South Africa

Zuma the Houdini: No smoking gun, no fingerprints

By Ranjeni Munusamy 4 October 2013

There was a bout of excitement on social media and news bulletins on Thursday morning after Beeld newspaper revealed that a senior air force official had implicated President Jacob Zuma in the landing of a jet carrying guests of the Gupta family at the Waterkloof Air Force Base. The Democratic Alliance reacted promptly to call for a fresh round of investigations to probe whether Zuma had a direct hand in the scandal. But like so many times before, it is difficult to pin Zuma down with incriminating evidence. Many have tried, no one has succeeded so far. That’s because Zuma always covers his own tracks. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

During the 1990s, there were legendary stories about the returning ANC exiles and their heroic encounters to outsmart the Apartheid government. Some of these stories were about Jacob Zuma, who at various stages was involved in the ANC’s underground machinery in Swaziland, then Mozambique and later as chief of intelligence at the ANC head office in Lusaka.

At an ANC social gathering in Durban, the host of the party was telling a story about how Zuma once sneaked into South Africa and casually sat down next to a security branch policeman who had been looking for him. Because Zuma was so brazen, the policeman did not notice that it was him. The host of the party was telling the story in order to introduce Zuma, who was to speak next.

Zuma chuckled along with the crowd, but when his turn came to speak, he changed the subject. This was a story he could have dined out on for years to come, but he chose not to. In fact, Zuma rarely, if ever, talks about his own deeds and operations in the ANC. He loves, however, to tell tales about other heroic leaders of the ANC and the shared experiences in exile. It is quite curious that years after the end of Apartheid, Zuma’s default reaction is to protect information about himself and those who worked with him.

It is why there is so little documented information about Zuma and his role in the liberation struggle. It is also why it has been so difficult to pin him down on the litany of allegations against him in recent years. If there is something sensitive that Zuma is dealing with, there will be no paper trail – at least not anything that he himself would have written down.

In the corruption case against Zuma, the top of the evidence pile was the famous encrypted fax written by Alain Thetard of the French arms company previously known as Thint and Schabir Shaik’s record of funds he gave to Zuma. Zuma, however, made no record of any deal between the three of them.

Opposition parties and the media have similarly been searching for a paper trail which implicates Zuma directly in the excessive state spending on security upgrades at his Nkandla home. It would stand to reason that work done at the president’s private home must have had Zuma’s consent or involvement. But so far, all that has been produced to show that Zuma was informed about the upgrades is a letter addressed to him, and signed by the then Public Works Minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde and other officials of the department on 5 November 2010.

The letter titled “Nkandla: security installations at the private residence of his excellency President Jacob Zuma” states “Having assumed duty as the minister of public works on the 1 November 2010, I have taken the view that it is prudent to update you on the progress of the above prestige project.”

But Zuma and the government have, however, consistently denied that he had input on the upgrades. The hunt is still on for the smoking gun to show that he did, but it is unlikely that any documentary evidence or testimony to this effect can be produced.

In August the Sunday Times ran a lead story based on an interview with the ousted leader of the Central African Republic (CAR) Francois Bozize. Since the deaths of 15 South Africa soldiers during combat in that country in March, there had been controversy about why SA troops were deployed to the CAR and the nature of their mission.

The Sunday Times tracked down Bozize holed up in Paris possibly to see whether the deposed leader would provide a narrative different to that of the South African government and showing that Zuma had another agenda when he deployed the troops. But all Bozize was able to say was that Zuma had promised to send more troops to Bangui and as a result of him reneging, there was a coup.

Again, no smoking gun.

When dealing with political opponents, it is similarly difficult to detect Zuma’s direct hand. History will show that in the build-up to the recall of Thabo Mbeki, it was Zuma who tried to stop it when he said there was no point beating a “dead snake”. Although the recall was Zuma’s final triumph over Mbeki, there is nobody in the ANC or elsewhere who would be able to say the idea came from Zuma. In fact, nobody knows for sure where the idea germinated before it was blurted out by former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.

