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The Murder of Thami Zulu: A call for a formal judicial inquiry


Born in Johannesburg in 1941, Paul Trewhela worked in underground journalism with Ruth First and edited the underground journal of MK, ‘Freedom Fighter’, during the Rivonia Trial. He was a political prisoner in Pretoria and the Johannesburg Fort as a member of the Communist Party in 1964-1967, separating from the SACP while in prison. In exile in Britain, he was co-editor with the late Baruch Hirson of ‘Searchlight South Africa’, banned in South Africa.

It is very possible that the prospect of the celebratory visit to Lusaka by the Robben Island leaders to meet ANC leaders in exile was a major reason for assassinating Mzwakhe Ngwenya before he could speak to them about his experiences in Jacob Zuma's Mbokodo prison. The dirty washing had to be hidden away. By PAUL TREWHELA.

After nearly 30 years, the murder by poison of Umkhonto weSizwe commander Mzwakhe Ngwenya (MK name Thami Zulu) in Lusaka on 16 November 1989 still poses the most serious question about the integrity of Jacob Zuma – the former president of South Africa today, “recalled” by the African National Congress.

The murder remains unsolved, following a grossly flawed and limited inquiry by the ANC. It remains a major scandal for the ANC and its then military wing, MK, and no less for the general character of the legal process in South Africa up to today.

Here is my interpretation of this shameful episode, which I’ve been working on for 25 years following my article The dilemma of Albie Sachs: ANC constitutionalism and the death of Thami Zulu, published in a banned exile magazine, Searchlight South Africa (No 11, October 1993), which I republished in 2009 as chapter 5 in my book Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and SWAPO (Jacana). This was accompanied by my article, Zulu proves an albatross around Zuma’s neck (Sunday Times, 15 March 2009), which I republished as chapter 6 in Inside Quatro. Both articles can be found online.

After the unbanning of the ANC, the internal ANC commission of inquiry carried out its research in South Africa in February/March 1990, though its report was withheld from the public until August 1993. The four commissioners were: ZN Jobodwana (subsequently Professor of Law at the University of South Africa); Isaac Makopo, honorary colonel in the SANDF and recipient last year of the Order of Luthuli; Tim Maseko, director in exile of the ANC’s Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Tanzania and subsequent South African high commissioner to Namibia, and Albie Sachs, former law professor and subsequently judge at the Constitutional Court. Tim Maseko died of a heart attack on the last day of 2006. The remaining three commissioners are still with us.

The commission reached two important conclusions: it found no evidence to justify suspicion that Ngwenya had provided information to the apartheid regime (as alleged by his interrogators), and it found that he had been poisoned by a substance, diazinon, administered in three bottles of beer within at most two days of his death. This finding came from medical evidence submitted by University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka and a forensic expert in London. There is no dispute about it. He was murdered.

Up to this point there is no problem with the commission’s report. The problem is: despite a subsequent professor of law and a celebrated Constitutional Court judge being among its members, the commission declined to ask itself the elementary question – who did it? Whodunnit? There, Judge Sachs and his fellow commissioners kept schtum, averted their eyes, washed their hands and closed their minds. At this point, the ANC commission of inquiry covered up for a murder.

This is where the important questions begin, which only an independent, full-scale judicial inquiry can answer. Here one enters into the hidden politics of the ANC in exile.

As I understand these matters, the dominant ethos in the ANC in exile and its security department (known as Mbokodo) until the Kabwe conference in 1985 was principally Xhosa-speaking. A major effect of the mutiny in MK in Angola in February 1984, followed by torture and detention of its leading participants in Quatro concentration camp, was the removal from office of leading figures from this ethos in Mbokodo, in particular Mzwandile Piliso, and with him another major commander in MK, Andrew Masondo, who was himself a Zulu-speaker. This created a vacancy at top command level in Mbokodo, filled in 1987 by appointment of Jacob Zuma as chief of counterintelligence.

That made a major change in the ANC in exile. There was a very significant difference between isiZulu-speaking commanders in MK in exile such as Masondo, General Siphiwe Nyanda, and Mzwakhe Ngwenya (or Thami Zulu), on the one hand, and Zuma on the other. The first three grew up in Soweto in urban, multilingual conditions and identified completely with the ANC’s founding ethos of anti-tribalism. They had no difficulty in loyally identifying themselves with and supporting the leadership of Mandela, Tambo, Thabo Mbeki, Chris Hani, Joe Modise, etc.

