South Africa

South Africa

Coming soon to a Court near you: the Zuma Spy Tapes. Again. And again. And again.

Coming soon to a Court near you: the Zuma Spy Tapes. Again. And again. And again.

On Thursday night, news trickled through that President Jacob Zuma was going to appeal the verdict in the Zuma Spy Tapes case. He'd decided that he was not at this stage going to allow the DA access to the tapes, and thus the official papers had been lodged saying he would appeal. In a case that has been running for as long as this one, this was not unexpected, and isn't really a big move. We're used to Zuma appealing everything. But so much lies within this decision, that it is in fact hugely significant. In its own way, it's a major turning point. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The Zuma Spy Tapes saga has now gone for so long, that it has, if you believe everything you read, spawned its own wikipedia page. So we’ll go for the tweet-length version here. As far as possible, at any rate.

In 2009, the National Prosecuting Authority said it was withdrawing corruption charges against Zuma, because it now had proof that he was the victim of a political conspiracy. That proof, it said, was contained in a series of recordings between Bulelani Ngcuka (who was a previous head of the NPA) and the then Scorpions boss Leonard McCarthy. As part of its public justification for this decision, it released part of the transcript of a conversation, in which the two men discussed when to charge Zuma with corruption. As Ngcuka didn’t work for the NPA at the time, he had no reason to be involved in the decision. And because of that, McCarthy should not even have taken his call.

The rest, as they say, is sordid history. The charges disappeared, three weeks later the ANC won the 2009 elections, and couple of weeks after that Zuma became president.


Except that no one outside the ANC really believes, for a moment, that it could possibly be that simple. Nothing, when it comes to corruption, Schabir Shaik, Zuma, Thabo Mbeki, the NPA and the ANC has ever been that simple. So, the DA, scenting blood in the water, and a chance to give the ANC a good old-fashioned kick in the teeth, went to court, to ask a judge to review that decision.

To do that, they need what’s called the “record of decision”, all the correspondence and  information that used when making that decision. And thus, on the DA’s version, the Zuma Spy Tapes fall squarely into the definition of “record of decision”. Of course, Zuma’s lawyers have a contrary view, and thus have opposed that all they way down the line.

It’s pretty easy to get bogged down in legal detail here. Some of it’s fun, if you humming Dolores, Delict, Mens Rea to yourself. Most of it is not. But the politics is really where the mess goes from merely rotten, to simply pestilential.

From the beginning of the corruption rumours around Zuma, he’s claimed political conspiracy. At first, members of the fourth estate, like myself, poo-pooed that idea. Really? By whom? Mbeki would never do that kind of thing.

Obviously, we were wrong. There was clearly something completely rotten in the state of Mbeki at the time, and if he was not personally interfering in these things, then people he appointed were.

So then comes the claim from the Zuma side: the only way to solve this political problem is politically. We must take it out of the legal domain, because it has nothing to do with the law. That, of course, is patent nonsense. Anyone who believes that needs to grow up. If someone breaks the law, and the investigators break the law while looking into it, that doesn’t make the first person innocent. And that surely can’t mean that no further investigation can be done. And it certainly does not mean that the situation cannot be placed in front of a judge to make a decision. Rather than what happened here, which is that the NPA itself decided not to continue.

But then we need to remember how Zuma fought back. Somehow, his attorney, Michael Hulley, magically came to hear of the existence of the tapes of these conversations. And then told the NPA, who confirmed their existence.

How did this happen? Was he just having his routine perambulation around the outskirts of Durban? Did he trip over a flash drive? Was there a secret note hidden in the mirror of a public facility? Did he do what any normal person does when they face a difficult problem – Google “how can I get my client off”?

No. Someone who likes Zuma gave the recordings to him. Someone within the National Intelligence Agency, who supported Zuma but not Mbeki, decided to intervene. In other words, we had a spy making a decisive intervention that completely changed the course of our history. Not an elected official, mind you, not even an appointed one. Someone, somewhere, who decided that for whatever reason, they could not stand by and simply let JZ go down.

Immediately one thinks of someone who would benefit from Zuma becoming president. It’s a wide pool. But Richard Mdluli has certainly done rather well lately. Zuma’s supporters could immediately say that we can not ascribe that simple a motive to the person who leaked the tapes. What if they just saw a person being wronged, and alerted that person? It’s what you would want everyone to do, right?

But if that were the case, what could possibly be wrong with identifying that person? And if you can’t, because he or she is a spy, you could still explain more about how all of this happened, the exact circumstances, the people around that person, and you could have all the senior officials involved, who are publicly known, to corroborate it all.

So it’s not that.

Zuma will claim that he has the legal right to appeal this decision. Legally that’s correct. But he does not have a right to not be judged for doing that, in the court of public opinion. If there was nothing to hide, he would not be hiding the tapes. It really is that simple. Anything else is simply nonsense.

Don’t forget, the tapes help Zuma. They are to his advantage, not his disadvantage.

So why not release them?

Is it because the tapes do not clear him, the transcripts we were given are out of context, there is no legally justifiable reason to withdraw the charges, and the president should be in the dock right now?

Is it because the tapes also contain something else, something so shocking it would damage the political fabric of this country? Maybe at the time, but surely not now. Just about everyone involved in the NPA then has moved on with their lives, and so has the country. What was shocking then is simply old history now. So it’s not that.

Is it because releasing the tapes would somehow reveal the identity of the person who gave them to Zuma? An intriguing possibility.

Is it because Zuma is just delaying things anyway, because he wants to postpone the DA’s entire action? Perhaps that’s part of it. Who would want to go through all of that now, instead of just putting it off until halfway through the second term?

All of these options point to one unavoidable outcome. Jacob Zuma fears the tapes. He does not want them released. And he is prepared to drag his party, himself, and the country through the legal mud to keep them from being published.

Whatever the precise truth of the tapes’ contents may be, the simple, insignificant legal act of lodging this appeal shows us that Zuma maybe technically a president of the country, but leader he is not. He knows it. We know it. DM

Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He’s been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

Photo: 17 December 2012, ANC 53rd Conference, Mangaung. President Jacob Zuma at the party’s natonal elective conference. Photo Greg Nicolson/NewsFire


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.