The Zuma alumni

The SA president charms many but, Jeremy Gordin asks, who does he really trust with key positions?

Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, might charm many people and smile at most, but this does not necessarily mean that he trusts many.

The reasons for his attitude seem obvious.

Zuma comes from the ANC underground; from the smoke-and-mirrors and often murderous world of intelligence and counter-intelligence (he was appointed the ANC's chief spook in about 1988 in Lusaka); and the causes and conduct of his legal saga during the last nine years have often been, to put it mildly, Byzantine.

Whom then does Zuma trust?

In an article titled "Operation Vula gurus return" - on 24 May, in The Sunday Independent - senior journalist Janet Smith wrote: "The appointments of Siphiwe Nyanda [former chief of the SANDF] and Pravin Gordhan [former commissioner of SARS] as ministers in President Jacob Zuma's cabinet have resuscitated memories of one of the ANC's most secret plans. And the possible revival of Operation Vula in the political imagination may be further inspired by the rumoured return to centre stage of one of the party's most controversial and colourful figures: Moe Shaik."

Smith was largely correct in pointing out - as one of the Vula's members recently said to me - "Hey, it looks like the boys and girls from Vula are back!"

Yet Zuma's relationship with Operation Vula and its members was not always as clear cut as is thought - not, at any rate, in the view of Vula's commander, Mac Maharaj.

More importantly, a look at the backgrounds of those whom Zuma trusts - those whom he has, to put it another way, placed in key positions - reveals that at least two other "groups" of people must be included among Zuma's chosen.

Operation Vula

Operation Vula was, as Padraig O'Malley puts it in Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa (Viking, 2007), "... an ambitious project aiming to locate senior leaders, including members of the NEC [ANC national executive committee] and the PMC [politico-military council of the ANC], within South Africa to take overall charge of the struggle. Vula was under the direct command of Oliver Tambo (OR), assisted by Joe Slovo (JS). ... It was [also] to set up the infrastructure for the people's war ..."

Cognisant of the porousness of the ANC underground structures, Maharaj's primary goal was to keep Vula ultra-secret. No one besides Tambo, Slovo and (initially) Zuma knew about Vula, or was supposed to know about it.

Maharaj was the commander, "Gebuza" Nyanda was his deputy, and the operation was set in motion in 1986.

As Maharaj tells the story, or has O'Malley tell the story, when Vula was first mooted, none of the top ANC leadership besides him was too keen on going into South Africa. O'Malley suggests that, when push came to shove, most, more or less comfortably ensconced in Lusaka, preferred "an armchair revolution".

According to O'Malley, however, Zuma was initially asked by Tambo to go into South Africa as part of Vula and was keen to do so. But he was at just that time appointed ANC chief of intelligence so he couldn't. Unfortunately, O'Malley's interview with Zuma on which this information is based is embargoed till 2030.

Vula, which really only got going in mid-1988, did not manage to organise a "people's war". By then the people's war was, in any case, more in the hands of the internal mass democratic movement than the ANC.

But Vula did succeed in setting up an excellent and vital communications conduit from inside South Africa to ANC headquarters, a channel which included Nelson Mandela in Pollsmoor Prison. Vula's operatives also successfully brought a great deal of arms and war materiel into South Africa.

Among those who were actually part of Operation Vula were Nyanda, now minister of communications in Zuma's government; Gordhan, formerly commissioner of SARS and now minister of finance; Charles Nqakula, formerly minister of safety and security in Thabo Mbeki's government and now Zuma's political adviser; Ivan Pillay, who went to SARS with Gordhan and is still there; Raymond Lala, who became head of SAPS intelligence and is still a top cop; Solly Shoke, who is chief of the army; and Ronnie Kasrils, who ended his political career as minister for intelligence in the Mbeki government.

Another member of Vula and "Natalian", although he is not mentioned by Maharaj and was clearly a lower-level cadre, was Nathi Mthethwa, now the minister of police.

