DURBAN:22062009 Education MEC Senzo Mchunu visits Makhumbuza High School in Umlazi, which has been rocked by allegations that five men teachers were having relationships with girl pupils.PICTURE: ENOS MHLONGO

Zweli Mkhize is moving on and the question now is who will fill his shoes when he assumes the role of ANC treasurer-general.

His are no small shoes to fill, not only because he is a tough act to follow, but because he wears two caps – the person who chairs the party next is also likely to become premier.

That’s no foregone conclusion though. The appointment of the premier is the prerogative of President Jacob Zuma, while the party chairman serves at the behest of the provincial membership.

Will Zuma break with tradition in KwaZulu-Natal and appoint a premier who is not party chairman, as he did in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape three years ago?

Will a provincial election provoke factions in what is regarded as a stable province? And who are the contenders? Who is the next Mkhize, in either guise?

Provincial secretary Sihle Zikalala put a spanner in the works a fortnight ago when he suggested the position might not become vacant. He reportedly said “there is nothing that compels (Mkhize) to vacate the position of premier”.

“I don’t think that’s what Sihle meant,” party strongman Senzo Mchunu told the Sunday Tribune a few days later.

“I think he was trying to put a stop to the feeling that because a vacancy is coming up, the province is in some kind of danger. He was basically saying that as long as Zweli is here, we have a premier and a chairman and the province is in good hands. That’s all.”

That won’t curb the curiosity.

“But you will have answers soon, very soon,” Mchunu says as he begins to speak openly about the state of ANC politics in KZN and beyond.

It’s a daring move on the 54-year-old’s part as Mchunu is reportedly in the running for the party chairmanship and his decision to put his head above the parapet now will likely be construed as a cheap public relations shot.

“You are free to ask the questions and I’m free to answer them,” he says with ease.

When will the position of party chairman be filled?

“The date has not been finalised. It’s in discussion. But it will be soon. And we anticipate there will be a provincial general council to elect a new chairman.”

Will that council take place within a month?

“I would say any time from next month. It’s my view that it would be difficult to live in uncertainty beyond next month.

“There must be a firm person at the top who personifies leadership in the province – because before we know it, we will have to get out and campaign (for the 2014 general elections).”

Like Mkhize before him, Mchunu has bided his time for years. He chaired northern Natal, his home ground, after the party was unbanned in 1990. He was elected provincial secretary in 1994, serving under Zuma as party chairman.

Though his stint was short-lived – two years – he made a comeback as secretary in 2005, a year after the ANC eventually unseated the Inkatha Freedom Party.

He was re-elected at the next party conference in 2008, but a year later handed over the reins to Zikalala when he was appointed MEC for education.

If he were to be appointed premier in the coming weeks, it would cut short his days in a portfolio in which he has excelled and his departure would be a big loss.

There is nothing to suggest that’s about to happen, he says.

“When you are made an MEC, the phone rings. When you come to the end of your term, if you are lucky enough to finish your term, you receive another call to say you will sit again, or whatever. My phone is not ringing yet.”

On the matter of party chair, he claims he is not being openly lobbied though he is aware his name is being bantered about, along with Willies Mchunu’s, as one of the main contenders.

“I have seen other names too. Nomsa’s (Dube) name and Peggy’s (Nkonyeni) name have appeared in newspapers. I have no problem with speculation, but that’s all it is right now. This matter is entirely in the hands of the membership. It’s something they are talking through.”

Is it possible that so many contenders could provoke violence again?

“Not at all. What happened in 2012 coincided with a bad period in our province after the local government elections of 2011, when some people felt they had been overlooked, that it should have been their turn to be elected councillors.

“It’s part of the problem of people imagining that being a councillor means having extraordinary powers.”

Isn’t the chairmanship enormously powerful?

“It still doesn’t mean that if there are two or three names in the hat, the council won’t be smooth. If one draws a red line and mobilises people in a certain way, then yes. But if you have people with different views or preferences for different candidates, we need to begin to see this as normal, healthy and manageable and not as a problem.

“We have the biggest (ANC) membership in the country. A membership of this size brings strength but also vibrancy. A difference in view of who might become or should become the chairman should not make people afraid. See it as a vibrant debate and not war and watch how the strongest leader will emerge from that process.”

A thick thread of Zuma loyalism was woven into the ANC leadership that emerged from Mangaung, but Mchunu refutes this and though he underscores the unity that exists in the province, he doesn’t believe the KZN members are looking for a “yes-man” in the chair.

“Dramatic characters like Julius (Malema) can be a problem, but we don’t want sycophants either, or people who are loyal to a person rather than the party.

“I’m not that kind of person. I don’t want to be interfered with when I argue a point just because I’m offending someone. I don’t want to have that fear. I don’t think our members want that either.”

He remembers when in the run-up to Mangaung the provincial structures held a no-holds-barred debate on what they were looking for in the incoming top six.

“We were able, on our own, to articulate the challenges and the weaknesses of the president. But in the same meeting, and I was there, we were able to outline his strengths. To be able to do that is a collective strength. We surprised ourselves in that meeting. That’s what I mean by vibrancy.”

Considering the profile of the contenders, surely the appointment of a premier will result in a reshuffle of the provincial cabinet?

“A reshuffle is possible, but, if it happens, it doesn’t mean we enter a period of instability. Look at the MEC line-up. It carries experience.

