Two faces of Mokaba

Selective amnesia is a useful tool for political survival — not least when it comes to remembering the dead. So it is that African National Congress leaders have been falling over themselves in the effusiveness of their praise for Peter Mokaba, following his death last Sunday morning. President Thabo Mbeki, for instance, pointedly noted, “the apartheid regime could never bend or bow him”.

The tricky issues of Mokaba’s recent past

Download Peter Mokaba’s controversial Aids document: Castro Hlongwane, caravans, cats, geese, foot & mouth and statistics

— such as the contrast between his “dissident” stand on Aids and the facts of his own infection — have been airbrushed away, as have the questions of earlier years. The comrades who once muttered, “J’accuse!” have become the politicians who shout, “Pick up his spear!”

My own contact with Mokaba goes back to United Democratic Front days, the mid-1980s. Despite misgivings about his deep-pocket taste in cars and clothes, and the contrast between his “Viva Comrade Mengistu” speeches at youth rallies and his peace and apple-pie message at Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) functions, I regarded him as a man of considerable intelligence, charisma and courage, and wrote about him accordingly.

I never changed this perception, but in 1988 I began to question whether he possessed another important quality: integrity. I was then serving as treasurer of the Transvaal leadership committee of the South African Communist Party underground (part of a structure headed from exile by the ANC and SACP leaders, Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo, and internally by Mac Maharaj and Siphiwe Nyanda) and we were instructed to pry into Mokaba’s past.

I played a minor role and was therefore surprised by the welter of allegations when the final national report was read to us. Two stood out.

First, a former student activist claimed that in 1981 Mokaba tried to recruit him to the security police. Second, a Limpopo Province activist said Mokaba had told him he would be collected at a certain spot by the ANC to be taken across the border. The man became afraid and hid in the bushes, only to find that the people who arrived on cue were the police.

Sydney Mufamadi (who served with me on the underground committee) was mandated to present the results of this investigation to Slovo in Lusaka. He returned to deliver his report at a 6am meeting in a small factory office in Fordsburg — informing us he had been called in by the ANC’s heads of security and intelligence, Joe Nhlanhla and Jacob Zuma, who had told him that Mokaba had confessed under interrogation to being a security police informant. Mufamadi said ANC intelligence wanted to detain Mokaba, but Tambo felt it would be too demoralising for ANC youth supporters. Instead he was to be rehabilitated.

After further discussion at a national level we mandated Mufamadi to recommend Mokaba’s exposure. I was again present when he returned to tell us he had once more seen Zuma and Nhlanhla, who said they were sympathetic but the decision was out of their hands. He gave us further information on Mokaba’s alleged confession, which suggested he had been an apartheid agent for several years. We were then instructed to inform members of the underground of Mokaba’s past.

These allegations were soon being widely discussed within ANC and UDF circles. I raised this with Slovo and John Nkadimeng (another ANC national executive committee member) at an Idasa/ANC military conference in Lusaka in 1990. Slovo confirmed Mokaba’s spy confession but, like Mac Maharaj, suggested the issue was not a priority. Nkadimeng, who had not met me before, was taken by surprise, but the following night asked to see me and confirmed that Mokaba had indeed confessed to being an enemy agent. Nkadimeng said Mokaba’s crime came in not voluntarily informing the ANC of a deal he’d made with the security police to get out of detention.

Flying home from Lusaka after the conference, I sat next to Dr Van Zyl Slabbert, who said: “Do you know what I’ve just heard? That Peter Mokaba is a spy.” Shortly before I had seen Slabbert talking to Thabo Mbeki, although I can’t be sure of the source of his information.

Over the next year numerous activists and sympathisers, including several journalists, were “tipped off” and the sources were certainly not confined to one faction of the ANC. They included ANC military intelligence and SACP leaders whose pet hate was Zuma and who despised the ANC security and intelligence lot. For instance, in two conversations with senior Zimbabwe-based ANC cadres in 1990, an underground leader and a military leader told me that suspicions about Mokaba within ANC military intelligence went back to his role as a Northern Transvaal ANC military commander in the early 1980s.

