Jacob Zuma and Imbokodo

Patrick Laurence writes on the ANC president's former role as counter-intelligence chief in exile

If ANC president Jacob Zuma takes over as South Africa's president after the April 22 election, its equivalent in the old white-dominated South Africa would have been the installation of Hendrik van den Bergh as national president in 1979 after President B J Vorster was forced to resign.

The analogy between the anticipated Zuma presidency and the hypothetical presidency of Van den Bergh is made in a recent article by Paul Trewhela, an expatriate South African journalist who was imprisoned in the 1960s for his role in the ANC-linked resistance movement.

While the careers of Zuma and Van den Bergh are poles apart ideologically-speaking, they converge in one important aspect: both were shadowy figures in the murky world of counter-intelligence and the detection and neutralisation of enemy spies.

Thus, to illustrate the point:

  • Van den Bergh, who served in the pro-Nazi Ossewabrandwag during the Second World War, became the feared head of the dreaded Bureau for State Security, or BOSS, under the premiership of Vorster.
  • Zuma, after joining the ANC and, later, the South African Communist Party, become a high ranking official in the ANC's Department of Intelligence and Security- aka Imbokodo, "the stone that crushes" - during the 30-year armed struggle struggle against white rule.

Imbokodo should have enjoyed the support of ANC combatants in the guerrilla camps in the black-ruled frontline states. It did not, however, because of its inclination to assume that intellectual independence and lack of servility were the tell-tale signs of the presence of enemy agents intent on undermining and destroying the ANC.

The ANC commission of inquiry headed by James Stuart into the 1984 mutiny by ANC guerrillas in camps in Angola identified hatred for, and fear of, Imbokodo as an underlying cause of the rebellion. Stuart reported that the excesses of Imbokodo zealots "made it the most notorious and infamous department in the camps."

His commission was told of the torture and murder of cadres suspected of perfidious actions and even perfidious thoughts, judging from the detention for six weeks of Pallo Jordan, who is today the minister of arts and culture in the ANC government.

A December 1992 report by Amnesty International on the ANC camps chronicles "a long-standing pattern of torture, ill-treatment and execution of prisoners by the ANC security department." The worst excesses of Imbokodo occurred during the tenure of Mzwandile Piliso as its chief.

Piliso, however, was replaced in 1986 by a collective leadership, headed by Joe Nhlanhla. Zuma served as Nhlahla's deputy. He was charged with responsibility for intelligence, including the detection of enemy agents masquerading as ANC cadres.

Reports of torture by Imbokodo continued under the watch of Nhlahla and Zuma, so much so that in 1991 Nelson Mandela appointed an ANC commission of inquiry into the allegations under Thembile Skweyiya. The Skweyiya report, published in 1992, spoke of people being "brutalised and broken" by Imbokodo.

The pertinent point that emerges is that Zuma cannot escape political responsibility for these abuses of power from 1986 to 1993, when he was the second ranking ANC official in Imbokodo.

One of the most notorious abuses of power during Zuma's watch as the generalissimo of intelligence was the detention of Thami Zulu, the guerre de nom of Mzwakhe Ngwenya, who rose to become the ANC guerrilla commander on the Natal front.

The son of a Soweto school headmaster, Zulu was widely known as TZ. He was detained by Imbokodo in mid-1988 on suspicion of being an enemy agent after his guerrilla forces suffered a series of severe setbacks at the hands of government security forces. He was released more than a year later after been held in solitary confinement in Lusaka, Zambia.

An ANC commission of inquiry into TZ's death less than a week after his release in November 1989 noted that when he entered detention he was "a large well built slightly overweight person" and that when he came out he was "gaunt, frail and almost unrecognisable."

He died within a week of his release. A post mortem showed that his blood contained the diazinon, a deadly poison, which - for medico-chemical reasons - had to have been administered to him not more than two days before his death.

The ANC commissioners, noting that poison had been used in the past by apartheid assassins, concluded that "South African security" had to have been responsible if, as they suspected, TZ had been poisoned.

But, as Trewhela observed as far back as 1993 (see here) and again in a recent critique of Jeremy Gordin's Zuma - A Biography, no steps were taken by the commissioners or by Zuma as the chief of intelligence to identify the suspected agent or agents. As TZ had been under constant guard from his release to his death, it should not have been difficult to determine who had access to him and to interrogate them.

The failure to do so is doubly perplexing, as the ANC commission concluded in its report on Thami Zulu that "a check done on him in South Africa revealed no contacts with the police." They added: "He was by all accounts an outstanding military trainee and a forceful and highly respected camp commander."

The failure of either the ANC commission of inquiry or Imbokodo to  mount a thorough investigation to identify who had access to TZ during the last two days of his life cries out for an explanation, particularly as they suspected an enemy agent was responsible for poisoning him.

It positively solicits the thought that they were reluctant to do so because identification of the killer as a senor member of Imbokodo would have been extremely embarrassing to the ANC, and to Zuma as its chief of intelligence, especially if the killer was a mole planted by the apartheid regime and if TZ the innocent victim of false charges.

Zuma has never accounted for the death of Thami Zulu, not even to TZ's parents, whose anguished testimony to the Truth & Reconciliation Commissioner (TRC) gave him an opportunity to explain why a man who was hailed by his Umkhonto we Sizwe's commanders, Joe Modise and Chris Hani, as a hero of the struggle had died in suspicious circumstances after being released from detention.

Piers Pigou, director of the South African History Archives, has scoured the transcripts of the TRC, only to discover that they contain scant information on Zuma's role, if any, in Imbokodo's interrogation of ANC prisoners. Zuma's role and that of his cohorts in the shameful episode still have to be fully investigated.

Patrick Laurence is an independent political analyst

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