When Zuma was fired as deputy president in 2005, he was out in the cold with the ANC distancing itself from him and very few people wanting to be seen around him.
At the time, I was floating in purgatory after my infamous exit from the Sunday Times over the story that the former head of the National Prosecuting Authority, Bulelani Ngcuka, was investigated by ANC intelligence for being an apartheid era spy. When I handed the documents to City Press, which published a distorted version of the story, it led to a series of events which banished me to the fringes of society.
So when Zuma was charged with corruption, some of his friends and allies in KwaZulu-Natal approached me about setting up a support website which would run parallel to the Friends of Jacob Zuma Trust.
I set up and moderated the Friends of Jacob Zuma website, which served as a platform where ordinary people could pledge their support for Zuma and which carried legal documents and reports on his trials. It also carried details of the bank account where people could make donations towards his legal defence and upkeep.
A few months after the website was set up, Zuma was charged with rape. News about the charge first emerged while he was appearing in a Durban court on the corruption charges. I asked Zuma directly what had happened. He explained that there had been no rape and that I should go and explain to some of his key supporters what had happened.
It was a humiliating assignment, which I carried out because there was no one else to do so. On the morning of Zuma’s first appearance in the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court in December 2005, one of his bodyguards phoned me from the court. He said the short court appearance was over and asked me if I could come to Zuma’s house in Forest Town.
When I got there, I realised why he had called me. The bodyguards were all standing silently on the driveway. Apart from Zuma and his housekeeper, the house was empty. It felt as if someone had died.
Throughout his trials, Zuma always presented himself as being fearless – even when he was sitting in the dock listening to those critical judgments. But that day there was something else in his eyes. The full weight of the rape charge had clearly hit him. It made me afraid because I was the sole witness to its effects.
I sat across from him in the lounge. Occasionally he would speak, other times we just sat in silence. The television was on and Frank Sinatra’s My Way came on. Zuma reached for the remote and turned the volume up.
I watched mesmerised as the song moved him and he internalised the words. It was one of the most bizarre moments of my life, watching him stare wide-eyed at the television, allowing the music to transport him.
When the song finished, Zuma turned to me and said: “I need to inform the ANC that I am stepping down from all my positions in the party.” I didn’t really know what he meant, until he said: “Can you type the letter for me?”
When I printed the letter in the study upstairs, I brought it to him to sign. He read it and reached for the pen. I grabbed his hand and started to cry. I didn’t want to be the one who typed the letter that would end such an illustrious career in politics. I didn’t want to be a witness to his formal separation from the organisation he so loved and for which he had sacrificed so much.
“Don’t do it,” I whispered. He looked at me and said “Ntombazana, I am doing this for the ANC. And for all of you. Because the ANC must survive. And it will.” He signed the letter and gave it to me. “Take it to the SG (Kgalema Motlanthe, ANC secretary-general at the time).”
As I walked out of the house, I made a silent pledge to help Zuma until he would clear his name and resume his rightful place in the ANC.
That moment came two years later in December 2007. In a crowded tent of ANC delegates screaming ecstatically, I watched Zuma ascend the stage with Thabo Mbeki at his side as the ANC’s top six election results were announced. In my head, I heard the words “the ANC must survive, and it will”.
Later that night, I followed Zuma as he walked out of the tent. I went up to him, congratulated him and said goodbye. He looked at me puzzled. I smiled and left.
As far as I was concerned, I had accomplished what I had set out to do. After his election as ANC president, there were plenty of people who thronged around him and I knew he didn’t need me.
Apart from a few meetings he asked me to set up, I stayed away. He called me a few times to ask where I was and I told him I was busy. It was difficult to resist being part of the heady excitement as he prepared to become state president, but I did so for my own sense of self-worth.
After Zuma became president, I did not meet with him at all. I saw him once at the SACP special congress in Polokwane in December 2009 and greeted him. I even politely declined an invitation to a state banquet and instead took my mother out for the evening.
My involvement in Zuma’s political and legal battles had damaged me so severely that I hardly recognised myself. I wanted to rebuild my life, and restore whatever I could of myself.
There were some things about Zuma and the things he did that were completely contrary to my own morals and values. His beliefs were not my beliefs. I felt ashamed by some of his deeds and lifestyle choices. I didn’t want to try to justify or excuse them anymore. It was not easy being a single woman in that milieu. I also didn’t want to be around when Zuma started suing journalists.
I was raised in a Catholic home and in a community that adheres to strong family values. While the trials were in progress, I never discussed a single detail about them with my family – because I couldn’t. And they never asked. That’s why I owed it to them to go back and be the person they knew.
And the person they knew studied journalism, always asked a lot of questions and loved to write – freely.
When Zuma became president, I watched excitedly as he established the machinery to achieve the goals he had set for his administration. I was happy that he stayed true to the image of the “people’s president”, which is what his campaign was fashioned on.
Then, he systematically squandered all the goodwill around him. Talented people in his government began to fall like toy soldiers. The administration has been fraught with problems, mostly through a failure of leadership. Today it is largely dysfunctional.
Similarly, the ANC in its 100th year is crippled with internal strife under Zuma’s presidency. Corruption and the manipulation of government tenders has made ANC membership a swear word. The abuse of state resources to fight political battles, the thing Zuma so loathed during Mbeki’s presidency, is now evident on his watch.
We are witnessing the undermining of fundamental constitutional values such as the right to know, freedom of expression and judicial independence.
I can dare to write about all these issues because I owe allegiance to no one and hold no grudges. I was not paid for anything I did for Zuma. I did so by choice and I walked away by choice.
Every day, South Africa’s unfolding story is being told, including on the vibrant platforms of Daily Maverick/iMaverick. For now, this is where I have found my place. DM