His chances of success seem remote, but former health minister Zweli Mkhize is eagerly polishing his bid to beat South Africa’s scandal-troubled President Cyril Ramaphosa in elections next week of the ruling ANC.
Mkhize has long been cast in the role of underdog in the race to be president of the African National Congress (ANC) party — a job that opens the way to being head of state.
Today, though, Ramaphosa’s standing has been savaged by scandal — and Mkhize is making it loud and clear that, if the frontrunner stumbles further, he’s waiting in the wings.
“The president says he’s innocent and no one has reason to doubt that,” Mkhize said in an interview with AFP, one of a string he conducted with the media ahead of the December 16 ballot.
But, he said, in a suave snipe at the scandal that has left South Africa agog, “I don’t think it’s a usual experience.”
The 70-year-old president’s political future is in doubt over accusations that he covered up the theft of a huge amount of cash at his farm instead of reporting the matter to the police.
Ramaphosa, in submissions to a three-person investigative panel, denied any wrongdoing.
He said the cash — more than half a million dollars, stashed beneath sofa cushions — was payment for buffaloes bought by a Sudanese businessman.
But his explanations did not convince the panel, which raised questions about the source of the cash and said he “may have committed” serious violations and misconduct.
Their report is going to be put to parliament next Tuesday, stoking speculation that MPs could move towards a vote to remove Ramaphosa from office.
But, at the height of the storm, the ANC’s paramount national executive committee rallied around the beleaguered president, announcing that any such move would be opposed.
Mkhize was deeply critical of that meeting.
“I wasn’t able to speak,” he said. “The way they ran the meeting was a very unusual, weird way.”
“Whilst in the middle and people were still supposed to speak, they decided to close the meeting and say, ‘Now we have an agreement,’ and closed. I stood up and objected.”
“It creates an impression that the views of certain members must be muzzled,” he said pointedly.
Mkhize conducted his media blitz at a rented house in the Johannesburg suburbs, with a garden and swimming pool visible behind large bay windows.
Between interviews, he wondered whether he should change ties — his assistant held out several for him to choose from, all in the green, yellow and black of the ANC.
Forged by Nelson Mandela into the main weapon which destroyed apartheid, the ANC has ruled South Africa since the advent of democracy in 1994.
But its popularity is slumping.
The long spell in office has left the party riven by factional infighting and a reputation for corruption that Ramaphosa, elected party chief in 2018 after the graft-stained era of Jacob Zuma, was supposed to cleanse.
Mkhize, a 66-year-old doctor by training, is among those whose image has been tainted by corruption allegations.
As health minister, he was lauded for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, but his two-year spell ended abruptly when he was replaced by Ramaphosa in August 2021.
He was placed on special leave after investigators opened a probe into a 150 million rand ($10.4 million) contract for a Covid awareness campaign.
Mkhize has denied the allegations and complained against the investigation, but, he admitted, “Nobody’s perfect.”
In a schoolmasterly tone, he spelt out what he would do if he was given the helm: create jobs, train young people and build homes.
None of these goals is revolutionary, although they have all failed to advance significantly under Ramaphosa.
Mkhize can look to strong support for his presidential bid from his native region, the south eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, which has the largest number of party delegates.
But if Mkhize has a serious chance of beating Ramaphosa on December 16, he must count on his rival’s further fall from grace and to widen his backing among the divided party.