Political gunpowder, Treason and Plot

By Stephen Grootes 18 October 2011

There’s nothing our politicians like more than a good plot. It keeps everyone going for months, revs up their engines and gets the juices flowing. You would think they were journalists by how they react to the mere whiff of something exciting. So you can imagine how much fun we’re all going to have with the latest claim by President Jacob Zuma that there was a plot to kill him while he was Deputy President. The problem is, no one knows if what he said is really true. And that could be the difference between a careless remark, and outright lying. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

“Remember remember the fifth of November,

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

I see no reason why gunpowder, treason,

Should ever be forgot”

English Nursery Rhyme commemorating the Guy Fawkes Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. The date, in case you’ve forgotten, was the 5th of November.

Over the weekend President Jacob Zuma spoke at the funeral of one of his bodyguards. Patrick Maphumulo died last week from an unspecified illness (although it’s thought it may have been malaria). At the ceremony, Zuma told mourners, in Zulu, about Maphumulo:

“He and some in the bodyguards team showed deep knowledge of politics. They refused to give information about my movements when their superiors wanted it.”

“For refusing to be coerced, they were ostracised by their seniors by being refused some privileges enjoyed by their colleagues, but they did not budge.”

“At some stage it was enquired how many firearms there were in my guards’ team as they intended attacking and wiping out all the guards and the deputy [president].”

Now the Presidency says that Zuma will not give any further details because this plot is “water under the bridge”. Nice try Mac. 

It’s quite a claim. First off, it would seem to indicate that Zuma is pointing to someone who had much power in government, someone who didn’t want him around, someone who felt threatened by him. Any guesses? But before the name “Thabo” escapes your lips, we need to look at the timelines here. Zuma was Deputy President from the 1999 elections until being “relieved of his duties” by Mbeki in 2005, following the conviction of Schabir Shaik. Mbeki was the man who brought him into national government from the provinces (although he had been the ANC’s national chair). They had been close friends for much of their history before that. So the date on which this happened is important. It’s unlikely that Mbeki was really that threatened by Zuma until 2004 or 2005. So there’s not much of a window in which this could have happened.

But there is a chance this had nothing to do with national politics at all, and everything to do with what was our political hotspot, KwaZulu-Natal. As University of Johannesburg Professor Adam Habib pointed out in an interview with Eyewitness News, there was a time when any threat to Zuma’s life could have come from the violence in the province. So we need to look at what Zuma was doing in 1999 or 2000. He was playing a pivotal role in calming down the tensions between the IFP and the ANC, as the ANC’s most senior Zulu leader. Some of the violence was related to the taxi industry. And some of the people in that little lot had about as much respect for human life as your average taxi driver does now. So there could be something to that.

Having said all of that, there is another, more intriguing thought. That this didn’t really happen at all.

The former head of the Presidency in the ANC, Smuts Ngonyama, says he has never heard of this. If something like this had happened, it would seem likely that he would know. The position he held doesn’t exist anymore, but back when Zuma was Deputy President, it was quite important. Ngonyama was the man who was more the face of the ANC than Kgalema Motlanthe was as secretary-general. He did the day to day running of the organisation. So for this to have happened and for him to be out of the loop is unlikely.

But he does have his own agenda. He got burnt, badly, at Polokwane; he was hugely close to Mbeki and so would want to protect him, and, let’s face it, he’s never been a Zuma fan. So we have to take what he says with a pinch of salt.

But Zuma does have a bit of form on issues like this. Just a couple of weeks before Polokwane, there was a claim that a man in Durban had been paid a million bucks to take him out. There was nothing substantial in it and no charges were ever laid. One got the feeling it was a very amateur attempt at trying to drum up more sympathy for him. Of course at the time, there was the strong claim that Zuma was the victim of a political conspiracy and the abuse of state organs (which he failed to publicly substantiate at the time, but he was proven partly right by the Nicolson Ruling in 2008).

The problem, of course, is that Zuma is not going to give any more information about what actually happened. This is hugely irresponsible. We’ve got a sitting President, claiming that someone tried to kill him, presumably for political reasons, and then a refusal to explain what actually happened. So we’re left to speculate. Was it Mbeki? Was it a taxi-driver? A right-winger? All of those are damaging thoughts. In our current political playing field, any of Zuma’s enemies, a Young Lion say, could pick up on this and run with it big time. It’s the easiest thing in the world to start a rumour, to hint at something. It doesn’t have to be true; it just has to plausible and damaging. And if pressed for more, they can just say, “Well, he must explain, he started this”.

This is the kind of stupid avoidable mistake that Zuma should not be making. He wasn’t pushed into it, there was no urgent political reason for him to say this. It’s nice to be able to comfort a family, but the political heat is not worth it. And there are plenty of other things Zuma could say. Instead he goes and gives his enemies a free gift. And excites everyone in the political ferment.

So what then is the real reason? We’re reminded very much of something former Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils said two weeks ago. In a comment that seems more important now than when he said it, he remarked that “there is a culture of paranoia in our intelligence agencies. And that can be dangerous to our young democracy”. Kasrils knows a lot about the business of intelligence. So does Zuma. In their times, they were both in charge of Intelligence for the ANC. And once you’ve entered that world, it can be very hard to get out of it.

Being in the charge of the ANC is not an easy job. There really are people out to get you. So you’re not always being paranoid. But one has to ask what kind of paranoia has taken hold of Zuma that he either felt the need to talk about something that happened deep in the past, or that wasn’t actually what he said it was, or didn’t happen at all. Either way, the answer it not good. It indicates that he himself is worried about his life post-Mangaung. Or he’s had to dust off the old conspiracy theory tactic to present himself as a political victim in the fervent hope that it would win him sympathy and support among the ANC rank and file. Again.

The worst part of it is that he didn’t have to make the remark at all. Perhaps the stress is beginning to tell. DM



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