The Shaik brothers - Moe, Yunis, and Schabir - were not strictly-speaking part of Vula. And yet in a sense they were.

Moe and Yunis Shaik (along with Jayendra Naidoo) ran their own operation, the MJK unit; their baby was Operation Bible, their successful infiltration of the security police data bases, communications and some personnel; and they reported directly (though often via Pillay!) to Zuma. Maharaj reported to Tambo and Slovo.

But, as Moe Shaik explains, "though we were structurally not integrated - as much for everyone's protection as for any other reason - we provided all kinds of support, not the least of which was intelligence support, to Vula high command. And Zuma knew about this and supported it. There was definitely a symbiotic relationship between Vula and MJK."

Schabir Shaik handled a number of financial arrangements for Vula - getting foreign currency into South Africa and having it changed on the black market - but for his own protection was never told on precisely whose behalf he was doing this work.

Vula unravelled completely in July 1990 with the arrests by the security police of Nyanda and then Maharaj. The ANC was then in negotiations with the government of FW de Klerk, and the uncovering of Vula was, to put it mildly, highly embarrassing for the ANC leadership.

Ironically, in the end the main repercussion was positive. The uncovering of Vula resulted in the ANC agreeing on 6 August 1990 on a unilateral cessation of the armed struggle ("The Pretoria Minute"). Mandela was also able to finesse the situation with De Klerk and the charges against those involved were ultimately dropped.

But Maharaj was then furious - and remained so. He felt that he and his people had been betrayed by the attitude of the leaders - Mbeki, Slovo, and Zuma - because, when Vula was publicly uncovered, they looked down their noses at the operation, as though the cat had brought in something particularly unsavoury.

Worse, they left Maharaj and others languishing in custody, sometimes for weeks.

Maharaj was especially angry with Zuma who, Maharaj has said in O'Malley's book, "was fully attuned to [Vula's] operations".

Moe Shaik, it must be said, disagrees with Maharaj.

"Let's face it, the leadership was in the middle of difficult negotiations. The discovery of Vula could have derailed those negotiations. In fact it was pretty close.

"Yes, Zuma was ‘in the Mbeki camp' then," Shaik continued.

"But, besides that, he had to play it very smart. How could he, one of the main negotiators, run around saying, ‘Well, yeah, gee, we've been running this successful underground operation for two or three years and have successfully penetrated your security police and have imported arms into the country - and, what's more, we've continued doing it while talking peace and love to you'?"

Shaik also argues that on Mbeki's watch those from Vula, and those connected with the operation, were indeed "punished" - with the exceptions of Kasrils, who had his "own" relationship with Mbeki, and Nqakula, who was not from the Natal sphere of operations anyway. (Nqakula was the Cape commander and notably absent from O'Malley's book is any sort of praise for him in that role.)

"Gordhan was never made a minister," says Shaik. "Nyanda had to leave his job as SANDF chief. But Zuma has brought them to the fore. So, notwithstanding views to the contrary, Zuma was appreciative of Vula."

The Others

Zuma was indeed appreciative of Vula but there are others, who were not part of Vula, whom the new president has placed in key positions.

They are mostly former MK operatives - and either (1) took part in the "Natal" sphere of operations or (2) were involved in intelligence and counter-intelligence.

The new minister of justice and constitutional development is Jeff Radebe, who has of course been in government for a while. Interestingly, although not much is made of it in his official CVs, Radebe applied for amnesty from the truth commission (TRC).

The TRC's report reads as follows:

"During the period 1991 to 1994 all three applicants were senior members of the ANC who held office in the Southern Natal region of the ANC. The 1st Applicant [Jeff Radebe] was, during 1991, the deputy chairman and thereafter the chairman of the ANC Regional Executive Committee ...