Malema blames his own downfall on Zuma, claiming the president engineered his disciplinary charges and eventual suspension from the ANC. Again, no proof of this. It’s supposition often repeated by Malema and his supporters, which Zuma no longer bothers to deny. There is sufficient evidence to show Malema dug his own grave and nothing can be produced to suggest that his demise was plotted elsewhere.

With all that has gone before, it is surprising that some people think that they will find Zuma’s fingerprints on the Gupta plane landing at Waterkloof Air Force Base. Beeld reported that Lieutenant Colonel Christine Anderson, one of five members of the South African National Defence Force charged before a military court in connection with the landing of the jet carrying Gupta wedding guests, confirmed in a sworn affidavit that the “Number One” referred to in relation with the incident was indeed Zuma.

Bruce Koloane, at the time chief of state protocol, allegedly claimed that instructions for the private plane to be allowed to land at the air base had come from “Number One”.

According to Beeld, Anderson said in her affidavit: “On or about 17 April 2013, Mr Koloane phoned me and he informed me that he had returned from the president and that the president wanted to know ‘if everything is still on track for the flight’.

“I informed him [Koloane] that we were awaiting the overflight clearance and once this was received, we would be able to finalise the movements of the passengers.”

Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said there was “no truth” in the allegation in Anderson’s affidavit. “It is not based on fact, it is based on hearsay,” Maharaj said.

Government spokesmen also responded saying the state task team of directors-general which investigated the matter had already established that the president’s name had been dropped so there was nothing new to the claim.

In response to the story, and resultant surge on social media, the Democratic Alliance’s parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said she would take “a number of immediate steps to ensure that President Zuma answers for fresh allegations”. These include tabling a draft resolution in Parliament requesting the establishment of a special ad hoc committee to investigate the matter, submitting a question for oral response to the president and asking Public Protector Thuli Madonsela to investigate the president’s involvement.

But the ANC said it would “not allow Parliament to be dragged into what is clearly a figment of one MP’s overzealous imagination”, meaning it will block Mazibuko’s motion for an ad hoc committee investigation.

There have been suggestions by Anderson’s representative Pikkie Greef that Zuma could be subpoenaed to the military court to respond to the allegation that Koloane was acting on his instruction.

This is unlikely to happen. The military court would probably balk at the idea of the state president appearing before it. Besides, there is no confirmatory affidavit from Koloane to elevate Anderson’s claim beyond hearsay. Koloane has already taken the hit for the incident and has been demoted. Thanks to his cooperation and silence, he still has a job in the state.

Whether or not there was a discussion between Koloane and Zuma will be virtually impossible to prove. Anderson’s representatives could ask for the president’s diary to be subpoenaed but it is unlikely that an official meeting between the two had been scheduled to discuss the plane landing. There might even want to check the visitor’s book at the presidency, but even if there is an entry for B Koloane, there are over 300 staff members in the presidency. There is no way of showing that Koloane had been there to see Zuma.

The fact is, unless Koloane speaks up, all this would be a wild goose chase. There is never going to be a record of a conversation which says “Bruce, make sure my friends’ plane at Waterkloof or else…” It does not exist. It is simply not Zuma’s modus operandi.

President Jacob Zuma lives by the principle of plausible deniability and information on a need to know basis. If there is anything that occurs that could result in a backlash, Zuma’s fingerprints will not be detectable. Apart from the rape trial, when there was no way to deny the sexual encounter with the complainant, it has been impossible to hold Zuma answerable for any of the allegations against him.

Every now and then, the history produces a resilient, hard-wearing leader whose street-smarts outstrip anything anyone from the same generation can offer; Zuma is such a leader. He rose to the nation’s top job without being seen as openly ambitious, he controls the ANC strongly without having to raise his voice and he commands an army of “friends” without having to get his hands dirty. He gets his way but leaves no trace. And while it is not impossible that the “smoking gun” linking him directly to any of scandals may finally emerge, it still remains an unlikely prospect. Many have tried, but Zuma is still standing. DM

Photo: Jacob Zuma as the great escape artist Harry Houdini


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