The Poisoners: A review

Andrew Donaldson writes on Imraan Coovadia's startling new history of this practice and perceptions around it


IN November 2004, Peggy Nkonyeni, a member of the KwaZulu-Natal legislature, was appointed the province’s MEC for health. Among her official duties in this position was the attendance at a dinner to celebrate the opening of a new children’s clinic in Durban. 

According to a startling new history by Imraan Coovadia, this was an occasion of some distress for Nkonyeni. Protocol had been breached: a food taster had not been laid on for the MEC, and she would not touch any dish before it had been first checked by a taster. Her staff were taken aback that this “necessary service” had not been provided. Other guests were nonplussed at her insistence on such a provision. 

The MEC’s security detail, however, soon solved the problem of this necessary testing for poison: they rounded up street children who had been begging outside the venue and got them to taste Nkonyeni’s food.

The incident may be anecdotal; Coovadia was told of it by his father, a renowned paediatrician [1] who was at the dinner. But given what is unsparingly and elegantly detailed in The Poisoners: On South Africa’s Toxic Past 1973–2020 (Umuzi/Penguin Random House), it has a verisimilitude that is in keeping with the scholarly, often mordant tenor of this engrossing research.

Coovadia cites Nkonyeni as “in some ways the very cause” of his investigation; hers, he says, was a “secret world of poison and death, coupled with self-protection and enrichment”. 

Jacob Zuma is a central figure in this shadowy realm. The former president looms large in these pages. Would-be assassins, he has claimed over the years, have poisoned him on three separate occasions. The culprits, his allies say, are an alliance that included one of his wives, his opponents in the ANC and, perhaps mindful of the reliable suspicions and antagonisms of the Cold War era, those in “foreign intelligence agencies”. 

There is, of course, a vagueness to these claims, perhaps best demonstrated by the medical note intended to explain Zuma’s absence from his Pietermaritzburg High Court corruption trial in February last year. The diagnosis was “unusually generic”: “In the space provided to describe his patient’s ‘medical condition’, [Zuma’s physician] has simply written ‘medical condition’.” 

Zuma’s supporters argue that this “vague language” was necessary to protect his privacy; he had been poisoned, they said, and he had been forced to seek medical treatment in Cuba. (As the late Christopher Hitchens once noted, “You’re a despot if you can make your subjects feel sorry for you.”)

Good doctors are, of course, in no short supply in South Africa, and the decision to seek help in Havana seems to indicate a mounting paranoia. And herein lay a paradox: despite having captured and bent entirely to their will all the institutes of state security, Zuma and his cabal were impressing upon their followers that they were in great peril; danger was everywhere, both within the ANC and without. 

This obsession with political mortality, Coovadia reminds us, was especially evident during Zuma’s second term of office. He fell ill in June 2014. Two months later, while “very sick” on a state visit to the US, doctors there reportedly told him he was the victim of a commensal crime; the culprit was someone who ate with him or had access to his food. Distrusting the Americans, Zuma flew to Moscow where Russian doctors confirmed the Americans’ diagnosis. Suspicion duly fell on his estranged fourth wife, Nompumelelo Ntuli, who was unceremoniously banished from Nkandla.

Three years later, Zuma told ANC cadres: “I was poisoned and almost died just because South Africa joined BRICS.” His plans for “radical economic transformation” had prompted the attack. In November that year, he told ANN7: “I was poisoned, some people wanted me dead, indeed it was quite a strong poison and I did go through a challenging time.”

“The sense of an indeterminate but lethal hostility in political life was intensified by the fact that Zuma … chose not to name his enemies,” Coovadia writes. “They were concealed behind a pronoun, the ‘they’ who ruled the world behind the facade of democracy: ‘They said I was going to destroy the country.’”

Zuma laid it on thick when it came to describing his ordeal. “I nearly died,” he said, “because they did poison me. They managed to find someone close to and I know it. I was dead. They don’t believe how I survived … Not one dose, because the person who was poisoning me was so innocent, so close. Three doses. Even scientists can’t believe why I did not die.” 

