Are top ANC members being poisoned?

2018-06-03 11:09
Former head of the Free State department of police, roads and transport, Sandile Mbisi.

Former head of the Free State department of police, roads and transport, Sandile Mbisi.

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The upper echelons of the ANC are awash with accusations of poisoning. The accusers and their allies assert that they are under homicidal attack by those intent on seizing power and negating their ideological positions.

The rest of us look on from the sidelines, puzzled as to whether such charges signify psychopathy, paranoia, politics or something older and more mystical. Perhaps it is a curious combination of all of the above.

In any other society a spate of high-level accusations of poisoning would be headline news but in South Africa there is so much other political intrigue in the air that these claims have not been adequately analysed. This is unfortunate because they have serious implications for health, criminal justice and the integrity of the state.

So, let’s start at the top. Over the years, former president Jacob Zuma has made several claims that he was poisoned in June 2014. As the 2017 ANC conference loomed, the frequency of the claims increased. In August last year, he was quoted by IOL as having told the ANC cadres’ forum in Pongola, KwaZulu-Natal, that “I was poisoned and almost died just because South Africa joined Brics [the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa grouping] under my leadership. They said I was going to destroy the country.”

In November, he told ANN7 that “I was poisoned; some people wanted me dead. Indeed it was quite a strong poison and I did go through a challenging time.”

Zuma did report his belief that he had been poisoned to the police in 2015 but to date no charges have been brought. In January 2015 aspersions were cast on the cooking of his estranged wife Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma who was subsequently evicted from Nkandla by then minister of state security David Mahlobo. None of the above constitutes proof of a crime having been committed.

Former president Jacob Zuma

Zuma is not alone in making such accusations. Then Mpumalanga premier and ANC deputy president David Mabuza has repeatedly asserted that he was poisoned because “I let my guard down and accepted food” at his 2015 birthday celebrations in Bushbuckridge. When asked, in January 2016, why he believed he was being attacked, he told The Sowetan that there was “a layer of people in the ANC that was unhappy and want to be leaders”. In the same statement he mentioned that immediately prior to becoming sick he had been accused of being an apartheid era spy by his chief political rival Mathews Phosa.

Mourners at the January 2018 Parys funeral of head of the Free State department of police, roads and transport, Sandile Msibi, were told by ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule that his deceased ally had been poisoned by enemies of radical economic transformation because “once you touch the nerve of white monopoly capital, you will never survive”.

Gayton McKenzie in his 2017 book, Kill Zuma By Any Means Necessary, claims that KwaZulu-Natal Premier Willies Mchunu was a victim of ricin poisoning.

Deputy President David Mabuza

It is impossible to escape the possibility of a political element to the accusations and/or attacks. Whatever else is going on, there is clearly a political element involved in that those who state that they have been targeted are politicians belonging to a pro-Zuma/anti-Ramaphosa ANC faction.

Obfuscation generally surrounds the exact identity of the accused but in February 2018 a group calling itself “cadres of the African National Congress and ex-combatants of Umkhonto weSizwe, the revolutionary people’s army” linked Cyril Ramaphosa to the poisoning of Zuma.

Evidence substantiating claims of such serious attacks might kindly be described as limited.

Poisoning of senior politicians would constitute a serious security breach and yet a 2018 South African Institute of Race Relations report combed through SA Police Service (SAPS) annual reports between 2007/08 and 2016/17 looking for evidence of threats to VIPs and found no such security breaches being logged. Both the president and his wife would fall under the care of the Presidential Protection Service (PPS) and yet the 2014 SAPS annual report states “no security breaches occurred” in relation the PPS.

Ma Ntuli-Zuma was subsequently questioned by the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks) in June 2015 but the case seems to have stalled. Her attorney, Ulrich Roux, recently told City Press that he had written four letters to National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) head Shaun Abrahams since September 2016, requesting more information about the case and that “we have not received any proper response, except for the fact that the NPA alleges that it is investigating the matter … The NPA cannot even confirm if my client is an accused person or a witness.”

More to the point, neither Mahlobo, Zuma, Mabuza or Magashule provided evidence that poisoning (either intentional or accidental) took place at all. There is evidence that both Zuma and Mabuza became ill and were treated by doctors but no evidence has been provided that they were poisoned.

Poisoning is vulnerable to what philosophers call the logical fallacy of “post hoc ergo propter hoc” (Latin for “after this therefore because of this”) which states that since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X. This assertion must be proven, as the fact that disease Y occurred after eating food X does not mean that food X necessarily caused disease Y. Illness can and often does have a latency period such that behaviour Z which occurred at any time in the past is at least as likely to be the true cause of disease Y.

