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A troubling silence: Jacob Zuma and the death of MK commander Thami Zulu


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.

The failure of any authority to require Jacob Zuma to account for himself in relation to evidence by the family of Thami Zulu at the TRC suggests that somehow he might be considered to be above the law. If so, is he also above the Constitution?

In his book A Rumour of Spring: South Africa after 20 Years of Democracy (Zebra Press, 2013), Max du Preez wrote: “Nobody has produced evidence that Jacob Zuma ordered or participated in the torture or poisoning of Thami Zulu. But Zuma has never successfully explained how he, as head of intelligence and one of those who ordered Zulu’s detention, had no knowledge of the man’s detention and indeed maltreatment, and why he didn’t order his release after it became clear he wasn’t an apartheid agent. Often, when I see Zuma in public or on television, I think to myself: was this man, my country’s president, at least partly responsible for the vicious torture and murder of an innocent and brave man?”

It is appropriate to go one step further.

Bearing in mind Douglas Gibson’s powerful argument, “Zuma must return to jail”, in light of the former president’s refusal to answer to the State Capture Commission, there is an issue indicating failure of the rule of law — and failure of the Constitution — in the refusal of both the ANC government and the prosecuting authority to require Zuma to account for himself in relation to the death of Zulu (Muziwakhe Ngwenya), the Umkhonto weSizwe commander, who was murdered in Lusaka in November 1989.

In any normal judicial investigation of a murder, evidence given to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Soweto on 26 July 1996 by Zulu’s mother, Emily Ngwenya, would immediately have led to an investigation of Zuma, involving his arrest and intensive questioning.

When you read the two paragraphs by Ngwenya below, keep in mind that her phrase “the military wing” refers to the most senior command of Umkonto weSizwe (MK) at the time of her son’s murder, then headed by MK’s commander-in-chief, Joe Modise, and Chris Hani, its chief of staff — both of whom had tried and failed to save Zulu’s life — while her phrase “the security” relates to an exclusively isiZulu-speaking branch of the ANC’s security department, Mbokodo (“the grindstone”), under the command of Zuma, then deputy head of intelligence in the ANC, a position he had occupied since 1987.

Speaking about her son’s detention for 17 months in solitary confinement under prison conditions in Lusaka, Ngwenya told the TRC:

“The military wing was with him, they supported him right through. Even at the time when his corpse was fetched from Zambia, they were with him. They were working with the family. They had nothing against him. The people who were not working with him, that is the security, is the group that had something to do with him. That contradiction, which shows that there was a little clique.

“One of the papers quoted that there was a struggle of power. And of course we know, my son said it when we had gone to see him the last time, in Zambia. He said that there was bad blood between him and Jacob Zuma. It was mentioned in a number of papers that Jacob Zuma was not happy that he was appointed a commander in Natal. It was found in all the papers. We kept these papers.”

A “struggle of power” … “that contradiction” …  “there was bad blood between him and Jacob Zuma”…

What more is required to investigate the murder of a commander of its armed forces in a country with rule of law?

Mr and Mrs Ngwenya can be seen and heard on YouTube giving their evidence to the TRC, as shown on Max du Preez’s programme, Special Report on the Truth Commission, broadcast shortly afterwards on SABC. Please take the time to listen to this crucial evidence (TRC Episode 12, Part Three).

Yet there was no further questioning of Mrs Ngwenya. The TRC failed to conduct any further inquiry and to this day, Zuma has never been formally questioned about Thami Zulu’s death, despite Mrs Ngwenya’s evidence being accessible globally on YouTube. The case has been buried for 25 years.

Provided they confessed, the TRC gave amnesty to the perpetrators of human rights crimes in the apartheid era. It gave amnesty, after they confessed, to three MK operatives for the murder of Sipho Phungulwa, a former MK soldier who’d been in its concentration camp, Quatro, in Angola. (Case JB00420/01ERKWA). This murder took place in Mthatha on 13 June 1990 — seven months after the murder of Zulu. 

But no application for amnesty was made by Zuma to the TRC. The case remains open.

Is Jacob Zuma above the law? Is he above the Constitution?

If so, what does this say about South Africa?

In this context, the burning of the National Assembly in Cape Town looks like an appropriate symbolic statement. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Jacob Zuma’s teflon-like powers derive from his years as the ANC’s “intelligence” chief. Jacob along with Mo and Chippy Shaik, and irritating little brother Shabir – they’ve got the dirt on everyone in the ANC. That is their power.

  • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

    “Is Jacob Zuma above the law? Is he above the Constitution?” In this country where the anc rules – definitely. Remember, jz is #1
    “If so, what does this say about South Africa?” It confirms that SA is now a Banana Republic and that Trump was probably correct when he allegedly described SA as a ‘crime-ridden mess ready to explode’ and ‘a s***hole’.

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