The Weekly Mail and The Guardian published the story in 1991, after an investigation by Philip van Niekerk and David Beresford in which they interviewed several of Mokaba’s ANC accusers. This was followed by a story by Abbey Mokoe and Jovial Rantau in the Saturday Star, giving further details. Mokaba threatened to sue The Weekly Mail, while Van Niekerk received death threats, but these threats were not carried out. Eventually, the ANC issued a carefully phrased response, stating: “We regard him as a fully-fledged member of the ANC, in good standing.”

A week later I was paid a surprise visit by one of the key leaders of the SACP. “We all know about Mokaba’s past,” he said, “but at the moment he’s not the problem — the real problem is Zuma.” He suggested that Mokaba’s fall would aid Zuma and asked me to encourage journalists to redirect their focus into Zuma’s past. I made it clear that I had no such influence or inclination. However, Mokaba’s survival owed much to this changed approach. With the tacit support of several prominent anti-Zuma communists he came 47th out of 50 in the ANC national executive elections, and with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s muscle, he hung on as ANC youth leader. After that the issue was dropped, the leakers clammed up and Mokaba became an ANC MP and, from what I’ve heard, an efficient and hard- working deputy minister.

Over the next few years fresh information on this story was confined to a trickle of competing claims from former apartheid agents — such as a “turned” former security policeman, who supplied details of a state campaign against Mokaba, and a “turned” former Askari killer, who claimed to have been Mokaba’s police handler.

In 1994 I wrote a feature for Leadership magazine on spies within the ANC, touching on my experience in the Mokaba case. I repeated this account when interviewed by SABC radio. Three years later Mokaba launched a campaign to clear his name. He asked the ANC to take action against me and repeated his promise to sue both Van Niekerk and me, but, once more, failed to act — even though I specifically challenged him by saying I refused to withdraw anything I’d said or written. Mokaba said he also confronted Mufamadi, who denied his role in the affair. In response, Mokaba was quoted as saying: “I have reason to doubt his answer on the matter.”

He claimed, in his submission to the ANC, that the allegations were all the work of an Indian-led, Natal-based “cabal” within the UDF. However, for this to be true it would mean this cabal — which certainly never included me in its ambit — somehow managed to dupe Zuma, Nhlanhla, Mufamadi, Slovo, Nkadimeng and numerous other prominent leaders from different factions within the ANC alliance, several of them vehement critics of “cabal” politics. Somehow, I doubt it. Another possibility is that Zuma or Nhlanhla invented the confession story and managed to convince the others by exploiting existing suspicions about Mokaba. And, of course, the third possibility is that Mokaba was indeed a security police agent. But whichever way you look at it, someone in the ANC leadership was telling massive porkies to advance his cause.

But none of this concerned the ANC by 1997 because by then it was porky season all around. Mokaba’s one-time ANC enemies developed a splendid case of collective amnesia on their roles in this affair, with the result that his slate was officially wiped clean. One of the last ANC leaders to pay his respects to Mokaba on his deathbed was none other than Mufamadi.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

‘Skin Deep’ peels race science

This book is an important fightback against the re-emergence of  racist genetic determinism

Black Brain, White Brain: The new wave of racist science

The last decade has seen a revival of a very old and long-discredited idea: that intelligence is influenced by racial origin.

Fear and Lothian in Westminster

Big promises were made to keep Scotland in the union, now it’s time for backpedalling.

Slovo, First biography – Bedfellows of a different feather

Alan Wieder's biography on Joe Slovo and Ruth First focuses on the couple's relationship, their different personalities and opposing views.

Bonds of tribal loyalty loosen

Ronnie Kasrils names his comrades in the fourth edition of his book about the struggle. Other than that, not much is new.

Reliving apartheid’s dying days

Donald McRae's ability as a story­teller turns the everyday into the exceptional.

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

‘We struggle for water, but power stations and coal mines...

A proposed pipeline will bring water polluted with Gauteng’s sewage to the Waterberg in Limpopo to boost the coal industry during the climate crisis

Journey through anxious Joburg

A new book has collected writing about the condition of living, yes, with a high crime rate, but also other, more pervasive existential urban stresses particular to the Global South

Football legend Maradona dies

The Argentinian icon died at his home on Wednesday, two weeks after having surgery on a blood clot in his brain

Covid vaccines: Hope balanced with caution

As Covid vaccines near the manufacturing stage, a look at two polio vaccines provides valuable historical insights

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…