This was not a threat that he alone faced; an attempt on his life amounted to the attempted murder of the movement. “I always say when I die, and I nearly died because they did poison me, they managed to find someone close to me and I know it … Our revolution is under attack.”

Years earlier, the “revolution” did indeed face a dire threat. But it was a largely internal one. The ANC was already in disarray when, in 1988, Zuma was appointed deputy director of Mbokodo, the organisation in charge of security at Umkhonto we Sizwe’s training camps in southern Africa. Suspicion of poisoners and betrayal were rife, and resulted in the beatings, torture and executions of trainees. 

No medical report of Zuma’s poisoning was ever produced. But none was needed in order to circulate the rumours he had fostered. According to Robert Thornton, one of several anthropologists who appear in Coovadia’s book, “the power of poison is also about the power of the person who administers the poison and, equally, about the power of a poisoning accusation … In witchcraft [and poisoning] everyone is vulnerable to everyone else.”

Witchcraft is a troubling area of study for anthropologists, especially in modern-day South Africa. There is a temptation, as Jeremy Harding puts it, to regard such work as “[telling] us that fledgling democratic institutions post-apartheid are a thin cladding on the edifice of primitive sensibility”.[2]

“Poison,” Coovadia writes, “is inconsequential in a rich country.” The US, he says, records on average about ten cases of murder by poisoning out of 20 000 homicides. “In South Africa, by contrast, the use of traditional medicine causes high levels of accidental poisoning, but explicit poisoning is also part of our way of life.” Mention is made of Aldicarb, for example. This is a freely available powder known as “Two Step” as any animal that ingests it takes two steps and dies. It’s estimated that hundreds of dogs are regularly poisoned with Aldicarb by burglars.

This wholesale killing of dogs calls to mind the indiscriminate, almost genocidal use of poisons to shore up the “small white civilisations” of southern Africa, a toxic strain that spread from the Portuguese colonies to Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and on to South Africa. 

Consider, for example, the relationship between the anatomist Dr Robert Symington and former Rhodesian Central Intelligence Organisation assassin Alan “Taffy” Brice. Here was a friendship built on a mutual interest in poison — and a plot, in the last throes of the Rhodesian war, to kill Robert Mugabe. Handing a phial of thallium to Brice, Symington asked him, “This chap you are going to kill. Is he a black or a white? … [because] it matters with some poisons.”

“There was no poison that distinguished between black and white,” Coovadia writes, “although many, as it turned out, dreamed of inventing one. What many whites could not accept was that the war was lost, which was something that could not be changed by the killing of Mugabe. And yet the two men were looking into the mirror of black and white in which good and evil were reversed.” 

Such men, “members of a nearly invisible fraternity who took a particular interest in poisoning”, would shape the modern history of the region. Brice would later reveal the inner workings of the CIO, an organisation retained by the newly-independent Zimbabwe, as well as the work done for, among others, SA’s Bureau of State Security, the Civil Cooperation Bureau and Project Coast, the biological weapons programme headed by Wouter Basson, the so-called “Doctor of Death”. Their work was diabolical, to say the least.

A mass field programme of systemic poisoning was adopted in the Rhodesian bush war. Thousands died as a result; in the first half of 1977, for example, an estimated 800 guerrillas were killed by poisoning alone. “Some months saw more deaths by poison than in firefights,” Coovadia notes, “proportionately the most successful such campaign in history.”

Civilians were greatly endangered by such operations as contaminated tins of food and medicines found their way to women, children and the elderly. Villagers who unwittingly passed on such items to the guerrillas were later severely punished, sometimes as “witches”. The deaths by poison would however continue over time, which led to more witch hunts by guerrillas and yet more killing of suspected poisoners.