In my interpretation, Zuma was different. While Mandela, Tambo, Thabo Mbeki, Chris Hani, Masondo and other leaders of the ANC had their political focus on the whole of South Africa, Zuma’s focus within the ANC under the apartheid regime was almost exclusively directed towards his birth province, KwaZulu-Natal. To the best of my knowledge, his operational focus was never directed principally to any other province. Despite having been appointed very late – only in 1987 – to his senior command position in Mbokodo, he quickly created what I regard as a separate and tribal wing of Mbokodo directed exclusively towards KZN, with its command headquarters based with him in Lusaka. In practice, this wing owed exclusive loyalty to one person alone – Zuma.

At the same time, Zuma simultaneously controlled MK operational issues directed towards KZN, with particular focus on the MK apparatus known as the Natal Machinery, based in Swaziland.

I abstract here from personality and previous conduct issues in trying to interpret what I regard as intense hostility on the part of this Mbokodo/Natal Machinery wing towards Mzwakhe Ngwenya/Thami Zulu (known as TZ). As the journalist Phillip van Niekerk wrote in the former Weekly Mail (6 September 1991), there had been a suggestion of “rivalry between TZ and intelligence chief Zuma over control of Natal operations. The journal Southscan reported that Zulu ‘won the post (as head of Natal command) in the teeth of opposition from Zuma, who favoured a Natal-born candidate’.” The Guardian correspondent, David Beresford, provided similar information.

The fact that Ngwenya/Zulu was detained for as long as 17 months under intensive interrogation in Lusaka says to me also that Zuma’s Mobokodo apparatus was not able to find any evidence which could justify trial, conviction and execution.

I therefore exclude the losses to the apartheid regime sustained by MK in the Natal Machinery in Swaziland as the reason for Ngwenya’s murder by poison five days after his release.

Clearly, Ngwenya had been threatened with being killed while he was in detention. As I reported in my article in the Sunday Times (15 March 2009), “Ralph Mgijima (in whose house TZ was poisoned, while Mgijima himself was in hospital) told Van Niekerk: “Thami did not want to go to a doctor because he said the intelligence guys were going to finish him off.” Ngwenya also told Hani two days before he died that Mbokodo (ie Zuma’s wing) wanted to kill him. In my article in Searchlight South Africa, October 1993, I reported:

Tues 14 November: Hani returns to the house and finds Zulu still in a bad state. Zulu does not want medical help but ‘appeared to be worried that the Security Department is going to finish me off’ if he got into their hands.” (Beresford) This is clearly Hani’s own account, and points a finger directly at the security department, then headed by Joe Nhlanhla (director), Jacob Zuma (head of counterintelligence) and Sizakele Sigxashe. (Skweyiya report, p.63, and Beresford) Both Van Niekerk’s and Beresford’s accounts suggest Hani pointing an accusatory finger at Zuma ….” (Searchlight South Africa, October 1993, p 47)

It is reasonable to conclude – though it has yet to be judicially proven – that Zuma’s Mbokodo wing was the most likely assassin.

If so, the question remains why Ngwenya was not killed while he was in their prison under their detention.

My response is that if they had done this, his death would immediately have been blamed on Zuma’s Mbokodo apparatus. Ngwenya clearly had very powerful comrades, friends and supporters at the most senior level in MK in Lusaka who were not part of Zuma’s Mbokodo apparatus, and these commanders would immediately have accused Zuma and his apparatus of having murdered Ngwenya for their own, internal, factional reasons.

In my interpretation, he was released in order to be murdered outside of the direct, obvious authority of Zuma’s Mbokodo apparatus, so that they could not be directly accused of causing his death. This is clearly what Ngwenya was anticipating following his release from detention, arising from their treatment of him during his detention.

The question remains: if in fact Zuma’s Mbokodo was the killer, why did it take such a risk as to murder a terminally ill MK commander who was the friend and ally of the most senior MK commanders?

My theory is that this was because, following his very long interrogation, Zulu/Ngwenya knew too much about his interrogators. A great deal can be learned from interrogators by the detainee about what they know and what they do not know, as I found from my own much shorter interrogation at Compol headquarters in Pretoria in July 1964. In my view, Ngwenya’s knowledge about his interrogators, under the command of Jacob Zuma, would have led them to consider him a danger.

But there was another very immediate reason. His interrogators had reason to be worried, since the first delegation of former Rivonia Trial prisoners – Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Wilton Mkwayi, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Raymond Mhlaba, accompanied by several of their wives, and including Cyril Ramaphosa (National Union of Mineworkers) and Chris Dlamini (Cosatu) – was due to arrive at Lusaka airport on 15 January 1990. (From Elinor Sisulu, Walter and Albertina Sisulu In our Lifetime, David Philip, Cape Town, 2002 p 600)

Their coming would have been anticipated before Ngwenya’s release from prison. Mkwayi was released from prison on 10 October 1989, while Sisulu, Kathrada, Mlangeni, Motsoaledi and Mhlaba were released on 15 October. Govan Mbeki was released on 5 November. There is a likely direct connection between the release of the Robben Island veterans in South Africa and the release of Ngwenya in Lusaka on 11 November.

