its leaders have been assassinated, many in broad daylight; many in front of their children and communities; almost all of them in KZN and its largest municipality, eThekwini. 

Two of the latest killings happened just weeks before this interview. 

This clip is from Newzroom Afrika:

NEWS CLIP: 40-year-old Nokuthula Mabaso died outside her home on Thursday evening. She had just come from a community meeting to feed her four children, when gunmen crept up behind her and opened fire. She was found lying in a pool of blood here, with six bullet wounds. 

It’s the second murder in three months… Another leader, Ayanda Ngila, was gunned down in the settlement in March. 

Richard Poplak: There’s an… old South African saying: Trouble begins and ends in KZN. And you guys… were at the centre of the trouble, weren’t you?

S’bu Zikode: Oh yes. No, absolutely. 

We’ve never been welcome, and it was clear that we were actually struggling under the shadow of death… The level of violence we have seen…It’s just incredible.

It was unimaginable that shack dwellers… could successfully organise outside the state control… outside the ruling party, expose their high ranking politicians who are implicated in corruption.

Whoever questions their authority puts their life at risk.

From the onset … The state was very hostile… 

And the province, at the time, was run by Zweli Mkhize. 

Richard Poplak: Dr Zwelini Lawrence Mkhize, one of the most powerful KZN politicians of the democratic era.

We wanted to get a better idea of the trouble that has shadowed Abahlali over the past 17 years, and how someone like Mkhize – our first Highwayman – fits into the picture.

So we headed up the N3 north, towards the burned-out malls of Pietermaritzburg post-uprising, and the Mkhize homestead beyond. 

Richard Poplak: Just kilometres from KZN’s second biggest city, with the husks of warehouses still standing along the road, we drive up into the hills, to the gates of Mkhize’s homestead, with a local acquaintance, Siphiwe.  

Like a celebrity homes tour of Hollywood, he’s showing us where local political stars keep their second, third, fourth and fifth properties. Streams cut through the red earth, which turns to milkshake in the rain. 

Siphiwe: Ja, this is the area.

Richard Poplak: And who are the big political figures that come from this part of KZN?

Siphiwe: It will be Skhumbuzo Ngwenya. It will be Velaphi Ndlovu. 

Richard Poplak: Zweli Mkhize as well, I guess. 

Siphiwe: Ja, Zweli Mkhize, where we are heading… We are going straight… 

Richard Poplak: The hills here are a proprietary shade of green – sharp bursts of colour that reach up into an angry sky. It’s a mix of botanical, topographical and meteorological over-acting that helps explain why KZN is always so dramatic.  

Mkhize was born right here in 1956, in Willowfontein. Back then, the province was divided into two unequal parts – white-dominated Natal, and the Zululand bantustan. 

His father was a descendant of the Mkhizes of Nkandla where, in the 1830s, his great-grandfather was reportedly one of the most revered members of the clan.

But during colonialism and then apartheid, families were given a parcel of grazing land for their cattle. They paid for it with their labour, working for the farmer who owned the land for several months a year, in exchange for rent. 

When the sons of families who had made this arrangement turned 14, they were required to spend six months working as farmhands. One day, one of Mkhize’s older brothers fell out with the farmer and he broke the agreement, forcing the family to pay for their accommodation.

To do so, Mkhize’s father took a job working in the Pietermaritzburg Corporation parks department. But his older brothers, who also found jobs, refused to allow their talented younger sibling to share their fate and become a farmworker. His future, they decided, lay on the other end of the best possible education they could afford for him.

Nonetheless, Mkhize’s memories of that time seem tinged with nostalgia.  

Cyril Madlala: That’s what I used to tease him with, that I don’t like rural life, I don’t like farm life, I couldn’t survive. And he would tell me about his love for rural, you know, you wake up in the morning, you look at the hills and you look at the cows there. In his heart he’s a very rural person. 

Diana Neille: We’ve left the red and green of Willowfontein and made our way back to Durban, to a popular outdoor spot in the neighbourhood of Berea. 

We sit by a fountain and drink bottomless coffee with Cyril Madlala, a prominent journalist who went to work for Mkhize as his head of communications, back when the good doctor became premier of KwaZulu-Natal in 2009. 

Cyril Madlala: He likes the tranquillity, he likes the natural order of things, as it were. Whatever other properties he might have elsewhere, he will always return to Willowfontein. 

Diana Neille: In his teens Mkhize was sent to the elite Dlangezwa boarding school, where it became obvious that he was a brilliant student. 

But in 1976, when he was 20 years old, in his first year of medical school at the University of Natal, his life was impacted by a major shift in the history of the struggle against apartheid.   

