Former minister Zweli Mkhize is no stranger to controversy and has had his name mentioned on the fringes of procurement scandals and even assassinations, but never at the scene of the crime. In light of Mkhize’s possible bid for leadership of the ANC, News24 set out to examine some of the political controversies that have come up during Mkhize’s career. These have included the mention of his name in two murders, questionable state-funded loans for his family and his alleged involvement in the R150m Digital Vibes contracts-for-pals furore.
Mkhize has defended his probity and has emerged unscathed from all these controversies, potentially leaving a clear path for a leadership challenge at the ANC’s elective conference in December. He has not announced his candidacy and protocol directs that a contender should be nominated by party branches, regions and then provincial structures, but support for him appears to have massed in KwaZulu-Natal.
The election of Zandile Gumede in eThekwini and Musa Cebekhulu in the Musa Dladla Region are – according to backers quoted in numerous media reports – to Mkhize’s advantage. He has reportedly rallied the support of influential party branches here in his home province, where Mkhize appears to have a reputation as a fierce political opponent. A senior Cabinet minister, a regional KZN ANC organiser, as well as a former high-ranking health department official, who spoke to News24 on condition of anonymity, claimed there was a perception that Mkhize is a man not to be crossed.
“Zweli [Mkhize] is spoken of in hushed tones across the province. You simply don’t want to cross him. I am very afraid of him. There are always rumours that people who cross him pay the price,” the former official said. The organiser echoed this: “You know with Mkhize, there are a lot of rumours. But it is no secret that he is feared.”
Mentions in murder trials
Mkhize has twice been mentioned in evidence before murder trials. The first occasion was in the criminal trial that followed the murder of politician and warlord Sifiso Nkabinde, who was shot and killed in Richmond in 1998. More recently, Mkhize was named in the disputed confession of a "hitman" as the paymaster who ordered the killing of Gauteng Health Department corruption whistle-blower Babita Deokaran in 2021. Mkhize has neither been investigated or charged in relation to any of these killings. He has publicly denied these allegations.
A warlord slain
In December 1998, Nkabinde was shot and killed in the parking lot of Richmond's Spar when shooters lying in ambush pumped 80 bullets into his body. Crooked cops, bodyguards of local politicians and an ANC councillor were tried and convicted for the murder. The triggermen were a soldier and a former soldier. During the trial, Mkhize’s bodyguard Bruce Mhlongo testified that he had been told by a third party that Mkhize had offered to make a payment in exchange for the assassination.
However, Mhlongo admitted both in his testimony in chief and under cross-examination that his understanding of Mkhize’s alleged involvement was based on what he had been told by the third party, not by Mkhize himself. Therefore, this was hearsay evidence and inadmissible in court. He also admitted under cross-examination that the third party could have been lying and that the allegation may have been designed to encourage the actual perpetrators.
Apart from the inadmissible hearsay allegation, there was no other evidence that implicated Mkhize in the matter. Mkhize also denied the allegations in an affidavit: "At no stage did I ever conspire to kill Sifiso Nkabinde," he wrote. In 2007, he successfully sued City Press newspaper for linking him to the killing without publishing the full context from Mhlongo's testimony.
Murder accused Phakamani Hadebe, arrested days after Deokaran’s killing, named Mkhize as the man who ordered the hit in a confession. The admissibility of the confession – which Hadebe later claimed was extracted by torture - will likely be contested when the men stand trial. At the time that the allegation emerged, Mkhize issued strenuous denials.
“Dr Mkhize would like to take this opportunity to assure Ms Deokaran's family and all South Africans who are still reeling from the trauma of this callous crime that he has absolutely nothing to do with it nor the alleged procurement irregularities which are believed to have driven it,” a statement issued on his behalf read.
Deokaran had been a critical witness for the Special Investigating Unit and sources said she had provided evidence in more than 100 investigations relating to corruption within the provincial health department. There is no indication that she had cooperated with the probe into Digital Vibes or whether it was even within her purview as Chief Director for Accounting at provincial level.
During his rise and in various roles as a government functionary, Mkhize has been closely followed by controversies – none of which have resulted in any findings of wrongdoing against him. Mkhize was the province's longest-serving MEC, steering the health portfolio for a decade from 1994 to 2004. After that, he was appointed the province's MEC for finance and economic development.
Political analyst Protas Madlala said Mkhize successfully built health infrastructure in outlying areas from where the ANC draws support. That did a lot of good for the ANC's reputation because it enabled it to enter into some strongholds of the IFP there at the time. They did a lot of good work there. A potential blight on his tenure as Health MEC was a 2001 decision to oppose court action by the Treatment Action Campaign to secure ARV treatment for pregnant women, falling in step with Thabo Mbeki's HIV/AIDS denialism of the time.
More than a decade later, when the winds had changed, Mkhize made a sharp about-turn. In a 2016 open letter to Mbeki, Mkhize wrote: "Mbeki made very serious errors of judgement… he made the fight unwinnable, a commander who issued wrong instructions and left his soldiers to be defeated”.
In 2006, while Mkhize was MEC for Finance and Economic Development, opposition parties, including the Inkatha Freedom Party, raised concern over an R11.8 million loan from Ithala Development Finance Corporation Bank to Mkhize's wife, Dr May Mkhize.
According to media reports, he denied any impropriety, saying the loan was above board and had been declared. However, as MEC, Mkhize was responsible for the province's finances and had allocated development funds to Ithala, something which may be regarded as a conflict of interest. Last year, opposition parties called on Ithala to account for another loan of R3.4 million, allegedly given in 2005 for former president Jacob Zuma's legal fees and renovations on a house after Mbeki fired him.
According to a 2021 affidavit deposed by former ANC MP Sizani Dubazana, Mkhize had allegedly asked her to receive a loan on behalf of Zuma in 2005. Dubazana said the loan totalled R2.8 million. "Those funds were needed because the advocate of Mr Zuma in his trial case advised them that if he was not paid the outstanding fee he would not be appearing in court on the next occasion that it was due to be heard," she said in the affidavit.
She said Mkhize had allegedly told her that, for "political reasons", the loan could not go directly towards him or Zuma. Dubazana said she agreed to receive the loan on Zuma's behalf via her company, Hola. In 2012, Ithala issued a summons against Dubazana and her company for over R3 million but she argued that the summons was defective. Detailed questions were put to Mkhize through his communications manager Vuyo Mkhize. He did not respond.
UKZN political analyst Zakhele Ndlovu said that Mkhize's career trajectory has apparently been unencumbered by the factionalism that has dominated many other party leadership changes. Mkhize was quick to take sides with Zuma [after backing Mbeki]. Mkhize supported Zuma throughout his position as president of the ANC and then, of course, at the end when Zuma was reaching the end of his second term.
He continued: "I think [this was] because he had his ambitions and switched sides even though he did not do that openly. You could see that Ramaphosa appointed him as Minister of Health because he had shown he was willing to switch sides," he opined. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, his tenure as health minister provided a platform from which he could launch a campaign. Mkhize's leadership impressed many until Daily Maverick's Digital Vibes exposé forced him to step down under a cloud of accusations.
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