How the killing of Thami Zulu contradicts Zuma's claims

Kenneth Good contests the ANC President's rose-tinted view of the liberation movement's record in exile

The Killing of Thami Zulu, Lusaka, 16 November 1989

President Jacob Zuma was quoted in BDlive on 30 April as saying it was often the case that "the guards [in MK camps] would not eat, they would rather feed their prisoners." Nothing could be further from the truth. The record compiled by the TRC and the details presented by the Skweyiya Commission showed that food deprivation to extract confessions at the Quatro camp was systemic, ‘unconscionable and pernicious'.

While the diet of detainees was chiefly ‘diluted tomato puree and rice', the camp commanders had a plentiful supply of special foods: ‘Any food left over after [they] had their fill was fed to the pigs' (Report, 1992, 10). The detainees there and in the ANC's other camps in Angola through the 1980s, it must be noted, were usually not the agents of Pretoria, but rank and file MK soldiers who had the courage and commitment to call for accountability, democratisation and an active campaign against Pretoria.

Zuma similarly claimed that the ANC and the liberation struggle were driven by both "values and extraordinary leaders". A number of big events occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s -the depredations wrought by Mbokodo (NAT, ‘the grindstone') on MK, Operation Vula, the disbandment of the United Democratic Front -which helped to produce the country's stunted democracy of today. The case below highlights the real leadership values of the ANC.

The killing of Muziwakhe Ngwenya (aka Thami Zulu) was complex, calculated and callous, and it resulted from the involvement of top ANC leaders, Joe Modise, Chris Hani and Jacob Zuma, with Thabo Mbeki in a supportive role. It also closely involved the on-going struggle between Mbokodo and MK, and the ethnic concerns of Zuma in particular, in which Zulu became unwittingly embroiled.

Zulu was born in Soweto and educated there, in Swaziland and briefly at the University of Botswana from whence he joined MK. His military potentials were reportedly spotted by Joe Slovo and Hani, who invited him to attend a meeting of the SACP in East Berlin in 1979. Later, as a commander in southern Angola, Ronnie Kasrils (2004, 125) described Zulu as ‘an exceptionally handsome individual [who] looked every inch a soldier'. He was then appointed by Modise and Hani as regional commander of MK operations in Natal, based in Swaziland. This appointment, says Ellis (2012, 236), was ‘strongly opposed' by Zuma, who wanted someone from Natal, not a Sowetan in this critical position.

Zulu successfully stepped-up MK's attacks, but his career ended abruptly after two disastrous incidents in 1988, in which some nine infiltrators from Swaziland were killed. Zulu's deputy, Cyril Raymond (or Ralph Mgcina), and his wife, Jessica, were summoned to Lusaka. Raymond subsequently died in detention, reportedly drowning in his own vomit, after refusing to sign a confession to being a South African agent. Zulu was formally detained, without being informed of the basis for this action.

Jacob Zuma had been a member of Mbokodo, 1985-88, and became its deputy director in 1988. After some twelve years in Swaziland and Mozambique, he had moved to ANC headquarters in Lusaka in early 1987 where he became ‘Chief of the Intelligence Dept' (Gordin 2008, 33 and 91). Zuma's experience in charge of intelligence was to become his ‘key institutional base' (Ellis, 2012, 240).

According to Mac Maharaj, the operational principle within the enclosed spheres of security and intelligence in Mbokodo and the ANC, around 1988, was that ‘no one was beyond suspicion.' Pallo Jordan, for instance, was a member of the ANC's National Executive Committee, and regarded in the party unflatteringly as an intellectual and a critic of Mbokodo's authoritarianism. He was detained in 1983: according to Zarina Maharaj, he was ‘locked up for six weeks in Lusaka in a corrugated iron hut and nearly died of dehydration.' He has refused to discuss his detention and treatment (O'Malley 2007, 208, 220 and Skweyiya Commision Report, 18).

