Jacob Zuma in exile: three unexplored issues

Paul Trewhela questions the ANC president's past role in Mbokodo, the SACP and the Soviet Union

There are three points concerning Jacob Zuma, the probable President-to-be of South Africa after the forthcoming general election, which Jeremy Gordin fails to address in his recent book, Zuma: A Biography (Jonathan Ball, Johannesburg, 2008).

In light of the huge seriousness of current issues concerning Zuma and the African National Congress, of which he is president, Gordin's book must be accounted a serious fall in quality in comparison with the standard set by two major biographies published only the year before, each of living political leaders drawn like Zuma from the ANC and the South African Communist Party: the biography of Mac Maharaj by Professor Padraig O'Malley (Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa, Viking, New York, 2007) and the biography of Thabo Mbeki by Mark Gevisser (Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred, Jonathan Ball, Johannesburg, 2007).

Published only five months before the April elections, this fall in quality in Gordin's book is a disservice to the people of South Africa, who need above all: clarity.

This review attempts to draw attention to three related matters of great importance concerning Jacob Zuma. All three points arise from material already in the public domain, much of it already canvassed in the biographies by O'Malley and Gevisser. By comparison, Gordin's failure to do any adequate research into these matters, in the light of South Africa's urgent need for clarity, must be accounted a serious failure of scholarship, and even of journalism.

I will not rake over the coals on two further matters that do get attention from Gordin, although here too, not really adequately, and in which Gordin does not bring fresh material to light. These are the state of Zuma's personal sexual life, as revealed in his trial for rape in 2006, of which he was acquitted, and the state of his financial affairs, the subject of ongoing criminal charges. There are other issues that should also have been more adequately investigated and discussed, but I will leave these aside.

1. The Securocrat

In an article on Politicsweb last week, "Jacob Zuma, iMbokodo and the death of Thami Zulu" (see here), I argued that a proper inquiry into the murder in Lusaka, Zambia, in November 1989 of an Umkhonto weSizwe commander Thami Zulu (real name, Muziwakhe Ngwenya) would lead to "an indictment upon the Sachs commission [appointed by the ANC to inquire into the murder, but which failed to ask "whodunnit?"], the ANC as the organisation that appointed it, the legal structure of the South African state in which the commissioners (including Sachs) have subsequently held various posts, and the senior office-bearer responsible for counter-intelligence in the ANC at the time of Thami Zulu's murder, Jacob Zuma".

Gordin does discuss this matter, and does bring one fresh piece of information to light: a statement from "Someone who at the time worked very closely with Zuma in counter-intelligence, and prefers to remain anonymous." (p.38) He also accurately states that "Zuma was implicated" in the death of Thami Zulu "because he was then head of counter-intelligence." (p.36) For a fuller discussion, readers should consult my earlier article.

Zuma has never, to my knowledge, accounted publicly in any way for his role - whatever that might have been - in the arrest, imprisonment, interrogation, release and subsequent murder by poisoning while in close confinement of Thami Zulu. He declined to make himself available in Lusaka over 18 days to Zulu's father, Mr Philemon Ngwenya, a respected Soweto headmaster, prior to Zulu's being poisoned, and as far as I am aware he made no contribution to the hearing into the matter in 1996 by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to which Mr and Mrs Ngwenya gave moving and searching testimony.

Serious attention was needed from a biographer into the conduct of Mr Zuma's role as head of counter-intelligence in the ANC in exile in the late 1980s, and for about three years after his return to South Africa in 1990. In his informative study of both the apartheid state and ANC intelligence services, James Sanders notes that "Jacob Zuma continued as head of the DIS Intelligence section until 1993, when Patrick ‘Terror' Lekota was appointed". (Apartheid's Friends: The Rise and Fall of South Africa's Secret Service, John Murray, London , 2006. p.300) This refers to Zuma's position as head of counter-intelligence in the ANC's Department of Intelligence and Security, known - and feared - among the troops as iMbokodo (the grindstone).

