Hints of a darker past

2009-02-25 00:00

The long-running drama over Jacob Zuma and the arms deal has resulted in the country overlooking an aspect of the African National Congress president’s background which says even more about this fitness, or otherwise, to govern.

At the end of last year, a biography was published on Zuma which was perhaps more interesting for what it did not contain. Written by the journalist Jeremy Gordin, it fails to mention, for instance, that Zuma was a life-long communist.

Zuma seems to have been anxious not to have this detail widely known. Membership of the South African Communist Party (SACP) is not mentioned either in government, or ANC biographies. Curiously, however, it is mentioned in an autobiography which Zuma himself wrote.

A favourite technique of identifying enemy agents in the ANC was to make members endlessly write their autobiographies. The theory was that an enemy agent, trying to stick to their cover story, would sooner or later make a blunder, which would be pounced on by their interrogator.

On May 2, 1985 Jacob Zuma, alias “Pedro”, sat down to write one such biography.

The Zuma autobiography — which is in the public domain, having been published by the radical investigative magazine, Molotov Cocktail — says he joined the SACP (or “the family” as it is euphemistically referred to) at the age of 21, in 1963.

Zuma’s autobiography also mentions his membership of “Nat” — the dreaded security department of the ANC in exile. Popularly known as the “Mbokodo” — “the stone that crushes” — Nat was a department of the ANC, but seems to have taken on a life of its own.

Set up in 1969, Nat was answerable to the Revolutionary Council, which in turn fell under Oliver Tambo at the Office of the President.

But “there was confusion over the role of Nat in the eighties when it drifted away from intelligence-gathering and towards disciplinary activities, as well as — in the case of Quadro (the ANC’s main detention camp in Angola) — guard duties.”

In 1987, Joe Nhanhla was appointed director of the Mbokodo with Zuma his deputy.

A senior intelligence official testified that the “powers” of the Mbokodo were “pervasive”. They did not consider themselves accountable “to the ANC generally or answerable to anybody specifically other than its head”.

The nature of the Mbokodo can be best conveyed by an account of some of the allegations arising from the 1983 “Quadro” mutiny. There have been three internal inquiries by the ANC into the mutiny and the camps scandal, and the horror stories that emerged are beyond dispute.

Briefly summarised, there were accounts of routine and bizarre acts of torture: beatings with barbed wire, bicycle chains and iron bars, and food and water deprivation. Detainees were made to crawl through colonies of red ants with pig fat rubbed into their skin. A prisoner had his lips burnt by cigarettes and his testicles squeezed with pliers. A detainee was buried up to his neck before being suffocated with a plastic bag. A guard masturbated over a woman because she refused sexual relations with security officials. A trainee tried to commit suicide after his girlfriend was “taken away”. People were locked up in goods containers, in suffocating conditions. And people simply disappeared.

According to the Motsuenyane Commission report — the most comprehensive of the inquiries — there were also “rumours of rampant embezzlement of funds, illicit dealings in precious minerals and theft of motor cars” by leaders of Nat.

Thanks to Zuma’s predilection for secrecy, his part — or otherwise — in all this is difficult to discover. He is quoted fatuously in Gordin’s biography as saying details of the “operational events of those days” were the “property of the ANC, not his”.

The little that is known about Zuma’s “missing years” is no more than a confusion of dates to be found in government biographies and listings of commanders submitted to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Two murders are central to the story of the Mbokodo: those of Mzwakhe Ngwenya — better known by his nom de guerre of Thami Zulu, or TZ — and Benjamin Langa.

Thami Zulu was an extremely popular commander in the ANC whose death in 1989 is a cause célèbre. Commander of the “Natal machinery”, he died a few days after being released from ANC detention. He had been held by the Mbokodo for 14 months without charge, including eight weeks in solitary. Forensic evidence indicates he was poisoned.

Zulu’s deputy, Cyril Raymond (aka “Edward Lawrence”, aka “Ralph” aka “Fear”) was also detained. He died while in the custody of the Mbokodo, denying that he was a police spy. He apparently drowned in his own vomit.

