South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: Shakespeare on steroids – why we should care about alleged plot to poison President Zuma

Op-Ed: Shakespeare on steroids – why we should care about alleged plot to poison President Zuma

While it might be tempting to dismiss or brush it off as tacky tabloid gossip, weekend reports that one of President Jacob Zuma’s wives has been suspected of trying to poison him should provide us with a moment’s pause to contemplate the political crisis this supposed alleged assassination attempt might have, or perhaps should have, triggered. Instead of shrouding the event in denials and secrecy, the Presidency should take citizens into its confidence and come clean. By MARIANNE THAMM.

It is the stuff of Shakespearean drama. Well at least Shakespeare on steroids set against the backdrop of rural KwaZulu-Natal.

A powerful leader with several wives, some two-dozen children and who sits at the centre of a vast and powerful network of political patronage in one of the richest countries in Africa mysteriously falls ill. So ill, the story goes, that at some point he becomes disorientated and begins to speak of his late mother as if she were still alive. (Well, at least he didn’t hallucinate that Thabo Mbeki was still president.)

The country’s citizens watch him fade away and mutter and wonder what ails him. Making his December 2014 Christmas address the president battles to speak, gasping for air.

Watch: President Zuma’s 2015 address


He is gaunt and sickly. He looks old, weak and tired. Ah, it is nothing, say the spin doctors. Merely fatigue from kissing too many babies and shaking hands out on the election stump. It is diabetes, say some; the side effects of incorrect medication, say others. It is heart disease or maybe even something else, much more sinister, whisper some citizens. But the President, we are assured, is in good hands, surrounded 24/7 by a dedicated medical team.

This is a president who heads the country’s largest political party, one which governs by majority and which has been plagued for years by cloak-and-dagger espionage and intrigue as political rivals have vied for the top job. This is a leader steeped also for most of his life in the world of intelligence and counter-intelligence. A leader surrounded by a network of spies whose job it is to protect him. A leader encased by a 24/7 VIP security entourage that has vacuumed up an estimated R430 million during his first five-year term of office and whose controversial security upgrades to his private home cost R246 million.

With so much money, time and energy invested in warding off a threat from without, who would have thunk that the danger lurked right under there under the president’s nose, in a plate of freshly prepared food, cooked in the kitchen of his own household, supposedly by one of his very own wives.

In that sense, and if the allegations are true, President Zuma would find himself among the many, many (mostly female) South Africans who die at the hands of an intimate partner. A sort of perverse riff on the “man of the people” legend that trails the president. If he had (God forbid) died as a result of the poisoning, he would have been just like one of us.

For those of you who might have missed the sensational headlines, the news (or should we say still the unsubstantiated rumour) is that President Jacob Zuma’s fourth wife (well, technically his second), Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma, has been suspected of poisoning him and has been banned forthwith from the House of Nkandla.

This after the plot was uncovered during the president’s visit to the United States in June last year two months after he had been hospitalised in South Africa for ill health. The president, or so the report goes, “did not trust the Americans” and went to Russia for a second opinion where doctors there confirmed what their American counterparts had diagnosed – the president had indeed been poisoned.

It was after this shocking revelation that Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma, whom the president married in a traditional ceremony in 2008 after bearing the president two more sons to add to his large family, was asked to move out of the president’s home and was dropped from his official schedule.

During the 2008 ceremony MaNtuli (as she is affectionately known) was photographed wielding a large panga. It is customary for Zulu brides to carry a miniature knife during the wedding ceremony. If the marriage has not been consummated the knife is pointed upwards to symbolise her virginity. If it has, the knife will be pointed down. MaNtuli’s outsize panga was directed earthwards.

But the president and MaNtuli’s union had been troubled for some time, though. In 2009 allegations of an affair surfaced, as well as charges that her bodyguard, Phinda Thomo, had fathered her third child. In 2010 she was fined a goat for her misbehaviour. In that same year, it is reported MaNtuli snubbed the wedding ceremony of the president to Thobeka Madiba. Then last year another unsavoury story surfaced about her affair with Thomo and a blackmailing Tanzanian national who was later found guilty of crimen injuria. With so much household drama, one wonders where the president finds time to focus on affairs of state.