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule

The plot really thickens when the competence and ethics of the South African medical profession is called into question. In each case the accusers have stated that named and well-respected South African private hospitals (and the private laboratories that service their toxicology requests) were unable to detect poison. The failure of South African medical professionals to find proof has been taken by some as a sign of incompetence and by others as conspiracy, but it is just as likely to be the result of a lack of evidence. McKenzie’s book alleges that doctors at the Milpark Hospital pressured Mabuza to resign while under their care.

In all but Msibi’s case the alleged victims claim to have taken the matter out of South Africa and to have subsequently been diagnosed and successfully treated in Russia. Magashule lamented that “if we had taken him [Msibi] to Russia he would still be alive today”. Hansard records Mabuza telling the Mpumalanga legislature that he “got a lift” home from Moscow on a plane owned by Zuma’s chief financial backers, the Gupta family.

If these allegations are examined within a medico-legal paradigm, it is important as to whether the toxicological evidence supports claims of deliberate and malevolent poisoning. In the modern era, poisoning is no longer a safe bet for those seeking to get away with murder.

In the introduction to The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison, John Emsley states that “forensic chemistry is now so sophisticated that it’s possible to detect poisons at levels that previous generations would not have thought possible”. If someone dies under suspicious circumstances, forensic chemistry will pick it up and find out the cause from analysing the body. When asked for an opinion on South African services, forensic scientist Dr David Klatzow observed that “the state laboratories are in decline but private sector laboratories are competent. If they can’t find anything it is most likely not there. There is no reason to think that going to Russia would produce different results.”

Several pathologists (within academe and the police services) who did not wish to go on the record expressed similar sentiments. Despite this, the alleged victims continue to state that South African doctors could not or would not find evidence of poisoning but that Russian doctors did. No data supporting these purported Russian findings have been provided.

Regardless of where the poison may or may not have been detected, the crimes were all allegedly committed in South Africa. If Russian toxicology reports found evidence of poison, these should have been presented to the South African police. Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi confirmed in March 2018 that Mabuza, Magashule and Mchunu had not reported these matters to the police.

There is an alternative explanation for such cases, which neither scientists nor journalists have considered. Old concepts seldom die; they are reworked in a new context. Globally there are mystical understandings of poison that predate modern science. Many South Africans recognise two similar but distinct meanings for the word ‘poisoning’. Media reports have all dealt with the claims as if there had been poisoning in the scientific sense. But what if these accusations fit into a mystical, traditional world view?

In a scientific understanding of poisoning, a chemical substance which has been shown to consistently cause harm to a human body is deliberately administered. The toxin acts in a predictable manner to damage the physiological state of the victim. It will act in the same way on all the people to whom it is administered. The toxin is medically traceable in the victim’s body. In traditional southern African cosmology, poisoning is often thought of as a form of “vengeance magic”, which can be translated as isidliso (isiZulu) or sejeso (in Sesotho). Such poisons are called up by those with magical powers and can wreak both physical harm and social misfortune.

Generally, isidliso/sejeso will be directed to a particular individual such that many people may eat an adulterated birthday lunch but only the person for whom the poison is intended will get sick. Unlike scientific poisoning (where accidental poisoning can occur) intent is essential for ill effects of vengeance magic to manifest. Many traditional healers will argue that such poisons are not detectable using Western allopathic medical techniques.

Once administered, the sejeso/isidliso is in a battle to the death. In order to survive, the victim must engage a powerful healer of their own to repel the poison. The initial bewitcher must not know that the victim is attempting to disrupt the vengeance magic because then they can take steps to prevent such actions. Within this world-view, countermagic is best administered by a foreign healer because they are too far away for the first agent to learn of their efforts and often they possess exotic skills that the first agent doesn’t have the power to block. The traditional saying that “A witch doesn’t cross a river” sums up this idea. We don’t know what the Russian toxicology reports show (or if they exist at all), but we do know that these Eastern European healers are on the other side of the river. Perhaps this explains the desire of our politicians to travel for treatment.

Regardless of which cosmology is favoured, the impact of such accusations is to increase factional tensions in an already fraught environment. Whether isidliso/sejeso or ricin or nothing at all was used, the resultant political climate is poisonous.

- Dr Trapido is trained as a chef and anthropologist, and uses both disciplines in her work.

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