"The ANC at its Consultative Conference which was held towards the end of 1990 resolved, inter alia, to assist communities which were subjected to political violence in the setting up of SDUs [ANC self-defence units in the townships, involved in combating mainly the IFP]. The 1st Applicant, in his capacity as deputy chairperson and later as chairperson of the ANC in Southern Natal received instructions from the late Chris Hani, who was the Chief of Staff and Deputy Commander of MK, to facilitate the implementation of the ANC national decision to set up SDUs in the Southern Natal region. He was thereafter contacted by MK headquarters personnel, including Mr. Ronnie Kasrils and arrangements were made for the distribution of weapons for use by SDUs in the region. ... He was, however, throughout the period under consideration, fully aware of and involved in the illegal procurement and distribution of arms to SDUs in the region."

The new minister of defence and military veterans is Lindiwe Sisulu, who has also been in the government for some time - deputy minister of home affairs, minister of housing - and comes from a famous struggle family.

It also so happens that in 1990, after the unbanning of the ANC and other political organisations, Sisulu returned to South Africa and resumed work as personal assistant to one Jacob Zuma and was thereafter as an administrator in the ANC's Department of Intelligence and Security.

The minister of state security is Dr Siyabonga Cwele. The KwaZulu-Natal (KZN)-born medical doctor has been a passionate Zuma supporter and was formerly the chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence. In this position, he chastised the Scorpions about the controversial Browse Mole Report that damned Zuma for various things. Not especially highlighted in his CV is that from 1984-1990 he operated in "ANC underground structures" - in KZN.

Minister in the Presidency (Performance Monitoring and Evaluation and Administration) Collins Chabane joined the ANC in 1980, did his military training in Angola and went underground from 1981. He was arrested in 1984 and served a term on Robben Island.

He was singled out in a speech given by Zuma at the funeral of Peter Mokaba: "In the Northern Transvaal among comrades identified to do this specific work was the late Comrade James ‘Mawelawela'. It was he who identified Peter Mokaba and others for recruitment. These included among others Collins Chabane. This is the group that I have called the ‘warriors'."

Zuma went on to say that he knew well this group of young men who had returned to South Africa.

The new director-general of the president's office - replacing the Reverend Frank Chikane - is Vusi Mavimbela. He left South Africa to join the ANC in 1976, became DG of the National Intelligence Agency until 2004 and was political adviser to Mbeki, when the latter was deputy president between 1994 and 1998. Mavimbela also served as Mbeki's special adviser on intelligence and security.

From 1993-4, Mavimbela was chief of ANC intelligence and security in KZN and prior to that worked in intelligence circles in Lusaka - under the command of guess who?

Zuma's new parliamentary counselor is Ayanda Dlodlo, a MP, member of the NEC, and - this was a key post in the run-up to Polokwane - secretary general of the Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) Military Veterans' Association. And, after Polokwane, she led meetings with the head of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), Mokotedi Mpshe, on behalf of the veterans, to convince Mpshe to drop the corruption charges against Zuma.

In the middle of her matric exams in 1980, Dlodlo heard the police were looking for her, so she fled into exile. There she did military training in Angola and intelligence training in the Soviet Union - under the aegis of the ANC's intelligence and counter-intelligence department.


The "Vula boys and girls" are indeed back in town.

But Zuma's people - those to whom the key jobs of finance, justice, defence, police, monitoring government performance, and presidency positions, have gone - are not only from Vula.

To have been active in the underground struggle in KZN, Zuma's stamping ground, and secondly, to have been connected with ANC intelligence and counter-intelligence, are also important qualifications.

One other alumnus of Zuma's long career in the ANC is his old Robben Island cell-mate, Ebrahim Ismail "Ibi" Ebrahim. He is now one of the two deputy ministers in the new ministry of international relations and cooperation.

But, finally, what of Moe Shaik?

The gossip is that he is poised for a return to the corridors of state security and intelligence.

His comment: "No comment. No comment at all."

Jeremy Gordin is author of Zuma: A biography.

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