Zulu spent 14 months in detention, part of which was spent in an isolation cell lying all day on a mattress on the floor. After two months of interrogation, Mbokodo had found no proof of his collaboration with the enemy, but recommended that he should be ‘disciplined for criminal neglect' in the case of the June 1988 deaths. At the TRC's ‘Recall Hearing' in May 1997, the ANC specifically denied that he had been tortured or subjected to cruel or degrading treatment.  But on other official findings, Zulu had gone into Mbokodo as ‘a large, well-built slightly overweight person, and came out gaunt, frail and almost unrecognisable' (Trewhela, 2009, 103). 

He was released on 11 November on orders emanating from the office of Oliver Tambo, following a medical examination at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) in Lusaka which showed he was HIV positive. He was taken to stay at the house of a long-time friend, Dr Ralph Mgijima, head of the ANC Health Department. He died four days later.

When the TRC considered the case they had evidence from Skweyiya and other sources to draw on. They also had a medical report noting that ‘his death was brought about by poisoning which must have been taken in within a day or at most two days prior to his death.' Thabo Mbeki testified at the TRC hearing in May 1997, that it was accepted that our investigations into the extremely high casualty rates in the MK forces under his command constituted ‘sufficient grounds for his recall'.

He declared that ‘at no time was he tortured or subjected to any undue pressure', reiterating an ANC statement of a year earlier that Zulu was never imprisoned and spent most of his time in party residencies separate from the rest of the community (‘Statement' 19 August 1996, 114).

Mbeki accepted that the former commander died of poisoning, but insisted that it was a matter of conjecture as to who administered this poison. Nonetheless he concluded that: ‘Our own security department has reason to believe that an agent or agents of the regime was responsible.' The TRC's findings were equivocal and negative: Despite the fact that ‘no conclusive evidence' that Thami Zulu was a South African agent had emerged, the TRC ‘was unable to make a conclusive finding' (Final Report, vol 2 ch 4, 358-9. Kasril's conclusion however is clear and firm: "I do not believe he was a police agent" (2004, 261). 

Trewhela and Beresford suggest that conclusions can in fact be reached about how Zulu was poisoned. Samples of his blood and stomach contents showed traces of diazinon, an organic phosphorous pesticide, and the equivalent of some three pints of beer. Diazinon is pungent, it does not dissolve in water or tea but is soluble in alcohol. A forensic scientist in London, shown these samples, concluded that ‘three pints of beer taken within a twenty-four hour period and each containing a teaspoon full of diazinon could have been fatal.' But it would have had to be taken within the one or two day period as noted.

Skweyiya accepted that this was the likely way in which Zulu was killed. For Trewhela, the murderers were thus to be found among those who had access to Zulu between 13 and 15 November. And ‘if poison was administered in three bottles of beer, those who supplied it were almost certainly members of the ANC and perhaps very senior members.' Arguably there would have had to be understanding and some degree of trust between Zulu and the potential poisoners if the former was voluntarily to drink beer with them over a period. 

On the known record, the last days of Zulu proceeded as follows. On Sunday 12 November, Mgjima himself was taken ill and rushed to hospital for emergency operation. On 13 November, he phoned Hani from hospital and asked him to check on Zulu. Hani accompanied by Modise entered Mgjima's house and found Zulu unwell.

On evidence provided earlier by Hani to journalists Phillip van Niekerk and Beresford, two MK men known to be loyal to Hani were sent to the house to look after Zulu. The identity of these men has not been revealed. On 14 November Hani returned, and Zulu, on Hani's account, ‘appeared to be worried that the Security Department [Mbokodo] is going to finish him off' if he fell into their hands.

On 15 November Hani called an unnamed doctor to attend to Zulu, and he again left two MK men to keep watch at his bedside, where he suffered attacks of vomiting and diarrhoea (Trewhela, 104-05). On 16 November Thami Zulu was rushed gasping for breath to UTH, where he died aged 35. Hani's biographers offer only cursory reference to Zulu's death: they refer to ‘disgraced former ANC cadres' and to ‘anti-ANC former cadres [who] have insisted on casting aspersions on Hani', but examine none of these allegations. But they agree that it was ‘Hani, who, together with Joe Modise, saw Zulu in the hours before his death' (Smith and Tromp, 2009, 199). By this time, MK and Mbokodo were indeed ‘bitter rivals' (Ellis. 2012, 285). 

