South Africa


Zuma’s spy claims are implausible, paranoid, and a red herring

Former president Jacob Zuma told the Zondo Commission that the inquiry was merely the culmination of an anti-Zuma narrative spanning nearly 30 years. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla / Netwerk24)

Jacob Zuma, his legal team and his supporters are clearly trying to make this a case of an illegitimate commission versus the persecution of a popular liberation hero.

Former President Jacob Zuma’s introductory remarks before the Zondo Commission on 15 July could not have been more dramatic, even if they had been scripted for a TV soap opera.

Zuma clearly came to the commission with at least three objectives:

  • To undermine the overall legitimacy of the commission, without appearing uncooperative;

  • To divert the attention of the commission, the media and public opinion in general from the “State Capture” mandate of the commission; and

  • To project himself as the victim of an elaborate plot engineered by domestic and foreign intelligence services, going back to the early 1990s, to keep him from gaining or retaining political power.

In this regard, Zuma and his legal team used a number of lines of attack (and attempts at distraction):

  • Questioning the initial motivation of the Public Protector (Thuli Madonsela) in recommending the establishment of the commission;

  • Causing confusion about the availability of documents, as well as about processes and procedures of the commission (similar to his defence strategy in recent court cases);

  • Indicating that he was introduced to the Guptas by Essop Pahad — someone who has always been close to former President Thabo Mbeki;

  • Emphasising his own liberation struggle credentials;

  • Claiming that a number of assassination attempts on his life had been foiled, including one by a suicide bomber and a poisoning attempt;

  • Stating that intelligence organisations — one local service during the time of the apartheid government, in cahoots with two unnamed foreign services — had been part of an elaborate conspiracy since 1990 to undermine his political status and influence within the ANC and the government. He referred to the rape case, the arms investigation, his sacking as the country’s deputy president, his removal as president, the focus on his Nkandla residence and the corruption allegations related to the Guptas; and

  • Alleging that apartheid sources were part of this process, also after 1994, and that a ‘‘local intelligence service’’ (possibly referring to the former National Intelligence Service, NIS, or Military Intelligence) had co-operated with “the US” (possibly referring to intelligence structures/the CIA) to protect these sources and keep them in positions of power.

In his remarks, Zuma did the “unthinkable”, by identifying three alleged apartheid government intelligence sources in the ANC, although he implied the existence of many others, including people still serving in senior positions within the ANC (I have argued in a Daily Maverick article that the identity of former sources/agents should be divulged as part of a “truth and reconciliation process”, in order to prevent this kind of situation, where names are made known selectively and for political reasons).

Those he named were:

  • Comrade Fear”: MK commander Cyril Raymond (aka “Edward Lawrence”, aka “Ralph”, aka “Fear”) came under suspicion within the ANC and was detained and interrogated in the 1980s. Under questioning, he reportedly confessed to being a police spy and subsequently died in ANC custody. However, according to Gayton McKenzie, “Comrade Fear is the reason why Prez JZ is chased, he handed the list of the different enemy agents within MK 2 Joe Nhlanlha [the former head of the ANC’s Department of Intelligence and Security — DIS) & JZ. He was killed after confessing all names. Who killed him is the biggest question.’’ Note: Our information is that after another MK commander, Thami Zulu (real name Mzwakhe Ngwenya), had successfully stepped up MK’s attacks from Swaziland, his career ended abruptly after two disastrous incidents in 1988, in which some nine infiltrators from Swaziland were killed. Zulu’s deputy, Cyril Raymond (or Ralph Mgcina), and his wife, Jessica, were also summoned to Lusaka. Raymond subsequently died in detention, reportedly drowning in his own vomit, after having refused to sign a confession to being a South African agent. Zulu was also detained, where he died of “unknown causes”.
  • Ngoako Ramatlhodi worked for former ANC President Oliver Tambo while in exile. He was premier of Limpopo from May 1994 to April 2004. An advocate, Ramatlhodi was deputy minister of Correctional Services from November 2010 to May 2014 and the minister of Mineral Resources from May 2014 to September 2015. He was the minister of Public Service and Administration from September 2015 to March 2017. Ramatlhodi claimed in 2017 that then Eskom chairperson Ben Ngubane and chief executive Brian Molefe had requested that he terminate Glencore’s mining licences in an apparent ruse to facilitate the sale of its Optimum coal mine to the Gupta family. He was assigned to his subsequent ministerial post after he had supposedly not complied. He was axed in the Cabinet reshuffle of March 2017. His position was taken by a known Zuma ally, Mosebenzi Zwane. Ramatlhodi is known to be a supporter of President Cyril Ramaphosa and to have worked for him in Limpopo. He gave evidence to the Zondo Commission, implicating Zuma, accusing him of having “auctioned South Africa to the Guptas”. Note: Mr Ramatlhodi has challenged former president Zuma to provide proof that he was an apartheid spy. He said he was “very much ready” to subject himself to a lie detector test — and would challenge Zuma to do the same.
  • General Siphiwe Nyanda (MK names “Oscar” or “Guebuza”) was appointed MK (uMkhonto weSizwe) chief of staff in 1992, served as chief of the South African National Defence Force from 1998 to 2005, as minister of Communications from 2009 to 2010 and was appointed as a board member of Denel in May 2018. In 2017 he labelled Zuma as a “faction leader’’ who was dividing the ruling party and former MK combatants.

