In his latest book, A Simple Man: Kasrils and the Zuma enigma, RONNIE KASRILS, former head of intelligence for Umkhonto weSizwe and senior member of the ANC and SACP attempts to address a question he is repeatedly asked: How did Jacob Zuma, the freedom fighter, a man of the people, transform into a corrupt and disreputable figure? In this extract he reflects on a debate about Zuma at the SACP headquarters in July 2005.
We had gathered at Party headquarters in downtown Johannesburg for a regular executive committee meeting but since insufficient members had turned up the gathering was postponed. While we chatted over coffee, I suggested that instead of dispersing, we discuss the situation that had arisen over Mbeki’s recent dismissal of Zuma as the country’s deputy president on 14 June 2005.
The disgraced Zuma, who had never disagreed with Mbeki’s policies, raised the spectre of a conspiracy against him hatched by “counter-revolutionaries”, and his supporters seized that idea with alacrity. Those in the SACP and Cosatu opposed Mbeki on ideological grounds, and although some had personal reasons too, I did not lump them into the same group as those I characterise as crony capitalists. The fact that the SACP supported Zuma spoke volumes about the extent to which he had succeeded in exploiting their antagonisms to Mbeki and their belief that he was a suitable man for the left and for the country. The situation was ugly and fraught with unforeseen consequences.
I studied the group of battle-hardened comrades with whom I had worked for several years to change South Africa and the world. Foremost among them were the Party general secretary, the feisty Blade Nzimande; the chairperson, Gwede Mantashe, a weather-beaten former mineworkers’ leader who did not mince his words; and the gently spoken poet and ideologue, Jeremy Cronin, whom I had once trained in London for underground work. As I was not just a comrade, the old “ANC Khumalo” and MK veteran, but an Mbeki appointee and the intelligence minister at that, I could feel sure that despite obvious respect they showed me, there was an element of doubt about my motives.
“Comrades, let’s be perfectly open with one another,” I requested. “I’m going to open my chest, and although this discussion should be confidential, if what I say gets to Zuma, I couldn’t care less.”
I had eyeballed the secretary of the Young Communist League (YCL), Buti Manamela, an up-and-coming youth leader who was pro-Zuma, and wondered just how far he would be swallowed by personal ambition. The Cosatu president, the heavily bearded Willie Madisha, shuffled perceptibly and looked down. I guessed he was unhappy with the growing adulation of Zuma and was in the process of falling out with Blade, who had a tight grip on the party.
“Comrades,” I continued, “I want to address aspects about Jacob Zuma, such as tribalism; the question of morality; the fact that he is no working-class hero; and the issue of conspiracy and security.”
Blade nodded with puckered mouth, beckoning me to proceed. Outside, the city hummed under a bright winter sky. Through our upper-floor windows we had a commanding view of downtown Johannesburg’s skyline: skyscrapers, mining houses and financial centres long past their glory days. The capitalist values that once had their fountainhead in the City of Gold had taken flight to the new capital of Mammon – the gleaming towers of Sandton City on Johannesburg’s northern edge. I wondered whether we communists could adjust to the times.
“Comrades, with all due respect, I have known JZ from his recruitment into MK in Durban, 1962.” Apart from Jeremy, who had joined while studying abroad, the others were products of the internal struggle of the 1980s. “Jeremy knows him from Zambia, 1987. I worked with him very closely in Maputo from 1980.” I gestured in a friendly way at Blade. “General secretary, you were at loggerheads with him, you and Harry Gwala” – I evoked the deceased SACP firebrand from Pietermaritzburg – “from the time he returned from exile in 1990. You warned about Zuma as a conservative, a traditionalist, a tribalist who was too close to Inkatha and the Zulu monarch.
“You comrades might not be aware that Joe Slovo and Joe Modise dissolved an MK ordnance structure he commanded in Maputo in 1979 because they were unhappy with the way he was working and withholding reports,” I continued. “When I arrived in Maputo to work with him in a new structure I was discreetly warned about that, but decided to take my own time and judge him from personal experience.”