NEWS CLIP: Since June the 16th, when South African troops and police opened fire on a peaceful schoolchildren’s demonstration, the white government has presided over the largest massacre of its black population since South Africa came into existence. Hundreds of blacks have died, thousands have been wounded, but the white prime minister says there is no crisis. 

Diana Neille: Fire on the streets. Shutdowns at factories. School closures. Boycotts. International protests and sanctions. The resistance against apartheid became a global mass movement. As the ’70s gave way to the ’80s, an alliance of 40 different public organisations in South Africa formed the United Democratic Front, which bolstered the ANC’s efforts, as did the labour unions. 

The apartheid regime called this a ‘Total Onslaught’:1 a coordinated attack by hostile revolutionary forces, domestically and internationally, that sought the destruction of South Africa. 

To ward off these threats, the famously charming PW Botha, then Minister of Defence, gave orders to the heads of the Security Forces, the Department of National Intelligence and other security mechanisms to implement his “Total Strategy”, in other words, to use “any means available” to shut the onslaught down.

By the late ’70s, the apartheid state was blowing 21% of its annual budget on state security alone. 

ARCHIVE OF PW BOTHA: We believe in a system of private initiative, and we will protect it as far as is humanly possible. 

Richard Poplak: By the early ’80s, Mkhize, along with his wife, May Mashego, who he met at school, were medical doctors. Their world was becoming increasingly messy, and the bullets were flying from all sides.

KZN-based journalist Chris Makhaye has written extensively on mafia-like patronage networks, and has a considerable insight into the “Dons” of the province. 

He has followed the rise and rise of Dr Mhkize, and has personally dodged some of those bullets himself. We asked him for some context. 

Chris Makhaye: When we were growing up, [Chief Buthelezi]… was in charge of these Inkatha warlords, which were very violent. They used to attack with such ferocity, and yet he was speaking on peace on one hand, and on the other hand, his warlords and amabutho were involved in the killing of people. 

He was a contradictory figure. 

Diana Neille: The Inkatha National Cultural Liberation Movement, later the Inkatha Freedom Party, was led by Prince Mangosuthu “Gatcha” Buthelezi. As chief, he governed the KwaZulu bantustan, which encompassed about a third of the territory in the province of Natal. 

This history is winding, complicated and nasty, but it can be whittled down to the following, which was captured in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, presented in October 1998:

“In late 1985, Buthelezi was alerted to alleged plans to have him assassinated, by Umkhonto we Sizwe – the ANC’s armed wing – commonly known as MK. He turned to the apartheid security apparatus for support.2 

Buthelezi’s requests included, among other things, the training and deployment of a VIP guard unit, a KwaZulu army, and a paramilitary force. 

The apartheid armed forces viewed the question of covert assistance to Inkatha as mutually beneficial; it saw Inkatha playing a central role in its strategic response to the “total onslaught” by the liberation and resistance movements. 

This secret backing would, eventually, become known as the Third Force.

NEWS CLIP: Political violence in Natal claimed, according to sources, more than 20,000 lives since 1984. This was fuelled by a Third Force of state security operatives, which supported IFP paramilitaries against what the ANC termed was its self-defence units.

Diana Neille: The bloodshed was, frankly, insane. 

Chris Makhaye: … When the violence started, especially the one about the IFP and the ANC, we were still in the primary school and going to the high school, and that’s when it escalated. 

I think every generation has its fears, but our fears were, like, you know, I would get killed in political violence.

Richard Poplak: Under all this pressure, Zweli Mkhize found his own role as a revolutionary. 

He was heavily influenced by a local activist, the extraordinarily named David Cecil Oxford Matiwane, who was sort of a cross between a performance artist, a bush lawyer and an anti-apartheid agitator. He was connected to other powerful underground figures in the Midlands, like Harry Gwala3 – who would eventually become infamous as a true provincial ANC warlord. 

By the mid-’80s, Mkhize was recruited into MK. 

In late 1985, during Botha’s infamous state of emergency, 11 people were arrested, all of whom were involved in the botched Operation Butterfly – codename for an MK plan to bomb key infrastructure in KZN

Mkhize, who was involved in the operation, was almost arrested with them. But he managed to escape to Swaziland in January 1986. 

In exile, Mkhize continued with his medical practice, first in Swaziland and later in Zimbabwe. He treated MK combatants living in Zambia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and other neighbouring states. By 1987, he was a commander of MK in charge of underground cells that operated in KZN.

Along with his wife, May, he became an essential member of the ANC in exile. This was the group that would define the role of the organisation going forward. 

