Jacob Zuma: his SACP autobiography

Paul Trewhela introduces Zuma's only known autobiography, written in exile

Some major truths about the life of Jacob Zuma emerge from a brief autobiography which he wrote for the South African Communist Party during the 1980s - the sole known piece of autobiographical writing by the future president of South Africa, which he wrote in exile in the 1980s when the ANC was a banned and illegal organisation.

At the time of writing he was a member of the Central Committee of the SACP, had received military training in the Soviet Union and - at the time of a subsequent note, dated 1989 - was Head of Intelligence in the ANC's feared Department of Intelligence and Security, known as NAT. By this time he had been a member of the SACP and of Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC's military wing, for well over 20 years, ten years of which he had served in prison on Robben Island.

He writes in this short statement about his association in prison and after his release with the Zulu-speaking Stalinist leader of the SACP and subsequent ANC warlord in KwaZulu-Natal, Harry Gwala.

Zuma played a crucial role in the period leading up to the 1994 general election in winning support among isiZulu-speakers in KwaZulu-Natal for the ANC's constitutional negotiations, in opposition to Gwala's bloodthirsty militarism.

A chilling recollection of the warfare of those times was provided recently in the Sunday Times in an article, "Long road to recognition", by the columnist Fred Khumalo, the second in an informative three-part series on Zuma's life, which draws on Zuma's short autobiography.

Khumalo recalls being present at a funeral in KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1990s for ANC members who had been killed by members of the Inkatha Freedom Party, when Gwala, the final speaker, "noted bitterly that 'while we are burying comrades who have been killed by the dogs, Nelson (Mandela) is busy sipping tea with Gatsha (Buthelezi)'", and concluded: "When the Inkatha dogs come for us, should we then give them Bibles? No, let's give them isigwagwagwa (a colloquial term for war)".

Zuma's work at that time in bringing reconciliation - of a sort - between Zulu-speaker and Zulu-speaker was and is a significant source of his support in KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere, in the conflict for the presidency of the ANC (and the State) between him and his former comrade and rival, the isiXhosa-speaker, Thabo Mbeki.

Zuma's autobiography appears as one of three written by SACP members in exile which were published in July 2007 in the second issue of a South African political magazine, Molotov Cocktail, edited by James Sanders, author of Apartheid's Friends (John Murray, London, 2006, a history of the South African apartheid state security forces and, to a lesser extent, those of the ANC). Issue number two of Molotov Cocktail is available here - PDF), with Zuma's autobiography appearing on pages 27 and 28.

The main body of Zuma's autobiography is dated 2 May 1985, two months before the ANC national conference at Kabwe in Zambia, its last such conference before its return from exile in 1990. The most damaging series of events in the ANC in exile had happened only a year previously, with a pro-democracy mutiny of almost 90 percent of the ANC's trained troops in Angola in February and May 1984, directed largely against the brutality and dictatorial methods of "NAT", the ANC's security department, of which Zuma was a member.

The previous front-line commanders of NAT, such as Mzwandile Piliso and Andrew Masondo, were then relieved of their office at the time of the conference at Kabwe, as part of a cosmetic damage-limitation exercise, and Zuma and two colleagues, Joe Nhlanhla and Sizakele Sigxashe, installed in their place.

By the time of a further addition to his biography, dated 1989, Zuma had been head of counter-intelligence in the ANC for several years. Over this period he was ultimately responsible as the most senior ranking officer in NAT (counter-intelligence) for the arrest and detention in Lusaka, Zambia, of the Umkhonto commander in charge of military operations in KwaZulu-Natal, Thami Zulu (real name, Muziwakhe Ngwenya), who died of poisoning five days after his release from 17 months' detention by Zuma's department. Both the mutiny in the ANC in Angola in 1984 and the interrogation and death by poisoning of Thami Zulu are discussed by Khumalo in his article in the Sunday Times.

Zuma has never given any accounting for what took place under his authority over this period.

There are significant gaps in Zuma's autobiography in Molotov Cocktail. Most noticeable is the absence of any reference to any training received as head of intelligence in iMbokodo ("the grindstone", the grim nickname among ANC members for Zuma's department) from a Soviet or Soviet-type secret police department.