Co-incidentally, in February last year, the Daily Maverick visited Nkandla in the run up to the May elections. During a recon of the president’s souped-up compound, we noticed that almost all of the security cameras mounted on the fence surrounding Nxamalala (the location of the president’s home) faced inwards. Perhaps that is why we were able to drive right up to and around a National Key Point without being detected or intercepted by security.

Security cameras facing inwards

Photo: Security cameras facing inwards at the President Zuma’s compound (Marianne Thamm)

Surely, we wondered, if the president were under threat from the outside, the cameras would be used to monitor any potential breaches?

“It’s because of MaNtuli,” a local gossip in Eshowe told us, adding, “there’s been a lot of trouble in the household involving her and she likes to drive around a bit.”

The president’s matrimonial woes have dogged him ever since he married his first wife and our First Lady, Sizakele Khumalo in 1978. The childless MaKhumalo oversees the Nxamalala estate and is theoretically the senior wife to whom all other wives are subordinate.

In 1998, his third wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, divorced him but the relationship between them apparently remains cordial.

In December 2000, President Zuma’s second wife, Kate Mantsho Zuma, a mother to five of his children, took her own life aged 44, after swallowing a cocktail of sleeping pills and an anti-malarial prophylactic. When journalists first uncovered and published her anguished suicide note (which had been part of the public inquest docket) they were blamed for falling victim to Zuma’s political rivals in an attempt to “smear him”. These were same “rivals” who had been fingered in the compiling of the Browse Mole Report alleging that Zuma had planned to topple Thabo Mbeki’s government with the assistance of other African heads of state.

A fair amount of secrecy surrounds the polygamous Zuma private household, but Mantsho’s note provided a glimpse into the complexities. She described her 24-year marriage to Zuma as the most “bitter and painful” and wished his new “makhoti” or bride “luck and success”, advising her husband to tell her that “the seat she is going to occupy is very, very, very hot.”

In 2012 Zuma married his fourth wife (technically his sixth), Bongi Ngema.

In 2013, an Eshowe businesswoman, Nomthandazo Mathaba-Mthembu, who owns a tavern and a funeral parlour in the town, arrived at the president’s home in a convoy and bearing gifts, declaring her intention to marry him. Mthembu had often boasted to locals that she knew Zuma intimately and did not hesitate to show off photographs of herself with the president stored on her cell phone. Mthembu was humiliated and turned away at the gates of Nxamalala.

While the President’s personal and domestic life is, in some regard, no one’s business but his own (except for the small detail that we get to pay for much of it – the president’s wives cost us R54.6 million during his first five years in office), when the drama of the House of Nkandla spills over onto the front pages of a national Sunday newspaper, we should take note.

What are we to do with a head of state embroiled in messy family politics, mostly all of his own making, and which potentially threaten his life, and in so doing, the political safety and reputation of the country?

What would we look like to the outside world if our head of state should be murdered by one of his wives? And what would have happened should the president have died, have been found to have been poisoned and no actual culprit fingered? The political fallout could have been devastating. The president has many enemies, any number of which could have been a suspect, creating deep uncertainly and suspicion. If the EFF disruption of Parliament has eaten up valuable time, imagine the chaos of such a death.

For now the Presidency has declined to comment on the weekend reports of the poisoning – an event for which journalists could not establish “a conclusive link”. Mac Maharaj, the President’s spokesperson reportedly replied, “the status of Mrs Nompulelelo Zuma had not changed. She is a spouse of the president”.

So for now we shall have to continue as if it is business as usual – which at this point is more soap opera than Shakespeare. At least Thabo Mbeki was partial to the real kind of Shakespeare (Coriolanus was his favourite) you still only find on the pages of books and not the front pages of newspapers. DM

Photo: Jacob Zuma, then the newly elected leader of South Africa’s ANC, dances a traditional zulu dance during a low-key marriage ceremony in front of his fourth wife, Nompumelelo Ntuli, in his KwaZulu-Natal homeland January 5, 2008. REUTERS/STRINGER


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