It looks increasingly likely that Zweli Mkhize’s tenure as Minister of Health will come to an end sooner rather than later – he dodged a parliamentary inquiry on the morning of the 4th and has given up on giving the statistical briefings on his own Twitter account. It is not surprising that Mkhize, through choice or instruction, is reducing his media profile as he is swamped, in the popular domain, with information that appears to indicate he and his family might have improperly benefitted from Health Department tenders while an SIU probe following the same vector nears completion.
A common sentiment has emerged that this somehow presents a risk for Cyril Ramaphosa’s hold on the ANC, or that Ramaphosa considers Mkhize an ally. Both of these contentions seem questionable. We should not forget that Mkhize was effectively unaligned at Nasrec (and ran for President against Ramaphosa, with the help of Digital Vibes’ two key players). Mkhize certainly has not had the vocal pro-Ramaphosa media profile of of the likes of Ronald Lamola or Fikile Mbalula. It has never appeared unthinkable that Mkhize would run for the ANC president next year. So what does Ramaphosa have to lose by marginalising him, and why is it taking so long?
In short, Ramaphosa has demonstrated a preference for biding his time when he sees a positive outcome as likely. The risks inherent to suspending another powerful political individual before he is convinced that this is the way the cookie is already crumbling are unnecessarily high. Ramaphosa has preferred process to direct action in dealing with situations like this. This may mean that often the action taken comes late – but it has the advantage for Ramaphosa of making it very difficult for his opponents to fight back.
Ace Magashule is trying his best to fight his own suspension, but doesn’t have the weight to fight the inevitable. Having lost the political battle, he has turned to judicial means. This is a show of weakness, not an indication of a great battle to come.
Ramaphosa is genuinely risk averse, and has gradually formed ANC rules – and strengthened societal institutions – that disadvantage his enemies and as they grind, slow and fine, seem to be likely to see him come out on top (as Anthony Butler identified here).
Zweli Mkhize might have been seen, by the finger in the wind school of analysis, as having honed his already long set of credentials during the pandemic and to be ready for some form of elevation in the ANC, perhaps to the presidency.
Like all leaders who are in the public eye at times of national crisis he benefitted from the sort of populist sainthood that politicians seem to enjoy when they are not doing an obviously terrible job, but would undoubtedly have been consigned to the demonic ranks in hell when the vaccine chaos began to bite along with the 3rd wave.
In those streets the Digital Vibes story was treated with shock and dismay. We are not saying Mkhize is a known ‘bad-actor’, but the fact that he was Kwazulu-Natal Premier from 2009-2013 and that bastion of probity, the ANC Treasurer General, from 2012-2017 (neatly spanning the rise of the Premier League and state capture) does not leave us burning with a sense of personal betrayal when we hear about the Digital Vibes shenanigans.
We do not think Mkhize’s exit clears the path for Ramaphosa at the National Conference in 2022, mostly because we do not think the path is significantly cluttered, and not do we think Ramaphosa’s cabinet would be significantly weakened by Mkhize’s exit. If anything it leaves the option to pin the vaccine chaos on him and replace him with someone who appears good and clean and fresh, tra-la-la.
Written by Nic Borain and Laurent Balt