East Germany - the German Democratic Republic, the GDR) - was the principal base in the former Soviet bloc for the training in security and intelligence of organisations such as the ANC, or state services such as the Mukhabarat of the Ba'ath party dictator, Saddam Hussein, in Iraq. The GDR secret police, the Stasi, had responsibility for this training.

This took place for members even at the lowest levels in ANC security. It would be surprising if the Stasi did not provide higher grade training for more senior officers, especially at head of department level.

This is shown in the autobiography written for the SACP by Vusi Mavimbela (ANC pseudonym "Klaus Maphepha", SACP pseudonym "Themba"), printed alongside the autobiographical statement by Jacob Zuma in the same issue of Molotov Cocktail, on page 28.

There, Mavimbela states: "In 1977 I went to Angola where I did six plus three months of military training. In 1978 I went to a party school [almost certainly in the Soviet Union - PT]for ten months. In 1979 I went to the GDR for three months to do a course in the provision of security."

Zuma, in a far more senior post by comparison with Mavimbela, by contrast makes no mention about his own training in security. Zuma also does not explain what were the issues in the "serious ideological battle" among the political prisoners on Robben Island, as he describes it, in which he clearly had a major role. Nor does he indicate who were the proponents of the different positions in the debate.

His SACP cover name was "Pedro". Zuma's euphemistic term for the SACP, "the family", was standard in the party from at least as early as when I also joined it in the early 1960s. Terms such as "labour theory" (the labour theory of value) and "M/L theory" (marxist-leninist theory) refer to standard training in the marxist thought structure of the SACP. "PMC" refers to the Political Military Committee in the command structures of Umkhonto weSizwe.

The text as it appears here, taken from Molotov Cocktail, is published as Zuma wrote it in English, which is not his first language. 

The document is not cited as a source by Jeremy Gordin in his Zuma: A Biography (Jonathan Ball, 2008), and does not appear to have been used by the author.


(1) Family name: Pedro.

(2) Age: 46.

(3) Sex: Male.

(4) Race: African.

(5) Level of Education: Self educated up to Junior Certificate.

(6) Class background: worker.

(7) Political or special education:

Had political ed. at the beginning of 1960's. Began with Labour Theory and General politics with emphasis on our struggle, and late I was put in study group where we were taught M/L theory. In 1978 I received military training in the Soviet Union.

(8) Date of joining the family: 1963.

Deployment in the fraternal org.: NAT (Head of Int.).


Name: Pedro.

Age: 46 years.

Sex: Male.

Educational Level: Form III.

Political or Military Education: yes.

Past Occupation: Clerk/ordinary worker.

Present Occupation: NAT full-time functionary.

When did you join the Party: 1962.

Pedro's biography - 2/5/85

I was born in 1942 at Nkandla area. This is the area where my father (Gginamazmi Zuma) comes from. It is situated at the centre of Zululand.

I'm the first born from my father's second wife. My father's first wife had 7 children. Of these, 3 were boys and 4 were girls. From my mother we are 5. Of these, 3 are boys and 2 are girls.

My mother (Nokubhekisisa, Bessie Zuma) comes from Maphumulo area. This area is situated between Stenger and Kranskop.

Our father died whilst we were still very young, particularly we from the second wife. I in fact never saw him. The death of my father resulted in my mother leaving the Nkandla area for Maphumulo area. At Maphumulo she started working as a domestic worker.

Shortly after this she went to Durban where she continued to work as a domestic worker. Her going to Durban from after us. But she of course, did not get a better pay.

The death of my father and the fact that my mother was not in control of the situation in many ways, led to my being not in a position to go to school. Though she wanted me to receive education, but it became impossible. During this time I was not staying in one place; I was moving from one area to another, But spent more time with her in Durban.

Because of the situation I started working at my early age at this time. Not yet registered, but as a small boy working in tea-rooms, shops and doing domestic work. This was an attempt to help my mother who was pulling hard in life.

It was at my early age that I started to feel the problems of life. They manifested themselves through the family situation. During mid 50's I started to see public meeting organized by the ANC. At the same time my brother was is the first from my father's first wife was an active member of the ANC. He used to talk a lot at home about the ANC and the struggle. At this time I got influenced politically.