The death of Zulu caused such an uproar within the ANC that the organisation was forced to set up a commission of inquiry into it. The commission found no evidence that Zulu was a South African agent.

The other murder is that of Langa, which is not as well-known as Zulu’s killing, but could be as explosive.

Ben Langa was the brother of the country’s current chief justice, Pius Langa, as well as the brother of Mandla Langa, who is one of South Africa’s most famous writers.

Langa was shot dead in May 1984. The killing was carried out by two gunmen — Sipho Xulu and Lucky Payi — both of whom were subsequently hanged for the killing.

They were helped in the murder of Langa by Joel George Martins, a friend of Langa’s. Martins took the two killers to the flat where Langa was staying and called out to him, whereupon Langa opened the door to his murderers.

Martins subsequently applied to the TRC for amnesty for the killing and explained he had been told by Xulu that they had orders from a senior commander in Swaziland to kill Langa for having “sold out comrades”. The man who gave this order was code-named “Ralph”, according to Martins. It was the same “Ralph”, or “Fear” mentioned above, who drowned in his own vomit while being detained by the Mbokodo.

But in another twist to this extraordinary tale, the two killers of Langa — Xulu and Payi — themselves testified in their Pietermaritzburg trial that the man who gave them orders to carry out the murder was one “Leonard” and not Fear.

Zuma was also to have testified at the hearing, but failed to turn up. The amnesty panel was told arrangements had been made for him to appear, but he had gone to Geneva. George Bizos SC, who appeared for the Langa family at the hearing, said he had been unable to get a statement from Zuma.

Fear’s alleged “culpability” has won wide credence, thanks to the ANC leadership. Then-president Thabo Mbeki, for example, submitted a statement to the TRC which found its way into the “Final Report”. It said: “In a few cases, deliberate misinformation resulted in attacks and assassinations in which dedicated cadres lost their lives. In one of the most painful examples of this nature, a state agent with an MK name of Fear ordered two cadres to execute Ben Langa on the grounds that Langa was an agent of the regime. These cadres, Clement Payi and Lucky Xulu carried out their orders. This action resulted in serious disruption of underground and mass democratic structures in the area and intense distress to the Langa family, which was the obvious intention of Fear’s handlers. Once the facts were known to the leadership of the ANC, President Tambo personally met with the family to explain and apologise for this action. Xulu and Payi were arrested and executed. A triple murder had been achieved by the apartheid regime without firing a single shot.”

The basis on which Mbeki was able to identify Fear as a police agent and a murderer is not known.

The peculiar thing for the Langa family is how the ANC could have “executed” him by mistake when he was so well known in KwaZulu-Natal and further afield. Mandla Langa, the writer, recalls that one of the triggermen, Xulu, was a personal friend. He had in a sense “adopted” the youngster when they were based together at the ANC’s Malange camp in Angola.

In fact, the friendship with Ben Langa was even closer. Xulu testified that Langa had actually recruited him into the ANC and had personally helped him get out of South Africa. In exile Xulu had risen to the rank of battalion commander before being sent back to South Africa to kill his sponsor and friend.

Asked by counsel when and where he was given instructions to kill Langa, Xulu said it was on the way from Mbabane in a car driven “by the regional chief of security, Umkhonto we Sizwe”.

He continued: “While we were in the motor car he then said to me … There is a person who has done us a lot of harm. I asked him: ‘Who is that person?’ He said the person was Ben Langa. I said: ‘It cannot be Ben Langa’.” He had gone on to explain his relationship with Langa.

An exhibit in the Pietermaritzburg trial was a decrypted code book. One entry read: “Ben Langa eliminated on May 20. Reason: Leonard informed us on the day we left that [Langa] is the guy who handed two comrades to the Boers.”

There was only one ANC cadre named Leonard in the region at the time. He flatly denies having been a “regional chief of security”, or having had the conversation recounted by Xulu. His only connection with Langa was that he had been concerned he was seen consorting with a former policeman in Wentworth and had sent a report to this effect to Zuma.

• David Beresford is a staff correspondent of the Observer. This article is based on research for a book he is preparing on commission from Jonathan Ball Publishers, with the support of the Taco Kuiper Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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