Connected by a network across Africa and Europe, they were the party’s vanguard – its leading lights – but also its aristocracy. 

Every party must have its elite. The exiles would claim that title, and go on to become the most powerful faction in the ANC.

Cyril Madlala: Zweli would have been recognised… as an MK soldier and I think in exile as well, he linked up with people who were involved in those activities. So that’s one dimension of him: A doctor in a white coat, and a terrorist, in terms of… how they would have been described in those years. It’s always an interesting juxtaposition of his character. 

After Mkhize had spent tough, bloody years patching up his comrades, and helping to bury a number of them, history made two of its grand gestures. 

First, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Then, the Soviet Union teetered and finally hit the skids in 1991. 

NEWS CLIP: This was the night of the big breakout. Checkpoints across Berlin had finally buckled, before the extraordinary political pressures wracking this frontline communist state. 

Diana Neille: At home, Botha’s successor as preseident, FW de Klerk, made the decision to dismantle apartheid based on a calculus of hard pragmatism. 

Due to the growing pressure from the struggle movement and the moral repugnance produced by apartheid’s extraordinary death toll, the state was literally running on empty. 

ARCHIVE OF FW DE KLERK: I am now in a position to announce that Mr Nelson Mandela will be released at the Victor Verster Prison on Sunday the 11th of February at about 3pm. 

Diana Neille: Don’t be confused: this was not a gesture of benevolence. There were a number of roads available to De Klerk, but only one that made sense.

NEWS CLIP: Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress. He walked out of a prison on a gloriously sunny South African afternoon. And there is general agreement that his freedom begins a new era in South Africa. 

Diana Neille: In 1991, Zweli Mkhize returned home from exile, to a country – and a province – still at war. 

NEWS CLIP: The four-year transition period, from February 1990 to April 1994, was characterised by political violence between the ANC and IFP, seen as a low-intensity war. 

Richard Poplak: Mkhize was brought in as a broker for the ANC, and along with his close comrade Jacob Zuma, he assisted in quelling the worst of the violence that threatened to devolve into an extended bloodbath. 

Zuma would later acknowledge Mkhize’s work as a peacemaker.

ARCHIVE OF JACOB ZUMA: As part of the KZN ANC Midlands leadership, Dr Mkhize played a key role in peace initiatives to bring about an end to the strife between the ANC and members of the IFP in the province. 

Cyril Madlala: … When he came back it was easy for [Mkhize] to then reactivate; do a lot of groundwork in terms of his support across the board… 

Zweli was one of the few, together with Zuma, who’d get into their traditional Zulu thing for King Shaka Day celebrations, and be there with their spears and shields, and be comfortable, you know, in their skin as well. 

NEWS CLIP: Zweli Mkhize is among the guests honouring a fallen member of amaButho. He’s now addressing that important event. Let’s listen in… 

Cyril Madlala: … He did an excellent job in terms of uniting KZN. Zweli is a smooth operator, you know. He managed to persuade Inkatha to relax as well. It was easy for him to galvanise everybody around the unity banner.

Richard Poplak: Yes, but unity between whom? On the streets?

S’bu Zikode: What happens in the state that does not have law and order? When the institutions that safeguard your democratic values and principles, suddenly disappear; surely we have a responsibility to protect our families, protect our neighbourhood. I would not blame… I mean, even in this neighbourhood that I am, I was not surprised that there was a tollgate, just in this little street. I had to ask a few questions, because that’s what we have become. They have no reason to trust me. 

Unfortunately, we are heading to that; building gated communities, where we don’t speak to our neighbours, where we don’t care who our neighbours are. When they scream, we don’t come to their rescue. It leads to the survival of the fittest, unfortunately, but the answer lies with the majority of this country… the answer lies with the men and women of South Africa.

Richard Poplak: The isolation and insularity Zikode speaks about seems to be a global phenomenon. The forming of laagers, the dissolution of community. 

But there are winners in this arrangement. Next, we’ll show how Zweli Mkhize became one of them. DM

Fact-check and additional research by Sasha Wales-Smith. 

1 Republic of South Africa, White Paper on Defence (WPF – 1977) para 42-50, Cape Town: SA Navy Printing Unit, 1977.

2 TRC Final Report Volume 2 (1998). Chapter 4. Subsection 9: “Gross violations of human rights in the context of the ‘people’s war’; Conflict with Inkatha”; Page Number (Original) 340, Paragraph Numbers 71 – 80.

3 TRC Final Report Volume 3 (1998). Chapter 3 “Regional Profile: Natal and KwaZulu.” Page Number (Original) 214, Paragraph Numbers 160 – 380.


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