Carl Niehaus the narcissist

2009-02-20 00:00

Cape Town — Carl Niehaus was one of those politicians who managed to come across as purer than the driven snow. It was something about those big, sad eyes, coupled with the struggle credentials, and, of course, the poignant details of rejection by a conservative Afrikaans family.

There was always the infusion of his difficult prison sentence, tinged with the strong theological background, and his marriage to Jansie in Pretoria Central Prison.

His tone in dealing with journalists and the public was always just a little condescending and holier-than-thou. Or blacker-than-thou, as one correspondent once put it. If you asked him for a business card — as this journalist happened to do about three weeks ago at an ANC party — you’d get the once over and a sort of “you should be so lucky” look.

He came across as a man with the moral high ground, but now it emerges that Niehaus is to seek professional help for a life riddled with lies, debt and broken down business and personal relationships.

In 2003, he sweet-talked East London travel agent Cheryl Clur into organising a R90 000 holiday in Mauritius for his wife and two children. He played on her emotions, saying he had been ill with leukaemia, had undergone chemotherapy and needed a break.

In 2004, he lied outrageously about his sister’s death so that the legal firm AL Mostert — where he was employed for about R100 000 a month — coughed up business class tickets to London for himself and his wife at the time, Linda Thango.

In 2005, he admitted to forging the signatures of four Gauteng MECs while he was running the Gauteng Economic Development Agency (Geda), in a bid to secure a personal loan from a property development company.

He needed the money to settle a debt of R700 000 — spent on luxury cars — which he said he owed to the Rhema Church, where he had worked previously.

Once the Geda story broke last week, a whole Pandora’s box was opened as more and more people came forward to reveal details of Niehaus’s messy life.

It emerged that Standard Bank was awarded a judgment for R2 million against Niehaus last year for defaulting on his bond repayments for a Morningside residence. Last week he was served an eviction notice at the Johannesburg Supreme Court for payment of more than R300 000, accrued over seven months.

So, what made him how he is and how would a psychologist diagnose such a person?

Di Nel, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Somerset West, believes that Niehaus, if diagnosed, would be found to have a profound narcissistic disorder.

“There are nine criteria for this disorder — and, based on the information at hand, he appears to fit at least five of these,” Nel said in an interview with Weekend Witness.

Nel said that a person with a narcissistic disorder has a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a need for excessive admiration, a sense of entitlement, a tendency to exploit other people and would show arrogant, haughty behaviours or attitudes.

“Another characteristic of this disorder is that the person lacks empathy. The person would also have a strong belief that he or she is special or unique and can only be understood by other high status people. He or she would be preoccupied with feelings of unlimited success.”

Nel said the pattern of grandiosity and the need for admiration would show by early adulthood and would be present in a variety of contexts. She said Niehaus appears to meet enough of the criteria to qualify for a profound narcissistic disorder.

“It’s important to point out that there are people with this disorder who don’t go out and do what he does. It would seem that his personality make-up may have been fed by a political system that looks for heroes and does not wish to examine them too closely.

“The fact that he already had a history from 2003 — and yet people continued lending him money — shows how the system allowed his actions to go unchecked and, in fact, reinforced his behaviour.”

Nel said she sees a number of people who demonstrate the disorder, presenting mainly with relationship problems.

“I think to understand a man like Niehaus, one would have to go back to his early life. We know that he speaks about the ANC as his only family. I speculate that there was probably some narcissistic wounding, in a family context, which would have happened even before he joined the ANC and went to jail.

“Without knowing much about his family history, a person with such a personality disorder usually has experienced empathic failure and/or rejection within a family context. He would then have searched for this empathy, admiration and acceptance in other contexts.”

Nel continued: “A person with this disorder might not have felt loved for who or what he was and felt he would only be accepted if he represented a mirror for the parents. He might have grown up in a rigid,conservative environment in which large parts of him were not accepted.”

Nel suggests the parts may have been criticised and he may have found a substitute family in the ANC. “The tendency to ask for money from ANC bigshots suggests a need to be rescued by a parental figure”.

Nel continued: “It is interesting that, in all the publicity about him, we don’t know much about his parents or his siblings, the point being that he has almost had to recreate himself. Everything is about his achievements. It is quite ironic that he became a media person, because what he has been good at is constructing reality as he needs to see it.

“Narcissistically driven people are often narcissistically wounded themselves”.

Nel is adamant that Niehaus does not fit into the category of an antisocial personality disorder (commonly referred to as a “psychopath”).

“It would be very untypical for a psychopath to confess — albeit in dribs and drabs — in the way Niehaus has, or that they would allow themselves to be put through that humiliation.”

Asked how a therapist would treat someone like Niehaus, Nel said: “There would have to be medium- to long-term regular individual therapy, with a lot of mirroring and understanding of the parts of him that feel little or ashamed or inadequate, the parts that may not have been met within his family.

“… the little, scared, rejected and vulnerable parts would have to be reintegrated so they no longer are negated and acted out in this destructive way.”

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