Episode 3 – A rising tide lifts all superyachts

Episode 3 – A rising tide lifts all superyachts

In December 2022, the 55th – and possibly last – elective conference of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress will take place against a backdrop of sociopolitical chaos. In the limited audio documentary series, The Highwaymen, investigative journalists Richard Poplak and Diana Neille take a road trip across South Africa in search of answers to how the country got to this breaking point, and how the lives and careers of three senior ANC figures – Ace Magashule, Gwede Mantashe and Dr Zweli Mkhize – may be representative of the rise and stumble of our once vaunted democratic project and, by extension, liberal democracies everywhere.

In Episode 3, Richard Poplak and Diana Neille continue their travels around KwaZulu-Natal. As they hear from those on the ground, and as they dig deeper into the history of the embattled province, and that of its notorious former leader, Dr Zweli Mkhize, they are drawn into the heart of Assassination Nation. 

Below is the full transcript of episode two, with links to the clips, documents and articles gathered and referenced in the reporting and research for it. 

Diana Neille: Durban, South Africa, in the aftermath of the rain bomb. 

The house Zweli Mkhize helped build is a soggy mess, the spiritual  capital of Assassination Nation. 

It’s been a couple of months since we spoke to S’bu Zikode of Abahlali BaseMjondolo at a studio in Durban. It was May, and he had recently lost two of his colleagues, Ayanda Ngila and Nokthula Mabaso, both gunned down in a small commune known as eKhenana, in Cato Manor. 

Three and a half months later, on 5 August, the grassroots shack dwellers’ movement experienced yet another devastating loss. 

Twenty-eight-year-old activist and Abahlali leader, Lindokhuhle Mnguni, and his girlfriend were sleeping in their dwelling in the commune, when gunmen broke in and opened fire on them. 

Mnguni had witnessed Ngila’s shooting, and spoke openly about his fear of reprisals in the weeks before he faced the guns himself. Mnguni died on the scene, his girlfriend survived. 

Here’s Mnguni speaking just weeks before his assassination: 

Lindokuhle Mnguni: We used to talk a lot about death, because we knew very well that, some day, luck won’t be on our side. They will kill us… It’s socialism or death.

Diana Neille: The young man’s death marks the 24th assassination of Abahlali leaders since its founding in 2005. No one feels this loss more keenly than its leader, S’bu Zikode, who we met in episode two. 

S’bu Zikode: Losing someone of that calibre hurts. We’re torn apart. We knew that his contribution was not just for his own liberation, but for the liberation of many people in South Africa and abroad; so losing someone like that…

I am reminded of a quote from the famous intellectual, Frantz Fanon, who said once, “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it. It’s a moment of do or die.”

What was our first Highwayman, Zweli Mkhize’s, generational mission? 

It was, of course, the so-called “unity” of the ANC. 

That unity, along with those convictions, has faded into political oblivion. 

The use of the word “unity”, however, has not. It appeared early in the ANC’s history, and it’s still being used, unironically, all these years later. 

NEWS CLIP: President Cyril Ramaphosa has called for unity within the ANC. He says that divisions and internal squabbles take away from their service delivery mandate. 

Diana Neille: In episode one, we laid out a seven-point breakdown of how South Africa’s democratic project has devolved over the course of the ANC’s history. One of the most severe tests of the party’s unity came early in the third phase of that progression – the corruption that creeps into increasingly factionalised politics, which we started to see even as the ANC government was just settling in behind their mahogany desks at the Union Buildings. 

As the new nation was taking shape during negotiations with the outgoing apartheid bosses, the major ideological figure emerging into the spotlight was Nelson Mandela’s de facto prime minister, Thabo Mbeki.

Mbeki is South African democracy’s spectre, its Machiavelli. Its impresario, its Wizard of Oz.

The compromises Mbeki would end up making cleaved his party firmly in two, rendering the term “unity” meaningless, and charting the perilous course the country finds itself on today.

Former president Thabo Mbeki: We put ourselves in the shoes of the other side. If we were the National Party, we would be very reluctant to lose power, and therefore would fight against change… 

Richard Poplak: This is the Wizard of Oz himself, speaking about self-interested reconciliation, back when South Africa was still pretending to be a Rainbow Nation. 

