29/09/2017 14:15 SAST | Updated 29/09/2017 14:15 SAST

Zweli Mkhize: An Unassuming, Yet Assertive Possible President

His unpretentious demeanour lends itself to his political career, resulting in a distancing from the limelight.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete (L) looks on as ANC treasurer general Zweli Mkhize gestures during the African National Congress 5th National Policy Conference at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Soweto, South Africa, June 30, 2017.REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

On close observation of ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize, one would never think he is a frontrunner for the country's top spot -– and that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Instead, his unpretentious demeanour lends itself to his political career, resulting in a distancing from the limelight while going about his business as a top-six leader in the ANC.

Take Friday, for example.

Mkhize delivered the keynote speech at the opening of the Black Business Council's (BBC) summit on radical economic transformation. The event was hosted by the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) at its offices in Sandton.

There was no convoy of blue-light vehicles and no suited-men frisking over pockets at the entrance.

Instead, Mkhize quietly slipped into the IDC's lobby, accompanied by two bodyguards and two members of his campaign team. There wasn't a fuss about his arrival –- he walked up the stairs to the conference room, his usual handshake with a half-hug and a pat on the back for all those who came to greet him.

He wore a relaxed silver suit with an ANC shirt underneath and carried a brown leather briefcase at this side. On the way to his table, Mkhize greeted businessmen who approached him and leaders of the IDC and BBC who sat around the same table.

When he took the stage, Mkhize spoke off-the-cuff, but his speech seemed somewhat rehearsed. When he opened, he thanked the BBC for inviting "us", referring to the ANC, to the event. Interesting that he did not use the word "me", he is being dubbed as the ANC's unity candidate after all.

"It's time to discuss an issue which I don't believe is only relevant for now, but for many years to come. From where we sit, we believe that the [ANC national conference] has to deliver a number of things. It needs to work with unity within the ruling party," he said.

"The economy needs to deliver to us growth, job creation and radical economic transformation. This terminology comes from the [Mangaung] conference of 2012; it is not the construct of Bell Pottinger. It is a specific policy that arose out of an evaluation... there is a huge amount of achievement, but there is quite a lot of work that remains ahead of us."

Mkhize may not have the same spunk as Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, for example, but his message does get heads nodding in agreement.

"It cannot be that we can be a democratically elected government presiding over a continuously declining standard of life for our people... radical economic transformation must offload the number of people dependent on the social safety net. Certain interventions are needed by governmentt to focus on how to change the situation," he said.

"It is a united, focused ruling party that must deliver this."

When he concluded, some members of the audience gave him a standing ovation.

After speaking to businesspeople at the summit, it became clear that Mkhize is gaining traction in some constituencies, like in business, but whether he can topple Ramaphosa in this regard is a different question.

Reactions to Mkhize were mixed, some saying that good governance is good for business, so a united ANC under Mkhize may bode well for the economy. Others said Mkhize may not possess the clout to pull the party together.

After his speech, Mkhize had to rush off for an ANC national executive committee meeting in Pretoria, but not before he allowed journalists a few one-on-one questions in front of the camera. He also took a few minutes to please summitgoers who asked for a picture with him.

Mkhize's modest approach to politics is a stark contrast to Ramaphosa, who is a lot more calculated and vigorous at public appearances, or Dlamini-Zuma, who seems to be speaking off an ANC script while still being able to get fists waving in crowds.

But it is a demeanour that is working, with Mkhize filling up events at KwaZulu-Natal most recently. Whether it will get the majority of ANC branches to change sides though, is yet to be seen.