Beresford (2010, 162) notes the gaps in Jacob Zuma's biography-his lifelong membership in the SACP, that he left South Africa in 1975 and joined Mbokodo after four months training in the Soviet Union--and Gordin, his biographer, recognises the ‘missing 15 years' between 1975 and 1990 when he was among the first of the notable exiles to return. Gordin says that there is ‘very little information' about those crucial years; one of Zuma's main tasks then was ‘running Swaziland/Natal operations', and he purposefully ‘did not want to be known': furthermore, ‘he still will not talk in detail about the operational events of those days', characteristically proclaiming that they are "the property" of the ANC (Gordin, 2008, 25). Beresford believes that these silences ‘justif[y] an assumption, if not a presumption of guilt.'

What knowledge did he have about the deaths of Zulu and Cyril Raymond? He was in legal terms ‘at all material times in a position to know, which in turn attracts an assumption that he did know.' Politically, at the top of ANC intelligence, he was in a position to know, and he had direct experience in the area where Zulu had operated (Beresford, 2010, 295-6). At the very least, why did he not act to secure the release of Zulu from the organisation of which he was deputy director? Armed with the power and aggressiveness of Mbokodo, Zuma had also become, after 1986, the ANC's ‘pre-eminent Zulu leader' (Ellis, 2012, 247).

The current quasi-legal concept of ‘wilful blindness' was used in the Enron trial in the United States, and appears relevant here. It accepts that if it can be demonstrated that key information was available, and that it was part of an executive's job to know of such information, then that person did in fact know.

Thabo Mbeki believed in 1997 that Thami Zulu was a suspected agent of Pretoria, falsely declared that he was neither tortured nor pressured during the 14 months that dramatically altered his health and appearance, and firmly implied that Pretoria's agents poisoned him. For Beresford, however, Thami Zulu ‘had all the courage of a warrior but lacked the knowledge as to where the enemy lay' (2010, 185).

Perhaps, more precisely, he was denied knowledge through the lies and prevarication of an Mbeki and Zuma, and the duplicity and ambivalence of Modise and Hani. If the latter's funeral oration at least was true, MK held no real doubts about Zulu's loyalty and competence. He was buried in Swaziland in November 1989, with the mourners limited to family. A statement signed by Modise and Hani, respectively Commander and Chief of Staff of MK, declared: The ‘Glorious army of our people salute you...we remember your efficiency and competence...we recall with sheer pride and emotion...this giant and gallant fighter' (Beresford, 2010. 185).  Or the lies were compounded further, as they continued to be over coming years and decades. What is certain is that the missing information concerning Zulu's killing remains in the hands of the ANC's leadership.

When Skweyiya reported to Mandela in 1992 it strongly recommended that secret ANC internal reports about his death ‘were matters of vital interest': they should be released and ‘subjected to public scrutiny' (Report, p.19). Twenty one years later, as non-accountability and elitism stifles democracy, the need for scrutiny, of both the killing of Thami Zulu and the power accorded to Mbokodo, is greater still. 

Kenneth Good is adjunct professor in global studies RMIT University, Melbourne and visiting professor in political studies Rhodes University.


David Beresford, Truth is a Strange Fruit: a Personal Journey Through the Aparthied War, Jacana, Johannesburg, 2010.

Stephen Ellis, External Mission: The ANC in Exile 1960-1990, Hurst and Company, London, 2012.

Ronnie Kasrils, Armed and Dangerous: From Undercover Struggle to Freedom, Jonathan Ball, Johannesburg and Cape Town, 2004.

Jeremy Gordin, Zuma: A biography, Jonathan Ball, Johannesburg, 2008

Padraig O'Malley, Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa, Viking, New York, 2007.

Skweyiya Commission Report, 1992.

Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp, Hani: a Life Too Short. Jonathan Ball, Johannesburg and Cape Town, 2009.

Paul Trewhela, Inside Quarto, Jacana, Johannesburg, 2009.

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