Former president Thabo Mbeki: These black people that were always defined in a particular way – terrorists, communists… you’d be fearful of them to take over. 

So we said, well, to address that fear, let’s offer them these sunset clauses to say, you will not lose power completely.

Richard Poplak: Well, they didn’t lose power completely. 

The National Party bureaucrats were proud of the state-owned Legoland they’d built for themselves – it provided electricity, rail services, an airline and the other accoutrement of modernity for the country’s four-and-a-half million or so whites. 

1960s TRAVELOGUE ARCHIVE: Talking of transport, one of the things that amazes me about South Africa, is the excellence of the roads. I don’t know how they do it with such a small population. 

Richard Poplak: A second, perhaps more significant upside was that these companies served as empowerment – or enrichment – vehicles for the Afrikaner elite. 

Mbeki would help broker an alliance with this cohort, along with the Anglo nobility in the private sector. The heads of big banks, mines and retail corporations had every incentive to keep the economic status quo intact. 

NEWS CLIP: These corporations were instrumental in financing the apparatus of apartheid. The government couldn’t exist unless it received financing from outside sources. 

Richard Poplak: Mbeki was an immensely complex figure who tried to build a functioning nation-state as the ANC’s old benefactors – the communist bloc – faded into history. Any talk of nationalisation of assets was furiously discouraged, and not just by Western countries and lending institutions, but also by rising Eastern powers like China. Capitalism was the only option on the drop-down menu. 

According to the historian Quinn Slobodian, by the 1990s, “politics had moved to the passive tense. The only actor was the global economy”. 

Quinn Slobodian: The truth of the 1990s was the production of ever more forms of law, ever more institutions to enclose human knowledge, to enclose the natural world and to encode it in assets and trade it in new ways. 

Richard Poplak: In Mozambique, when the colonial regime fell in 1975, the Portuguese fled with whatever they could carry. 

By contrast, in the Rainbow Nation, the old guard slowly mixed gin and tonics and watched the gemsbok rut on their game farms.

Neil Coleman: The ruling elites, if you like, had decided that they needed to put something else in place, which was not too destructive of their interests. 

… They had to find an interlocutor, who could… agree to some sort of pact or deal. And of course, the key actor there is not Nelson Mandela; the key actor is Thabo Mbeki.

Richard Poplak: Neil Coleman, the co-director of a progressive think tank called the Institute for Economic Justice, was a trade unionist from the 1970s until 2017. He participated in the constitutional negotiations and was present for much of this high-stakes, four dimensional chess match.

Neil Coleman: There we go to… [this] notion of a Faustian pact, and the original sin, is that pact. That is what we saw emerge out of CODESA, out of the constitutional negotiations, and out of the unspoken second set of negotiations, which were around the economic settlement.

Diana Neille: Coleman is referring to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, or Codesa, a series of two multiparty negotiations that, although they failed, laid the groundwork for a country that would be argued into reality. 

The talks opened the door to a government of national unity, a constitution-making process, and, ultimately, the formation of a liberal democracy in the golden glow of communism’s vanquishing.

Following Mandela’s inauguration in 1994, there’s no question that advances were made: in electrification, in sanitation, in access to education, in housing development, in revenue collection, and redistributive policies that got social grants to people who had no other prospect of income. 

But by 1996, Mbeki had produced a far more conservative “neoliberal” framework for South Africa’s future. Neoliberalism has been misconstrued as freeing up markets and reducing the size of the state. At best, this is only a partial definition. 

The neoliberal order was much more accurately described as a means of submitting to global institutions that protected capitalism from democracy. In this, Mbeki was a die-hard neoliberal. 

He and his advisers believed in the transformative power of the New Black Elite, and hoped that by enriching them, to loosely paraphrase US president John F Kennedy, “a rising tide would lift all super-yachts”. 

Former president Thabo Mbeki: You hear people saying, ‘we want to live as the whites do’. And when you ask, ‘what does that mean?’ They say, ‘we want to have a house which must be electrified, [it] must have running water. I must be able to buy a TV set and run it off the mains,’ and that’s their vision. You’ve got to impact on the standard of living of people in that way. 