In 1958 I joined the ANC and the ANC Youth League. But at this time my activities consisted mainly of my attending public meetings of the organizations. In 1959 I joined SACTU. Again here I was not very active at the beginning. I was mainly attending public meeting.

However, between 1958 & 59 together with my brother who was in the ANC long before me we organized and influenced an anti-pass campaign in the Noxamalala district falling under the Nkandla area. We took advantage of the fact that the chief of the Noxamalala area was our clan brother (chief Vusumbango Zuma). As a result of the trust and confidence this chief had my brother and myself, I ended up attending many meetings called by him to receive and discuss his reports on what the government was saying on the Bantustan policy. In these meeting was specifically able to influence the chief and his people.

In 1961 became involved in the discussions organized by SACTU in the Durban area. In the heart of these discussions was the labour theory. And other generalized political discussions. These discussions were one of the most important development in the Durban area.

In 1962 I was introduced to a political study group in the area where I stayed, i.e. Cato Manor (Mkhumbane). During the same year (1962) I was recruited into MK. In 1963 I was recruited into the SACP. But this time the MK activities took up a lot of time, as a result there was very little done regarding the party work. It was not long after this that I got arrested in June 1963. I was arrested in the Transvaal on my way out of the country for military training. I was then detained under 90 days detention law. And later sentenced to 10 years, which I spent on Robben Island prison.

Whilst on the Island prison I served in a number of responsible positions in the ANC structures. These include being a group leader at different times and in different cells (places where we were staying), being PRO (Public Relations Officer), cell leader and being the chairman of the political committee, which was one of the responsibilities I had towards the end of my sentence, until I left the Island.

Soon after the arrival on the Island, I was among the few Cdes; from Natal who initiated some political study groups. With time these study groups became a serious bone of contention; and resulted in a serious ideological battle.

Regarding the party situation whilst I was on the Island there was nothing much that happened. I approached one party Cde (H.T. Gwala) with an aim to find as to what was supposed to be the position. I explained my position to him which I assumed he knew on the basis that he also came from the same province. His response was that he was going to consult.

Indeed after some time he came back and said that the whole question of how the party was going to function was being considered. And that at that time he was still observing the developments around the political study group which has been mentioned above.

When the ideological problem arose of which I was also deeply involved, I was told that the situation had become even more difficult. And that it had become more necessary that some of us should not be exposed. I appreciated this position because the problem had indeed affect to some degree the party Cdes in terms of the approach to some questions relating to our struggle in general.

In 1974 shortly after my release from prison I was among the few cdes who took the initiative of reviving the ANC underground in the Natal area. In this process again cde H.T Gwala played an important role. He was one of the most experienced leader in the area, and one of the most politically clear and ready to work at any level of the movement. In the Durban area I was the main person coordinating our underground activities.

During this time cde Gwala's idea was that after establishing a firm ANC underground through out Natal, the process of further re-organising the party will have to be vigorously worked on. This was again interrupted by the fact that an arrest which included cde Gwala took place. This very arrest led to my leaving the country in December 1975 to Swaziland.

When I came to Swaziland I immediately joint the collective that was in charge of the internal work. Early in 1976 I secretly entered into the country to re-establish contact with some cdes in the Durban area and its surroundings. This was done without problems. Few months thereafter I was detained by the Swazi police with two other cdes. This arrest was precipitated by the arrest and murder of cdes Joseph (Mkhuzi) Mdluli in Durban Lamontville. We were then deported to Mocambique where I immediately started working until now at the time of writing this biography.

In the year 1977 I was co-opted into the national executive committee (NEC) of the ANC. And since then I have been given various responsibilities by the ANC. But all have been mainly related to the internal work. These included serving in the Natal military machinery, ordinance department, deputy chief representative in Maputo, member of the political committee responsible for T.Q., secretary of the senior organ, and later member of the PMC & P.H.Q.

In 1978 I received my training in the Soviet Union. The training took a period of 3 months. It was called leadership course. In 1977 I was also incorporated in the party. Before my incorporation I was asked to give an account of my participation in the party which I did. And part of what I said is reflected herein above. And I have participated in the work of the other party in this area since then up to now.

by Pedro

Source: Molotov Cocktail, issue number 2, July 2007. pp.27-28

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