It is very possible that the prospect of the celebratory visit to Lusaka by the Robben Island leaders to meet ANC leaders in exile was a major reason for assassinating Ngwenya before he could speak to them about his experiences in Zuma’s Mbokodo prison. The dirty washing had to be hidden away.

My interpretation is that Ngwenya was detained and interrogated in Lusaka for 17 months and then killed five days later by poison – not because of operational issues in the MK Natal Machinery in Swaziland, and not because of any sustainable evidence that he was collaborating with the apartheid regime, but because he supported the MK leadership of Joe Modise, Chris Hani, Joe Slovo and others, and was regarded as hostile to a more tribally focused approach within the leadership of the Natal Machinery in Swaziland, under the direction of Zuma.

In my view, he was murdered for tribalist and factional ideological reasons.

None of this could have been done by Mbokodo operatives in Lusaka, or under their direction, without authorisation or command by Zuma.

My proposal is for a formal judicial inquiry to be convened in South Africa, similar to the one last year in Pretoria High Court which investigated the death of Ahmed Timol in Johannesburg while under detention of the apartheid regime in October 1971. This inquiry, which concluded that Timol had been pushed to his death from a high window at police headquarters, has been described as setting a “powerful legal precedent that promises to see the reopening of other apartheid era crimes”. (Ian Macqueen, Timol inquest opens new door to justice against apartheid atrocities, The Conversation, 22 October 2017.)

Timol inquest opens new door to justice against apartheid atrocities

The three surviving commissioners (Jobodwana, Makopo and Sachs) should be called individually to explain why they had identified murder as the cause of death, but failed to inquire as to who might have committed the crime. In the five days before his death, partly because of his frail condition, very few people had access to Ngwenya, who was placed in the house of his friend, Dr Ralph Mgijima, though Mgijima was ill in hospital at the time of Ngwenya’s death. Dr Mgijima – who was subsequently secretary for health for the ANC, superintendent general of health in the Gauteng government and chair of the Public Services Commission – needs obviously to be called to give evidence.

Similarly, anyone who is known to have visited the house over these five days needs to be called. Basically, this was a simple case for forensic investigation, with a very limited number of possible suspects over a limited time. It is quite clear the ANC Commission did a cover-up by not inquiring into the identity of the killer or killers.

All surviving members of the Mbokodo team in charge of Ngwenya’s detention and interrogation need to be identified and summoned as witnesses, as well as all surviving members of the Natal Machinery in Swaziland before and after Ngwenya’s summons to present himself in Lusaka.

Ronnie Kasrils, head of military intelligence in MK, who worked closely with Ngwenya and with Siphiwe Nyanda in the Natal Machinery, was very clear about Ngwenya/Zulu in his autobiography: “I do not believe he was a police agent.” (Armed and Dangerous: My Undercover Struggle against Apartheid, Heinemann, London, 1993 p 352) He too should be called to give evidence before the court.

In addition, the individual who was Ngwenya’s closest attendant over the five days before his death, Dr Prem Naicker, needs to be called. Dr Naicker was the son of MP Naicker, Zuma’s principal political tutor as a young man in Durban before his arrest and imprisonment in 1962, a senior figure of the SACP in Durban and subsequently editor in exile of the ANC journal, Sechaba, published in London. On his return to South Africa after the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Mandela, Dr Prem Naicker was made Chief of Medical Services in the South African National Defence Force, with the rank of Brigadier-General.

Brigadier General Naicker needs to be called for questioning about the likely poisoning of his patient, through the provision of the poison diazinon consumed in three bottles of beer.

In a press report of 7 June 2016, Dr Prem Naicker was reported as having led a surgical team in successfully delivering a baby at Newcastle Provincial Hospital in KZN from a mother who had a rare and dangerous abdominal pregnancy. He is almost certainly the same person as Ngwenya’s medical guardian.

Jacob Zuma needs also to be summoned for questioning as commander of the wing of Mbokodo responsible for the detention in Lusaka of Mzwakhe Ngwenya/Thami Zulu over 17 months. He has always refused to make any comment on this procedure which took place under his command, or on the subsequent poisoning of Ngwenya/Zulu. He evaded also any meeting with the parents of the dead commander. This was at the very least a gross dereliction of command responsibility, following the murder of an MK commander.

It is obvious that a major cover-up took place in the ANC and MK, with a collective refusal to require Jacob Zuma to account for the detention under his command of Mzwakhe Ngwenya, prior to the death by poisoning of the detainee. It is urgent that this grave dereliction of justice be corrected with a formal judicial inquiry. DM


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