Richard Poplak: Amazingly, following the brutality of apartheid, instead of an across-the-board commitment to economic fairness and redress, there was economic consolidation among the white and black elites. 

This wasn’t exactly long-term thinking. And it didn’t just maintain the conditions of apartheid’s underclass. It expanded the size of that underclass while stunting its upward mobility. After all, not everyone could get a low-cost bank loan, a seat on a board or a chunk of a mining company.  

Those left out would need to find other routes to wealth and comfort. 

You be the judge of how that’s worked out. 

NEWS ARCHIVE: South Africa has been ranked the most unequal country in the world. That is out of 160 countries in the World Bank’s Global Poverty database.

Richard Poplak: Over in KZN, the only province not under the stewardship of the ANC at that point, Zweli Mkhize was made MEC of Health in 1994. It was a post he would hold for a decade. His brief was to perform so well that he would win the province for the ANC in 1999, and cement the province’s role in national politics as a kingmaker. 

The idea was to grow the ANC into a genuine supernova and watch the whole country submit to its gravitational pull. 

Which is exactly what ended up happening.

But just as this mega-elite was starting to shore up power, very real problems emerged. 

One of them was the HIV/Aids epidemic. Here’s long-time activist Zackie Achmat, speaking to media at the height of the crisis that Mbeki, with his Aids denialist policies, refused to believe was happening. 

Zackie Achmat: We will lead evidence to show that South Africa faces an explosive epidemic. More than 50% of women who attend ante-natal clinics across our country have HIV. And that is a dramatic epidemic. It is estimated that between 12 and 15 percent of our population already has HIV. 

Diana Neille: Mkhize – an actual medical doctor – sided with Mbeki in the late ’90s in denying pregnant women drug treatment that would help prevent mother-to-infant infections. 

He was reportedly torn by this decision. But despite the obvious cost of doing nothing, he would not break ranks. 

Several years later, he did finally allow antiretroviral treatment trials to take place in the province, despite Mbeki’s Aids denialist policies. 

Action, or rather inaction, based on rank political expediency – this would become the ANC way. We were watching in real time the formation of a powerful political elite; a super-class of cadres. 

The millions of Aids casualties were merely collateral damage.

While the epidemic worsened, another apartheid-era empowerment scheme was being revived – the procurement of massive amounts of military hardware, with plenty of sugar to go around for everybody. 

The following clip comes courtesy of Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC MP turned corruption buster. 

Andrew Feinstein: Thabo Mbeki made the decision to spend what will ultimately amount to $10-billion on highly sophisticated weaponry… 

Around $300-million in bribes were paid to senior politicians… and sadly to the African National Congress. The ANC. My own party. 

Diana Neille: Feinstein resigned in 2001 when it became clear that most in the ANC didn’t consider the deal as a scandal, but rather a solidly beneficial business transaction.

Andrew Feinstein: It really was for me, the point at which the ANC lost its moral compass. The point at which we were prepared to say, we will spend what were quite scarce public resources on this weaponry that we didn’t need, rather than provide life-saving medication to our own citizens. 

Richard Poplak: The notorious “arms deal” was signed in December 1999, between South Africa and a number of dodgy European so-called defence companies. It implicated nearly every senior leader in the ANC, but no one more so than Mbeki’s deputy president, the former intelligence operative and alleged leftist populist, Jacob Zuma. 

NEWS CLIP: Zuma and co-accused, the French arms manufacturer, Thales, are facing various charges, including corruption, money laundering, and racketeering. They relate to 780 questionable payments in connection with the controversial Arms Deal in the 1990s. 

Richard Poplak: Meanwhile, the type of political killings that had defined the end of the apartheid regime in KZN, hadn’t disappeared. They just started to morph into something else – a contestation for power, and for money, at a local level. 

Few people know this better than journalist Chris Makhaye.

Chris Makhaye: There are allegations that, you know, people get assassinated by other means other than a gun. And then there are people who are sometimes alleged to be behind those killings. For example, people would say, former president Jacob Zuma is behind some of the killings, certain IFP leaders, that they are behind those killings. Some would even point fingers at [Mangosuthu] Buthelezi, himself. Dr Zweli Mkhize’s name has been mentioned… but like all other allegations, it has never been proven.

