Zuma's conspiracy narrative a timely warning against the dangers of paranoia

Former president Jacob Zuma testifying at the Commission of inquiry into state capture. (Felix Dlangamandla/Netwerk24)
Former president Jacob Zuma testifying at the Commission of inquiry into state capture. (Felix Dlangamandla/Netwerk24)

In recalling ANC exile history in the context of the state capture commission, it is critical that we do not fall into a similar, if inverted, conspiracy narrative to the one Jacob Zuma is now trying to spin, writes Jeremy Cronin.

The autobiography of Simone Signoret, the French movie actress of an earlier era, has an intriguing title: Nostalgia isn't what it used to be. Listening to Jacob Zuma's expansive opening statement to the Zondo commission on state capture, it's clear paranoia (or perhaps nostalgia for paranoia) is, in his case, exactly what it has always been.

In the exile years Zuma rose into the upper ranks of the ANC's often dreaded National Intelligence and Security Directorate (NAT). In the 1980s, in the extremely dangerous forward areas (as they were called), bordering and near bordering countries with apartheid South Africa, a measured paranoia might have been justified – even recommended. Car bombs, parcel bombs, poisonings, abductions, helicopter-borne raids were order of the day.

Infiltration of the ANC was an obvious part of the apartheid regime's strategy. Jimmy Kruger, minister of justice at the time of the 1976 student uprisings, even boasted that "of every ten who cross the border to find the ANC, five are mine". It was, of course, an exaggeration. But it was also part of what expanded considerably into an active Stratcom campaign of sowing confusion and paranoia on the other side.

Paranoia, with its attendant conspiracy theories and witch-hunts, is the oxygen on which security apparatuses world-wide thrive. This is why it is so important that they are brought under effective, independent oversight and exposed to the maximum possible transparency. That's not easy, especially in the midst of an armed conflict. But it was certainly a well-articulated concern within the ANC in Lusaka in the late-1980s, particularly from the side of MK and key personalities within the national executive committee, including Chris Hani, Joe Modise and Pallo Jordan. There was a strong feeling that the NAT machinery was running amok and undermining the basic ethical codes of the movement.

In his introductory statement to the Zondo commission, Zuma has now evoked events in Lusaka in the late-1980s, notably a confession (which, apparently, he refused to sign) by "Ralph Mgcina" (real name Edward Lawrence), a senior MK commander and alleged apartheid infiltrator. In the confession, "Ralph" is said to have listed numbers of other fellow "infiltrators", whose names are probably among those on the list flourished by Zuma at the Zondo commission. "Ralph" died while in NAT custody in July 1988. Although the circumstances of his death were never fully examined, there were suggestions from the side of NAT that he had been poisoned by members of NAT itself who were "working for the enemy".

The major source of deepening tension and mistrust between MK and NAT at the time surrounded another case, that of "Thami Zulu", popularly known as "TZ" (real name Muziwakhe Ngwenya). Between 1983 and 1988, operating out of Swaziland, TZ was the MK commander for the Natal region. During that period it was the MK's most active and effective machinery. There have been suggestions that there was long-standing bad blood between TZ and Zuma, with the latter aggrieved that the Soweto-born TZ had been preferred to head the Natal machinery.

In 1988 TZ was recalled to Lusaka and held in custody by NAT. He spent nearly a year in custody, including three to four months in harsh solitary confinement. TZ had told his close colleague Hani that he feared that the NAT machinery wanted to kill him. After pressure from his family in South Africa, from senior ANC and MK colleagues, including Slovo, Modise and Hani, and from SA Council of Churches delegations travelling to Lusaka, TZ was eventually released. Emaciated, in extremely poor health, he died five days later without having the chance to reconnect with his family. The ANC's own commission of inquiry into the matter found that TZ died of "illness and possibly as a result of poisoning".   

Zuma appears to have played a leading role in the detention of TZ, and in the refusal to grant access for senior MK leadership to TZ while in custody.

So what's the point of recalling all of this tragic history now?

In the first place, it might help to better explain why Zuma's grievance about his removal from the ANC security apparatus by Mandela is misplaced. In his statement to the Zondo commission this is listed as one piece of evidence of a sustained apartheid-imperialist conspiracy against him (with Mandela's implied witting or unwitting collaboration). There is a simpler explanation. At least from the late-1980s there was a general perception within the ANC leadership that Zuma was an unsuitable person to be entrusted with security and intelligence related activity.

Recalling all of this also suggests explanations for one of the obvious questions emerging from Zuma's statement to the Zondo commission. If, as he alleges, he really believes Ngoako Ramatlhodi was an enemy agent planted into the ANC, why did he appoint Ramatlhodi to serve as a minister in his cabinet? A case of Zuma's forgiving nature? Or the belief that holding the threat of a damaging revelation (however truthful or otherwise the revelation would be) would make Ramatlhodi a more pliant minister, agreeing perhaps to acquiesce in the highly dodgy Gupta Tegeta deal? To his credit, this is exactly what Ramatlhodi refused to do.

In recalling ANC exile history in the context of the state capture commission, it is critical, however, that we do not fall into a similar, if inverted, conspiracy narrative to the one Zuma is now trying to spin.

This, in my view, is the danger run by an initiative of Mbeki-aligned ANC veterans (including Mongane Wally Serote, Snuki Zikalala and Aziz Pahad). In a longish discussion document, a first instalment to a promised series ("Counter Revolution, State Capture and Corruption in South Africa"), they argue that state capture is an active counter-revolutionary conspiracy designed to defeat the national democratic revolution. They attribute the success of this counter-revolutionary agenda largely to the failure in the mid-1990s to get the former apartheid intelligence agencies to disclose the names of all apartheid-era infiltrators into the ANC.

We are back here with nostalgia.

In this first instalment the authors effectively out the former and recently disgraced SARS head, Tom Moyane. They rely on some apparent discrepancies in Moyane's biography to suggest that he was an apartheid agent inside of the ANC. It is unclear where this series is heading. There is a strong suggestion that it is Zuma himself who is leading the counter-revolutionary conspiracy, much as Zuma's implied target in his current narrative is not Ramatlhodi but Cyril Ramaphosa.

To attribute a grand political strategic objective to the phenomenon of state capture is a mistake. The democratic revolution is collateral damage, not the strategic objective of the state capturers. State capture has certainly had a massive, negative impact on our hard-won constitutional democracy and on the ability of our country to drive effective economic and social development. But state capture has been driven by a greedy network in pursuit of industrial-scale looting of public resources. This has been facilitated by the capture (re-purposing) of the criminal justice system, including the critical intelligence apparatus and SARS.

Tom Moyane may or may not have been an infiltrator. Zuma may or may not have used knowledge of this as a handle on Moyane. We will probably never know. But let's focus on the actual misdeeds of state capture itself, as I believe the Zondo commission is seeking to do. Let's better understand how and why it was allowed to fester. And let's not get sucked into diversionary narratives and counter-narratives based on a conspiratorial nostalgia for a different time.

- Cronin is a member of the SACP's central committee, and a former member of the ANC's national executive committee. He was a deputy minister between 2012 and 2019. His first collection of poems, Inside, was released to much acclaim after his release from prison in 1984.

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