As the fight for the leadership of South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) heats up, Nkosanza Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa are attracting the most attention. Dlamini-Zuma, a medical doctor, is a veteran of ANC cabinets and was the chairwoman of the African Union commission. She is also the former wife of the largely-discredited but still powerful sitting president, Jacob Zuma. Ramaphosa is the deputy president, a wealthy businessman, and an architect of the country’s transition to non-racial democracy.
South Africa’s foreign friends and observers should pay attention to a third personality, Zweli Mkhize, at present the treasurer-general of the ANC. The South African media is identifying him as a party unity candidate, a possible alternative to Dlamini-Zuma and Ramaphosa, two polarizing prospects.
Mkhize was born poor and rural within a decade of his better-known rivals. Like Dlamini-Zuma, he is a medical doctor, and, also like her, he spent the apartheid years in exile, first in Swaziland and then in Zimbabwe, where he practiced medicine. He went back to South Africa in 1991 after de Klerk’s government released Nelson Mandela from prison, signaling the approaching end of apartheid. Perhaps most importantly, like Dlamini-Zuma, he is a Zulu from KwaZulu-Natal, the province that now provides the most ANC votes. His wife, May Mashego, is also a medical doctor and a businesswoman.
Mkhize’s political career has been centered on KwaZulu-Natal. He was provincial health minister, leader of the ANC in the province, and provincial premier from 2009 to 2013. He stepped down when the ANC elected him treasurer-general. In September, he signaled that he was putting his hat in the ring for the ANC leadership position, set to be decided at the party conference in December.
Mikhize is a bridging figure within the ANC. He was long a supporter of Jacob Zuma, but broke with him over the firing of Nhlanhla Nene, the highly respected minister of finance. He is generally regarded now as closer to Ramaphosa politically. His policy positions tend to be cautious and circumspect and he is seen as competent and non-contentious. He does not inspire enmity nor is he associated with corruption. Importantly, he places a strong emphasis on party unity and therefore could be attractive to an increasingly divided ANC.