Diana Neille: As one of the most powerful people in the provincial structures, the stench of assassinations would end up clinging to Zweli Mkhize, even if the accusations didn’t stick. 

In 2008, Mkhize sued the media conglomerate News24 for defamation after one its titles, City Press, implicated him in the assassination in 1999 of KZN opposition politician, Sifiso Nkabinde. 

Ironically, the story laid out how a credible political hit had been taken out on Mkhize by an aggrieved hit man, who said that the good doctor had never paid him the thousands he owed him for… the political hit on Nkabinde. 

It was a loony story, but there was no proof for the allegation and Mkhize won the defamation case. 

But on the streets, as S’bu Zikode from Abahlali baseMjondolo reminds us, this was having a material effect on the lives of the people left out of the ANC’s pact.

S’bu Zikode: It is unfortunate that we are not really taking this violence seriously as a nation. It may be taken seriously in different confined corners, but, again, we don’t have a leader that can coordinate; that can call Indaba – a conference – a serious conversation into this [sic].

The level of violence, you never hear, even a premier, even today, raising any concerns about the killing of people, not just Abahlali, not only activists, but traditional leaders, Izinduna Chiefs are being killed, with impunity, not to mention politicians – ward councillors and so on. How can that be acceptable in any society?

Diana Neille: In 2012, Mkhize dismissed this sort of hand-wringing. As far as he was concerned, the situation was totally under control. 

Zweli Mkhize: The issue of political killings. It’s a new phenomenon, and the way I’ve described it it’s actually something that’s coming up of late. 

We have said the police must act, and they have acted very quickly. You have seen how, even the victim was buried [sic], somebody had already been sentenced. It’s extreme efficiency of police, which is actually linked to the cooperation of the community. 

Richard Poplak: Given the well-documented track record of the South African Police Service, this is more than a little hard to believe. 

But as Mbeki’s elite project intensified – as the supernova grew bigger and bigger, swallowing the sky – Mkhize was the ultimate backroom dealmaker, keeping his options open, flitting from faction to faction.  

Richard Poplak: As Zuma became deeply embroiled in his battle with Thabo Mbeki, Mkhize was aiming to take control of KZN. In 2004, he was appointed the province’s MEC for Finance and Economic Development. At the same time, he was also the chairperson of the ANC’s National Education and Health subcommittee. 

In 2005, it was time for him to engage in a cold war for provincial power.

With Zuma preoccupied fighting corruption charges stemming from the Arms Deal, Mkhize was left to face off against S’bu Ndebele, the province’s premier. 

The two men represented the two sides of the growing rift within the ANC. But even in the face of his obvious friendship with Zuma, Mkhize, the eternal cypher, remained impossible to pin down. Here’s Mkhize’s former head of communications, Cyril Madlala. 

Cyril Madlala: In fact, that always goes down as one of the most … very bitter … leadership struggles in KZN, that was between Zweli and S’bu Ndebele. 

S’bu won … the first time, and then Zweli was his deputy. 

Then, Zweli became chair after that. But it … really divided the ANC in the province, in a very big way. Some people say the province still hasn’t quite recovered from that. 

Richard Poplak: That would be an understatement. As Zuma lurched toward the presidency and victory over Mbeki, Mkhize won the day back in the home province. 

Chris Makhaye: As soon as they took over, they consolidated power, especially Zweli. I don’t think there was anybody who would have contested him and won. No, they were scared… fearful of contesting. 

Richard Poplak: With Zuma in power nationally and Mkhize in charge of basically everything at a provincial level, the Zuma faction of the ANC was in full control of the province. This was the party’s moment to bring it into the 21st century, to entrench rule of law and wipe out factionalism. 

How did they do? 

Chris Makhaye: As a government, as a premier, he didn’t do anything that one can write home about. But we know that the MECs under him, they were so fearful of him. He knew how to use his power. 

Richard Poplak: There were other hints in Mkhize’s long reign of what was to come:

Back when he was MEC for finance and economic development in 2006, a scandal broke over an R11.8-million loan. It was made to his wife, May,  from the Ithala Development Finance Corporation, to buy a family farm near Pietermaritzburg. 