These events were felt in the cities. Starting in 1977, doctors in Bulawayo and Salisbury noted a steep rise in poisonings. Unusually, many patients were readmitted to hospital soon after their discharge. Upon investigation, their clothing was found to have been saturated with parathion, an extremely toxic poison that could be transmitted through dermal contact. An attempt to publish an article, “The Strange Case of the Poisoned Underwear”, in the South African Journal of Medicine was quashed by the Rhodesian censors.

A similar method of despatch was later used on SA Council of Churches leader Frank Chikane in 1989. Eugene de Kock, assassin and commander of C10, the SAP’s notorious counter-insurgency unit, was reportedly told the attempt on Chikane’s life had failed as “the operator had dabbed the poisons on … five pairs of underpants, instead of … one pair”.

By then, of course, Rhodesia had long since fallen. But the “politically potent” memories of poisoning lingered on in Zimbabwe. At the time of the seizure of white farms, Robert Mugabe warned that their owners might use anthrax on the invaders. White South Africans across the border were said to be assisting in the preparations for this attack. Later, it would be the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and the white farmers who supported the party who were accused of preparing for an anthrax attack.

In 2005, the Zanu-PF government exhumed bodies from mass graves in disused mines around Mount Darwin. Local children and their teachers were brought to view the remains, represented as victims of mass poisonings, in order to “appreciate how evil whites are”. Opposition politicians reached a different conclusion, arguing the exhumations were a propaganda stunt ahead of elections: “These bodies look fresh … Those remains are of MDC members who were killed by Zanu-PF activists beginning in 2000.” 

The years passed, and Mugabe’s own political mortality became evident, prompting the country’s 2017 succession crisis. As vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa emerged as favourite to lead the country, he too was poisoned and was airlifted to South Africa for treatment. Among other possible culprits, suspicion fell on Grace Mugabe. In one of his first interviews as president, Mnangagwa told the Financial Times: “I suspect. I suspect as to who did it. There are still good friends of mine. I now suspect that they now know that I know. They now know that I know.”[3]

Coovadia also deals with the shocking scandal in the late 1990s surrounding the fake HIV treatment, Virodene — a poison that had been turned supposed cure and, “as would become clear later through [Thabo] Mbeki’s actions as president, had inadvertently turned a real cure, nevirapine, into a supposed poison”. As the medical fraternity weighed in against the quackery and government’s Aids denialism, the government, in turn, accused the scientists of poisoning the electorate against the ruling party. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, then health minister, told Parliament that the white opposition “hates ANC supporters. If they had their way we would all die of Aids.” 

As it is, hundreds of thousands of ordinary South Africans did just that.

* * * * * 

“We’re all going to die one by one,” Jacob Zuma is quoted as saying in the closing pages of The Poisoners. He was speaking at the September 2019 funeral of the corrupt businessman Gavin Watson. [4] “Some of the comrades who are being taken away are comrades who were very close to me in terms of the work and understand where we come from and where we’re going. I have been poisoned myself.”

But, as Coovadia points out, the former president would not suffer this fate alone. “He had sponsored, as if by bushy telegraph, an epidemic of poisoning accusations throughout the political system produced by members of his besieged faction.”

The public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane was one such person. In July 2019, she claimed there was a plot to eliminate her. “I must watch what I eat,” she said. Another crony, former state security minister Bongani Bongo, claimed on television that he fell gravely ill after meeting Pravin Gordhan. “I was given poison,” he said. “I was going to finalise my treatment in Cuba.” Said treatment was abandoned when he was forced to return to South Africa to face corruption charges. Deputy president David Mabuza was another who claimed he’d been poisoned by his enemies, and was rushed off to Moscow for treatment. 

There were others, like Chris Ackeer, an aide said to be Ace Magashule’s right-hand man in Bloemfontein. He believed he was poisoned in March 2019. One official was impressed with his speedy recovery: “This poisoning was very quick … He’s lucky … here in the Free State no-one survives poisoning.” 

