Alas, poor Zweli, we thought we knew you well

Jeremy Gordin says surprise is the price we pay for our forgetfulness

Memory problems, memory problems ...

Perhaps because I’d been reading about Andrew Donaldson’s exciting adventures in Accrathe following quotation from Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night (1968) floated into my mind:

“Years ago, he [Mailer himself] had made all sorts of erosions in his intellectual firmament by consuming modestly promiscuous amounts of whiskey, marijuana, Seconal and benzedrine ... ... Now, however, that he had an actively working brain only partially hampered by old bouts of drugs (which revealed their ravages in occasional gaps like the absolutely necessary word for an occasion failing utterly to arrive on time, or a critical crossroad of memory being forever obliterated ....) ...”

Now, I won’t even try to pretend to have been, in my youth, as promiscuous a recreational drug taker as Mailer (or Donaldson, it seems). But it occurs to me that Mailer was only 45 when he wrote Armies

Maybe if he’d been asked when he was in his 80s, he might have agreed that once you’re past 65, you discover similar potholes in your intellectual road – due simply to the passing of the years, and that this situation can, in turn, be further exacerbated by the non-recreational drugs legally foisted on you by doctors.

This is not always the case, of course. For example, this morning I clearly recollected nearly all of Mailer’s text. On the other hand, thinking about doctors, it struck me that I vaguely remembered that Dr Zweli Mkhize had played a role in some parts of Jacob Zuma’s life, though I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was.

I was forced to turn to the index of my own book on Zuma (thank goodness for index-makers, human or mechanical) – and there it was. Unbeknown to many, or since passed over or forgotten, Zuma had been in “negotiations,” regarding recompense, with the family of Khwezi (Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, who died in 2016) before Zuma knew for certain that Khwezi had laid a charge of rape against him. 

Obviously, Zuma could not speak directly to Khwezi, lest he be accused of intimidation, and besides Zuma was in Johannesburg and Khwezi’s family in KZN. So, Mkhize, then KZN MEC for finance, became Zuma’s emissary. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Here, by the way, is an excerpt from page 143 of the 2nd edition of Zuma: A Biography:

“What’s a good story without a punch line?

On Sunday morning, 13 November [2005], Zweli Mkhize went to see Zuma in the hotel in which Zuma was staying in Durban. [Mkhize] pointed at the two newspapers [Sunday Times and Sunday Independent] and asked, with a puzzled look on his face: ‘What is going on? This newspaper says that she laid a charge and this one says that she didn’t.’ [1]

And JZ laughed like a drain – and went on laughing for a long time.”

Then, on p. 229, discussing the run-up to the 2007 ANC Polokwane conference, where Zuma took power, I write that there were some verbal fisticuffs and that the person in Zuma’s corner was Mkhize, “Zuma’s friend and confidant”. [2]

Fast forward to now. Mkhize is seriously in the dwang. It seems that “his” department (health) awarded a R150-million contract to a “company” called Digital Vibes, apparently run by associates of his, to arrange for him to talk about Covid-19 on state-owned television. (Jeez, I’d have done it for R150.)

It’s also alleged that Mkhize's son, Dedani, scored a Land Cruiser from Digital Vibes. The company also allegedly paid for maintenance work on a Johannesburg home allegedly owned by the Mkhize family. And so on and so forth. Mkhize says he has no knowledge of the company or the procurement process – also and so on and so forth.

Not only is Mkhize in the proverbial poo, however, but his boss, the president of the Republic, Cyril Ramaphosa, is too. After all, Ramaphosa has tied himself to ridding the ANC and government of corruption, so much so that he’s gone to war with the ANC SG, Ace Magashule.

As the learned Hajra Omarjee of Business Day has written: “President Ramaphosa has a difficult decision to make concerning health minister Zweli Mkhize, who is embroiled in a corruption scandal. Ramaphosa will have to weigh up the national interest, and pit Mkhize – who has performed well as health minister in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic – against how seriously he as the president takes the scourge of corruption in SA.”

For now, Ramaphosa has kicked for touch – saying, in suitably ponderous tones accompanied by a suitably ponderous expression during The Presidency Budget Vote, that the allegations against Mkhize are serious and disturbing “and it is therefore essential that they be thoroughly investigated by the SIU and any other appropriate authority”. (You can hear Magashule going whoop-whoop in the background, can’t you?)

Seems to me that the only way the matter can be finessed is for the investigators somehow to find that things happened without Mkhize knowing about them – he was, after all, busy dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and also, referring to the excerpt above, he can sometimes be as puzzled as the next fellow.

But one of the problems with being Ramaphosa is, presumably, that you can’t deal with issues in the way Zuma (or even former President Mbeki) might have done – you can’t just call up the “investigators” and whisper in their ears, can you?

And, by the way, has Mkhize performed well regarding the Covid-19 pandemic? Well, if Mkhize gets the chop, I foresee quite a lot of media stories and interviews in the weeks to come in which any number of pundits will tell us that Mkhize performed horribly and that this was obvious to them (the pundits) all along.

But since just about everybody else important in the world, from presidents to famous epidemiologists, seems to have performed pretty miserably when it comes to the pandemic (depending on your point of view), let’s leave this discussion for another time.

More important, it seems to me, is this question: why are we particularly shocked when it comes to Mkhize? Shouldn’t we have known that someone we thought was on “our” side – who “cared” about us – was going to be shown up to be just one more (alleged, for the moment) money-grabber? Shouldn’t we have remembered from where Mkhize came and at whose side he learned his behaviour?

Ah, how could we have known? For one thing, we didn’t want to know. When we all started to realise just how bad and destructive Covid-19 was (and is), when the world we knew started falling apart and the anxiety ramped up, we needed an ostensible straight-shooter and upright person to take control and to tell us what was what, didn’t we?

For another thing, there’s that ol’ memory problem, from which we Seffricans seem to suffer a great deal, whatever our respective ages might be. We didn’t want to remember that Mkhize had done this or that – or, more importantly, that it would take an exceedingly rare person to have climbed to near the top of the greasy ANC pole with his or her financial integrity intact.

One of the few other things I do recall is something I (if I may) wrote in May 2019. It was in my review of Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture.

“Reading this book, you realize Magashule is far from unusual. You realize that this is how the ANC works because, as mentioned, Magashule’s modus operandi is the only game in town. How else are the cadres – especially those serving the people in government – supposed to make as much money as those white monopoly capitalists? You realize the ANC is not a ‘political party’. It’s a business enterprise, a ‘trough-facilitation’ party.”

No wonder Mkhize might look a trifle puzzled about the present brouhaha. But we shouldn’t be at all shocked, whatever drugs we’re on.


[1] In the Times, it was correctly stated that Khwezi had laid a charge. In the Independent, I had written that she hadn’t – because that is what Khwezi herself had misleadingly told me. Life in Seffrica is full of strange occurrences, of wheels within wheels – you’d best read my book if you can find it, and also Redi Tlhabi’s Khwezi: The Remarkable Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo (2017).

[2] In 2009, by the way, Mkhize was chosen as the ANC candidate for KZN Premier. The provincial legislature elected him on 6 May after he defeated the DA’s John Steenhuisen for the post. Mkhize received 68 votes compared to Steenhuisen’s seven. Surprise, surprise.