The only “concession” made by Zuma was that he had played an initiating role in the Guptas’ establishment of The New Age newspaper and ANN7 TV station, although he made it clear that the ANC’s then secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, and later the ANC’s Top Six were informed about the project. Once again, Zuma probably knew that this issue would attract a great deal of media attention, thus drawing attention away from the commission’s main task, namely to unravel the corruption that accompanied the “State Capture project”.

Former president Jacob Zuma addressed a crowd of around 800 outside the State Capture Inquiry where he testified on 15 July 2019. Photo: Greg Nicolson


Zuma clearly intended to direct the attention of the media and the public away from the allegations related to the State Capture project by his own allegations of assassination plots, apartheid spies and an extensive conspiracy to keep him from political power.

He might make further revelations, depending on his assessment of the evolvement/direction of the commission and his own questioning. The commission’s chair and its evidence leader will have their work cut out to keep the focus on the “real issues”, especially on Zuma’s role in State Capture during his two terms as president, and not to be distracted by all the red herrings that are out there now.

As it is, Zuma, his legal team and his supporters are clearly trying to make this a case of an illegitimate commission versus the persecution of a popular liberation hero.

However, for us, the main weakness of Zuma’s account is the question of why such an elaborate conspiracy, stretching over nearly three decades, would have been necessary. According to Zuma, the plot to discredit him was hatched because he knew the identity of “apartheid’s spies’’ and that the handlers of these spies wanted them to remain powerful within a future government.

Even this explanation is unconvincing — by 1990, although he was a senior person within DIS, he would not have known the identity of more than a handful of informants within ANC ranks and some of the names would have been planted on him and DIS by apartheid’s intelligence disinformation operations.

There is no doubt that the former apartheid government’s intelligence structures were very aware of Zuma as underground MK and intelligence operator. They would have contemplated plans to kill him, recruit him or recruit sources close to him. However, there was no reason to work with any foreign intelligence service to accomplish this — in any case, security and intelligence co-operation between NIS and the CIA, for instance, was insignificant by the early 1990s.

After 1994, Zuma was a relatively minor figure within the ANC and his profile, as drafted by NIS before the formal negotiations process started in 1991, indicated a person with the potential to become head of a new national intelligence department, but not much more. In fact, both the political negotiators of the National Party regime and their intelligence support personnel got along well with Zuma, partly because of his understanding of language, historical and cultural issues. He was perceived as a pragmatic person and less ideological than many other ANC leaders and there was little reason to plot his short- or long-term downfall.

What makes Zuma’s story even less plausible is the fact that he worked closely with numerous former NIS and SA Police decision-makers in post-apartheid South Africa — even facilitating intelligence contracts with the ANC government for some of them.

Zuma seems to be a victim of his own paranoia, possibly a result of decades of covert work — or he is constructing a version of the truth that will make it difficult for the Zondo Commission to make an unequivocal ruling against him. Whatever the case might be, the ANC will pay a price in terms of unity and political standing. DM

Dr Nel Marais served in intelligence structures from 1984 to 2000. He is the founder and managing director of Thabiti, a specialised risk consultancy company.


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