Another Free State official who wasn’t as lucky was Magashule’s associate, Sandile Msibi, a man said to have plundered millions from provincial authorities and was allegedly assassinated because he had outlived his usefulness. At the time of his death, he was a person of some interest to the Hawks.

“In almost every case,” Coovadia writes, “the politicians who told stories of poisoning, or believed the they had themselves been poisoned, belonged to the faction headed by Zuma and Magashule. Their accusations seemed to be covert (and at times overt) attacks on the Ramaphosa faction.”

Although it is too early to know for sure, Coovadia suggests it is likely that the Covid-19 pandemic will bring an end to both the “poisoning panic” and the viability of the Zuma faction, which is now “subject for the first time to investigation and prosecution”. He adds:

“For almost half a century, from 1973 to 2020, political poisoning, and the stories South Africans imagined and circulated about being poisoned, were ways in which the hostility and distrust embedded in our society and its neighbours were expressed. By the standards of modern war the casualties of killing by poison in southern Africa were moderate, but the paranoia sown in the targets of Symington and Basson is imprinted in the conspiratorial culture of the party organisations which came to rule South Africa and Zimbabwe. That may be the greatest cost.”

“These almost forgotten victims of these ruling parties include the tens of thousands killed in Matabeleland between 1983 and 1987, the hundreds of thousands condemned to infection and death, long with their dependants sentenced to penury and orphanhood, by the government of Thabo Mbeki between 2000 and 2005, and the many millions who suffer and will suffer for decades to come from the purposeful destruction of South Africa’s economic and political institutions under Jacob Zuma, protected at every turn by the African National Congress until the final months of his second term in office…”

Poisoning and rumours of poisoning may or may not have been the decisive causes of these “great violations of trust”, but they were contributing factors. They stand, Coovadia says, as a rare validated lesson of history: that human beings greatly harm one another when they “array themselves into inimical groups and work in secret with forbidden tools”. In the process they lose understanding of elemental good and evil.



[1] A 2009 profile in The Lancet describes Professor Hoosen “Jerry” Coovadia a “giant of medicine in South Africa” who established himself as a top paediatrician and then became an international authority on HIV/AIDS, especially mother-to-child transmission. As such, the journal noted, he incurred the wrath of Thabo Mbeki’s government by campaigning for the rollout of antiretroviral therapy. In 2013, he received the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, which honours those whose actions, often taken at significant personal cost, have served to foster scientific freedom and increased scientific awareness at a global level.

[2] Harding, a contributing editor at the London Review of Books, was commenting on anthropologist Isak Niehaus’s 2012 monograph, Witchcraft and a Life in the New South Africa (Cambridge). Niehaus, he says, is “careful” in not discussing “primitive” sensibilities. “And he avoids the suggestion of a purely ‘African’ story by citing fieldwork in different parts of the world – rural France, for instance – where the possibility of a curse, or a spell, can take shape when farmers have a run of bad luck.” 

Yet the point is made that the “precariousness of life in South Africa has done wonders for witchcraft”. (Consider, for example, the recent case of a Witbank teenager with albinism who was murdered so her body parts could be used for ritual “cleansing”.) Niehaus, Harding says, “lists lotions, potions, poisons, remedies, spells and counter-spells in the measured tones of an apothecary, and writes coolly about zombies and other sorcerers’ familiars – hyenas, cats, baboons, owls, bats, frogs, snakes – recruited by witches to destabilise their rivals. The result is extraordinary and often depressing.”

[3] In June 2019, this story changed dramatically, and it was now claimed that reports of his poisoning were an elaborate ploy to whisk Mnangagwa out of the country so he could meet with, among others, Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa.

[4] Watson reportedly died after driving at high speed into a concrete pillar near OR Tambo Airport. A private pathology report, requested by the family, later found that he was dead at the time of the accident. Speculation of foul play remains, though current reports do not rule out natural causes.