“I would also argue that Zweli hasn’t worked alone. He has been chairman and premier and has done exceptionally well. But he worked with a cabinet of 10 people, who have a lot of experience.

“Politically, we are one of the most stable provinces since we got our act together in 2002, but again, that hasn’t come about because of the work of one person.”

Talk of a vacancy at the top began as far back as the national general council held in Durban in September 2010.

“We began to talk, in twos and threes. We passed the halfway mark. The next big event was Mangaung. We began to discuss Zweli. We looked at the fact that he had 15 years’ experience in the national executive committee (NEC). He had shown good leadership in KZN, a province with a lot of dynamics. And we talked about him deserving a national position.”

Ironically those dates coincided with allegations that surfaced late in 2010 that Mkhize was selling out and, according to a creative intelligence report, was aligning with what would later become the so-called “forces of change”.

Mchunu flatly denies there was any such link between that report and the talks.

“No way. Definitely not. And we didn’t just discuss Zweli. There were other names too. Initially, when his name emerged, we didn’t talk about the position of treasurer-general.

“That only came up after the policy conference (in June 2012). Until then we were looking at getting Zweli on to the national working committee.”

At the same time, the provincial members began to shop around for a deputy to Jacob Zuma, who was running for a second term.

“We couldn’t read Comrade Kgalema (Motlanthe). We interpreted his continued silence to mean he was standing for the presidency. But we were working with signals, not clarity, and were forced to ask ourselves some questions.

“If Kgalema does stand and wins the presidency, what happens? You will need a deputy. Who will that be? If he stands and loses the presidency but then wants to stand as deputy, do you accept him? If he stands as president and loses and then decides not to stand as deputy, what do we do then?

“They were natural questions and the answers compelled us to find an alternative. That’s where Cyril (Ramaphosa) came in.”

A good choice?

“I participated in the discussions about the deputy president, so yes, I’m very happy with Cyril. I see the advantages in him. He is new in the leadership and brings a new dynamic, which we wouldn’t have had Kgalema stayed.

“He is an all-rounder. And more than his internal credentials as former secretary-general of the party and his firm union background and familiarity with the alliance, he also has an appeal to the business and white communities and I would say it is better than that which Kgalema would have had. He’s modern. He has potential.”

Is there a possibility that he might outshine the president?

“I don’t think so. They compliment one another. They each bring something the other man doesn’t have. Don’t underestimate Zuma’s popularity. But don’t underestimate his understanding that popularity is not enough.

“He gave us the National Development Plan and a horizon until 2030. He gave us the infrastructure plan. Zuma knows the country needs more than just one man. He listens. I know that. I’ve had first-hand experience of that. And he can accept dissenting views.”

As tough as he can talk, Mchunu is bland on the issue of corruption, which is crippling the fabric of KZN, as he is on the debacle at Nkandla and opts to follow the strict and by now well-worn party path that until the investigations into the Zuma home are complete, we should not cast aspersions, adding that “any negative allegation that is made must be investigated”.

“You are better off without any allegations. But that is impossible because the president is a worldly person. He is not an angel.”

That’s true. What is also true is Zuma might not be as popular as Mchunu believes he is.

Does he envisage a fight-back by the so-called “forces of change”?

“Not at all,” he says without hesitation before outlining two reasons for this view.

When the leadership team of six was elected in December, Limpopo chairman and premier Cassel Mathale walked to the platform to congratulate them on their victory, despite having been one of their main opponents.

Mchunu observed it with a mix of surprise and admiration and during the lunch break that followed phoned Mathale to tell him what he witnessed was a mark of leadership, considering the bitter divide.

“It was excellent. It was good. I thought, as a comrade, I should just phone you and commend you. You did a good thing,” Mchunu told Mathale.

“I didn’t expect this from you,” Mathale responded. “I’m quite surprised and humbled by your call.”

“If it was any other provincial chair, it wouldn’t have mattered,” Mchunu added. “But because it was you (considering Limpopo’s strong push for change), it mattered.”

“You know, a few of us in the collective have made up our minds this is our leadership,” Mathale told him. “We, in Limpopo, are going to support this leadership. All this talk of splinter groups, we are not part of it. We are not even thinking along those lines.”

Only time will tell if the likes of Mathale are feeling as obedient as they did a month ago. But there was another indicator that left Mchunu feeling there would be no revenge and it came from the ANC Youth League (ANCYL).

During the conference a delegate from Mpumalanga called for the ANCYL to be disbanded “and the whole house reverberated” in support for the delegate’s call.

“A few hands appeared from the ANCYL delegates, but as soon as they would try to talk they would be shouted down. Then (former league president) Malusi Gigaba appealed to the conference (not to disband the league). But he was shot down.

“Then Sihle stood up and said the comrade from Mpumalanga who raised this has a number of reasons for doing so and we understand those reasons.”

Zikalala went on to outline where the league had erred in the past five years and with each example that he raised “the whole house was singing,” says Mchunu.

“Then Zihle says, ‘But maybe what we need to do is not to dissolve this youth league but to direct our national executive to deal with the league and what is going wrong.

“The Eastern Cape stood up to support us and a decision was taken not to disband the league but to deal with them properly.”

A short while later, some KZN delegates spoke to the ANCYL leadership. “They were shaking, so to speak,” he remembers. “But they also realised that they had been given one final chance, that the days of party warfare were over.

“That’s how the politics of the ANC should be,” says Mchunu.