Sanders notes that following the mutinies in Umkhonto in Angola in 1984 - which arose largely as a protest against the brutal practices of iMbokodo - its most notorious chief up to that time, Mzwandile Piliso, was "retired in 1986 and the intelligence department was administered by an ‘interim directorate' which included Alfred Nzo, Joe Nhlanhla, Jacob Zuma and Sizakele Sigxashe". (p.290) Zuma's tenure as ANC securocrat appears to have covered the seven years from 1986 to 1993, the transition period from apartheid to post-apartheid state.

For a former spy-chief to become president of a country is no small matter. In the apartheid period in South Africa, an equivalent would have been the ascent of a Major-General Hendrik van den Bergh to Presidency of the state. In Russia, it would recall the transition of the KGB director, Yuri Andropov, to general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1982. In post-Soviet Russia, it would suggest the ascendancy of President Vladimir Putin. Gordin's attention to these crucial matters is minimal and cursory. His negligence can be seen from the fact that both in the text of his book (p.37) and in the Index, the name of Zuma's colleague and indeed superior at the head of iMbokodo over this period, Joe Nhlanhla - later Deputy Director of the unified South African state intelligence department, and subsequently Minister of Intelligence under President Thabo Mbeki - is incorrectly spelled as "Nhlanha".

It should be noted that Mr Zuma carried, and continues to carry, formal responsibility as the highest-ranking officer for actions taken by his department at that time.

As I argued in my article last week, there is no evidence that iMbokodo made any effort to identify who could have administered the poison to Thami Zulu, any more than did the Sachs Commission, even though this was a simple case for investigation by even the most incompetent police force. Zulu was murdered in Lusaka only five days after his release from an iMbokodo prison. He was very weak, desperately ill, already dying of Aids. In these five days there is no evidence that he ever left the house in which he was poisoned. Every visitor was able to be identified. The poison was administered in beer provided to Zulu by one or more of these visitors. Because the poison is excreted from the body, a forensic scientist in London concluded that it must have been administered to Zulu "within a day or at most two days prior to his death" (quoted in my article which discusses this crime, "The dilemma of Albie Sachs: ANC constitutionalism and the death of Thami Zulu", Searchlight South Africa No.11, October 1993, p.46 see here). This would suggest that there has been a conspiracy of silence at the highest level in the ANC on this matter.

2. "Soviet graduate"

In his study ANC: A View from Moscow (Mayibuye Books, University of the Western Cape, Bellville, 1999), the former member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and former senior Soviet state and party liaison officer with the ANC and the SACP, Dr Vladimir Shubin, writes of Jacob Zuma and Joe Nhlanhla that "both comrades were Soviet graduates and understood Russian perfectly." Both of them, writes Shubin, were "heavily involved in sensitive ANC matters." (p.367) [See Shubin's correction on this point here - Ed]

Gordin makes no reference to this remark, which Dr Shubin situates in relation to a visit to Moscow of both men in March 1990 - that is, four months after the death of Thami Zulu in Lusaka, when both men were in command of ANC security services.

What exactly does this statement mean, coming from the top Soviet official then responsible for South African affairs? Firstly, it must mean that both Zuma and Nhlanhla could only have spent a considerable amount of time in the Soviet Union, in order to have learned to understand Russian "perfectly". Secondly, it proposes the question: in exactly what form of study had these two Securocrats "graduated" in the Soviet Union, if it was not study in their special craft, for which they had been placed at the very pinnacle by the ANC and the SACP? Generally, East Germany - the former German Democratic Republic - was the principal training area in the Soviet bloc for members of iMbokodo, where their tutors were the Stasi secret police force.

Intensive further research in Germany in the files of the Stasi is needed to uncover what transpired in these training programmes. Dr Shubin's remark suggests, however, that Zuma and Nhlanhla could have been trained as ANC intelligence/security chiefs in the Soviet Union, that is, by the KGB itself. So far there has been no adequate discussion of this possibility.