As MEC, Mkhize would have been the custodian of Ithala, which was the provincial government-owned empowerment vehicle. He would have overseen its expenditure. Yet he insisted his wife had won the farm loan in her own right, as a, quote, independent business woman. 

Chris Makhaye …It went on and on, then you started hearing even more allegations that now his wife, she’s involved in business, government business, she’s involved in building schools here and there, and that she’s fronting with some people here. So you started hearing things about them: That Zweli is using his wife as a front.

They say he instructed some of the MECs to direct some business towards people who are close to people who are close to his wife. So you always heard that, but it hasn’t been proven by anybody.

Richard Poplak: As all of this deepened, the violence started to trend upwards, and upwards some more. No one experienced that more deeply than S’bu Zikode and his constituents. 

Richard Poplak:We seem to have this disconnect as a country between who we think we are and who we actually are. Hundreds of people have been killed in political killings in our country. And I would like you to speak on that, and try to explain to me why we don’t understand that we are actually at war with ourselves. 

S’bu Zikode: Because it’s been normalised. We have accepted violence. We’ve been raised with violence, we’ve been ruled and governed with violence. How can we not be a violent nation? We are not a nation that can engage peacefully. We are a nation that, when we lose the war, we send the military. We don’t think we should be engaging. That’s what happens when leadership fails.

Diana Neille: This is the house that Mkhize helped build. 

He then went national with that construction project: In 2012 he was made Treasurer General of the ANC by President Zuma, and put in charge of the party’s money pot. 

Former president Jacob Zuma: That is not a small position. That is a serious position in the ANC.

Diana Neille: In 2021, after rising to the head of the national health ministry, he was fired for that sordid R150-million scam during the Covid pandemic. The fake marketing company he and his cronies used to plunder the health budget, Digital Vibes, would prove his undoing. 

Or would it?

In his story, we found a model for a type of politician that often emerges in an increasingly illiberal democracy – the faux technocrat: perfectly educated, outwardly able, robotic, corrupt. By dint of his history as a liberation fighter in exile, he became a member of the ANC elite, an in-group fastidiously focussed on its own interests. 

During the fight for liberation, Mkhize administered to his comrades, risking his own life to protect and heal others. 

During democracy, he abandoned many people during the Aids crisis, he abandoned many more during Covid. In between, it’s our view that he helped normalise a culture of assassinations, a hangover of the violence from apartheid that he had once helped quell.  

S’bu Zikode: The question is, where is the government of the day? Even the poor are saying we don’t see the government. The rich don’t see government… the middle class don’t see government. They are busy with the upcoming elective conference of the ANC.

Diana Neille: Which brings us back to the rain bomb, and the flood devastation that has left the province in peril. The Mkhizeverse has left no fat on the bone, no room for emergencies. As the climate turns increasingly nasty, so does the mood of those living tenuously.

S’bu Zikode: Of course, the poor have been the worst affected by, as it has happened, by the climate and the floods… Because the infrastructure in their communities… is not up to scratch… They have not been able to have access to well-located lands. 

Where shack dwellers, most of those who are living along flood plain[s]. It’s not because they are stupid… It’s because they have no choice. 

We are sitting on the ticking time bomb, and we have always warned that the anger of the poor can go in many directions. 

Diana Neille: After bidding farewell to Zikode, our road trip pulls us back up the N3 highway towards the Free State, to where a political murder changed the course of the ANC forever. And, as a result, the course of South Africa’s democracy. DM

Fact-checked and additional research by Sasha Wales-Smith.

The Highwaymen


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  • Geoff Woodruff says:

    Mkhize has to be heavily involved with the Digital Vibes scandal yet no real progress seems to have been made with either, investigating, or prosecuting the case. Meanwhile he is gathering together a very powerful clique who could quite conceivably unseat Ramaphosa as president of ANC in the near future. The lack of action or indeed, urgency, from the integrity commission is quite astonishing.

  • Lesley Young says:

    A cliffhanger! When does episode 4 appear? Thank you for filling in some of the facts I missed. And have you sold the film rights yet?

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