KwaZulu-Natal provincial secretary contender Bheki Mtolo key to Zweli Mkhize’s political ambitions

ANC KwaZulu-Natal provincial secretary contender and Kokstad mayor Bhekinkosi Mtolo is likely to be the key figure in helping disgraced former health minister Zweli Mkhize revive his political career and make a bid for the party presidency, should he be elected. 

Mtolo is up against incumbent Mdumiseni Ntuli, who is vying for a second term. 

ANC insiders and those close to Mkhize say the KwaZulu-Natal heavyweight has hedged his bets on Mtolo who, if elected, will be at the helm at the provincial engine of the party.

Mtolo received endorsement from the powerful and influential eThekwini and Musa Dladla regions that hold the biggest membership and have been known to dictate who emerges in the provincial leadership. 

Outgoing KwaZulu-Natal chairperson Sihle Zikalala is also facing a mammoth battle, with Siboniso Duma expected to take a chunk of support. 

On the eve of the conference, eThekwini — the ANC’s biggest region — held its general council and resolved to endorse Duma and Mtolo as well as Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu as deputy chair and Sipho Hlomuka as deputy secretary. 

Other regions said to support the Duma and Mtolo slate include Mzala Nxumalo, Harry Gwala, Josiah Gumede, Emalahleni and the Lower South Coast.  

Mkhize retreated to his home province in August 2021 after he resigned hours before President Cyril Ramaphosa was expected to fire him following damning findings implicating him and his family in the Digital Vibes contract scandal.

Mkhize was then seen meeting regional and traditional leaders in the province in an attempt to consolidate his base. In May, Mkhize announced that he would stand for party president against Ramaphosa. 

Mkhize would need the majority of the province as leverage for a position in the ANC’s top six, as Ramaphosa’s allies have already worked the country to garner support for a second term. 

On Friday evening, the eThekwini region resolved to support Emalahleni regional chairperson Ntuthuko Mahlaba for the position of provincial treasurer. 

Mahlaba is expected to be elected from the floor, replacing the region’s preferred candidate and eThekwini chair Zandile Gumede, who will not be allowed to accept her nomination after the national executive committee (NEC) resolved that those who have stepped aside cannot contest for positions. 

While Gumede has reportedly made peace with the decision, she had initially supported Peggy Nkonyeni for the position of chair but failed to convince her region, particularly regional chair Musa Nciki, who was set on the Mtolo and Duma slate. 

The region had initially approached Ntuli as its preferred candidate to go up against Zikalala, but he refused. 

Ntuli is said to have gone against the region and opted to take his chances in Zikalala’s slate. However, insiders with intimate knowledge of the closed negotiations say he went back to the eThekwini regional players in the days leading to the conference to reopen negotiations. 

One eThekwini leader told the Mail & Guardian that Ntuli explained that part of his decision to decline calls to stand against Zikalala was mistrust of the newly elected leadership. 

“Ntuli thought we would back him then drop him at the 11th hour but we said, how could we have done that when we arranged public engagements in your name?” said the leader, who declined to be named. 

“He was not there when we arranged that he speak alongside Dakota [Legoete], he also failed to come when he was meant to appear alongside Malusi Gigaba. He then told us, okay, if you are serious then endorse me, but it was too late.” 

The conference was delayed by six hours, but has been hailed as having had a smooth start by the NEC members in attendance, including ANC acting secretary general and treasurer general Paul Mashatile.

By the time it started, it had become clear that the battle for chairperson would come down to a contest between Zikalala and Duma, and that the other candidates, who Zikalala described at a press briefing as having “nominated themselves”, were never serious contenders.

On Friday night, delegates greeted Mashatile with a rendition of the song Wenzeni uZuma, expressing their displeasure over the recall of the former president by the ANC leadership and its response to his incarceration for contempt of court.

Mashatile and Zikalala were stony faced during the singing, and the outgoing chairperson later told the media that the singing was an expression of the “pain” ANC members in the province felt over the issue.

Mashatile said the ANC was “faced with the very real possibility of losing the moral high ground and our position as the trusted leader of society” and had no choice but to continue with its renewal path if it were to continue governing the country.

The focus of ANC structures on internal organisational battles meant that they were in a poor state and were being abused to further the “self-interest of individual leaders” rather than the aspirations of the communities they purported to represent.

“This is characteristic of the social distance that has emerged between our movement and the people of South Africa. This social distance was evident in the outcome of the November local government elections,” Mashatile said.

In his political report, Zikalala said the “prestige” of being an ANC leader had been “replaced by the price tag” and election depended not on struggle credentials but on “dispensing patronage”.

“The net effect of this phenomenon is that people who don’t deserve to be in the leadership, some even to be in the ANC, find themselves leading the ANC even at the highest level,” Zikalala said.

He was critical of national leaders attempting to influence the outcome of the provincial leadership contests in a bid to boost their own campaigns, saying that this would need to be dealt with by the NEC.

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