It should be noted, further, that in his biography of the former Umkhonto leader Mac Maharaj, Professor O'Malley states that in the mid-1990s Moe Shaik "served as deputy coordinator of intelligence in the Ministry of Intelligence, where he worked under Joe Nhlanhla", and that he became a "close friend and confidant of his former Intelligence boss [in the Umkhonto underground in KwaZulu-Natal] Jacob Zuma". (p.416) Moe Shaik is one of the brothers of Zuma's imprisoned former financial adviser, Schabir Shaik. The final report of Judge Josephus Hefer's commission, of January 2004, cited a statement by Moe Shaik as to his "complete faith in and undying loyalty" to Zuma. (quoted in Gordin, p.96)  In the complex network of Zuma's relationships, this tends to confirm the centrality of his former post as ANC intelligence chief: a matter of major importance in the successful campaign to displace former President Mbeki and his supporters from the ANC, first at the ANC national conference at Polokwane in December 2007 and then as they were routed from government last year.

3. Politburo member of the SACP

Gordin reports accurately that Zuma "quit the Communist Party with Mbeki and others in 1990." (p.56) He makes no further inquiry, however, into the nature or duration of Zuma's membership of the SACP, surely a significant matter concerning a probable future President of the Republic, but a subject once again left blank by Gordin (as blank as the inquiry into the likely perpetrator or perpetrators of Thami Zulu's murder by the ANC-appointed Sachs Commission).

Professor O'Malley is once again forthcoming. He writes: "Zuma was elected to the Politburo [of the SACP, its most powerful executive organ - PT] at the party's seventh conference in Havana , Cuba , in April 1989." (note 5, p.602)

This places Zuma, already at the head of iMbokodo, at the top rank in the SACP. Mark Gevisser has given an account of how Mbeki, Zuma, Josiah Jele, Joel Netshitenzhe, Aziz Pahad and several other high-ranking members of the SACP "did not attend the SACP's first open congress in 40 years, in December 1990 in Johannesburg." He considers this to have been a "serious miscalculation" on Mbeki's part, since "through the 1990s and into Mbeki's presidency, the Party - now run by a younger generation - would become the standard bearer for left opposition to Mbeki's economic policies, and many of its leaders, specifically the general secretary Blade Nzimande - would become fervent supporters of Jacob Zuma after Mbeki fired him in 2005."

Though Zuma and Mbeki each abandoned his membership of the SACP - in which both had served at Politburo level - in 1990, they interpreted this differently. As Gevisser continues in a reliable explanation, as Zuma "became estranged from Mbeki, he would make a point of courting the left in the ANC-SACP-COSATU alliance - and particularly the leadership of the Party, which felt marginalised by Mbeki and his new power elite." In this new conjuncture, Zuma "went out of his way to distance himself from Mbeki's departure from the Party in 1990. Attending a Party policy conference in 2000 at a time when the ANC and the SACP were barely on speaking terms, he referred to the 1990 split - the primal wound in the relationship between the two fraternal organisations - and made it clear that if some had left the Party for ideological reasons, he was not one of them. The imputation was clear: while he, Zuma, might have left the Party for strategic reasons, Mbeki did so because he had lost the faith." (p.472)

For the SACP, this declaration of continued faith in its ideological goals was a key component of a now dominant political praxis which is certain to reverse the economic policy of Mbeki, after the election in April. In the eyes of the SACP, Mbeki's own reversal of ANC economic policy in 1996, through his high-handed replacement of the ANC's previous statist economic Reconstruction and Development Policy (RDP) with the free-market policy of Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR), was an act of treason, by which he earned the undying hatred of the Party.

Discussion of this "primal wound" now separating the ANC, significantly led by the SACP, from Cope - representing the nucleus of Mbeki's former government - will have to wait for a later article. It is a subject, also a very major one, unfortunately also very poorly covered in Gordin's biography.

One may see from the three points canvassed above, however, the meaning of ex-President Mbeki (who on this subject should know what he was writing about), when in a long letter of 8th October last year to Jacob Zuma, he referred to people who might "act in the manner of the ‘anointed personality', such as the late Kim Il-Sung determined to the people of North Korea" (see here).

No-one could know a "Kim Il-Sung" better than another former member of the Politburo. This crucial dimension, relating to the character and morality of the administration of political power, with its menacing reference to North Korea, is absent from Gordin's book, which cannot be regarded as providing an adequate analysis.

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