I was warming to the topic. “You know he’s no working-class hero. A man who immediately quit the party the moment the ban was lifted in 1990 and we became public.
“But comrades, let’s face it,” I continued, “it’s Zuma’s corruption, his lack of morality, which has landed him in the soup and brought our movement into disrepute. I don’t have to go into the litany of corruption, whether we consider the Schabir Shaik relationship, starting with all the petty favours and leading to bigger things such as the arms deal benefits; the talk about benefactors and crooked tycoons; all the gossip swirling about his head ever since he put his foot back in the country.”
I could have added perhaps the single most depressing thing, the suicide in 2000 of one of his wives, Kate Mantsho, while he was deputy president, and the note she left behind: “Life had been hell” living with him; “bitter” and “painful”, she wrote. I thought of those seemingly innocent far-off days in Maputo, being driven by Zuma through the busy streets, stopping to pick up a pretty young woman, niftily dressed in an Airways uniform: tight skirt, blouse, scarf, high-heel shoes, a figure you whistled about. She smiled sweetly as she got into the back seat and he introduced me to Kate.….
Mantashe interrupted, shaking his head. “No, on that question of morality,” he growled, “I don’t accept the fuss going on in the mainstream media. What morality?”
“Oh, come on,” I interjected, “if you are speaking of bourgeois morality, the word you’re looking for is hypocrisy. But don’t imply there’s no such thing as morality… We are not hypocritically attacking Zuma. As revolutionaries we should be in the fore, taking him to task as a corrupt and immoral leader and consequently the corrupter of others. He is a dangerous man.”
I had missed something though. And it was Gwede who weighed in, not to be easily dismissed. In his gravelly voice, he expounded on the double standards of the white media, which focused only on black corruption. They were in a frenzy about Zuma, he argued, but it was the old apartheid system and white business who were the kings of corruption. Blade and Jeremy in particular argued powerfully about the racist capitalist system as it had developed, elaborating on its intrinsic structural and systemic corruption.
“Comrades, of course that is right, the heart of corruption arose in front of our eyes.” I waved at the city scene through the windows of our boardroom. “But we dare not use corrupt business by way of comparison or to divert attention from our faults, our lapse into corrupt practice, because we are a revolutionary movement.
“Zuma has become the role model of those who say it’s our turn to eat,” I continued. “They eat out of the pockets of big business while the masses starve. We used to say we struggled and sacrificed for the people, and is that not what we are still about?”
I did not want to go on too long. I was only too aware that my colleagues viewed Mbeki and his close circle as having a pro-business agenda, which spelt out the very corruption I was assailing – and betrayal to boot. For me, however, this was a completely different kettle of fish from what Zuma was cooking.
I continued: “Just let me sound a warning about JZ and ‘security’.” I referred to the question of the security of the revolution, which Zuma had been conveniently raising in his personal defence. We had to be vigilant and on guard against real counter-revolutionary threats, not the imagined ones of the opportunists, not to be tricked into chasing tokoloshes and crying wolf at shadows, I argued. That brand of conspiracy was let loose when it was deemed necessary: “A hidden force working against him; out to destroy his career; out to prevent him becoming president; counter-revolutionary agents here and abroad ultimately hell-bent on splitting our movement and destroying us all.” Zuma would manipulate the security and intelligence system in his own interests, I insisted.
The comrades heard me out, politely and without a show of hostility. It was clear, however, that they did not agree, their minds set on a different narrative, the Zuma narrative, which was already gaining traction…
There might have been further discussion, but I distinctly heard the polite voice of Blade as we ended the discourse that eventful day: “We understand you, comrade Khumalo, but I would say that a Zuma presidency represents the best opening for the left in the country.
“You think you can manage him, comrade Blade?” I replied. “You will discover he is a law unto himself.” I added: “Mark my words, the party one day will deeply regret this support for Jacob Zuma.” I should have had the insight to add: “And the country as well.” DM
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall