Jacob Zuma: Crushing of the Mbokodo

A government official close to Deputy President Jacob Zuma said this week that the government did not expect the South African media to write anything positive about Zuma.

But it was not always like this. Not so long ago, Zuma was regarded as a suave politician with an amazing ability to negotiate and resolve deadlocks.

A self-taught politician without formal education, Zuma is credited with, among other things, bringing peace to KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) in the wake of the terrible low-level civil war that dogged the province in the years leading up to the 1994 general election. Zuma is also credited with the removal of King Goodwill Zwelithini from the clutches of the Inkatha Freedom Party, and with helping to bring peace to troubled Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Last week, however, he found himself on the ropes, unable or unwilling to explain his way out of a massive web of alleged corruption in which he appears to be involved with his financial adviser Schabir Shaik.

The publication of a charge sheet against Shaik laid bare Zuma’s extravagant lifestyle and a chain of financial transactions that raised questions about his integrity.

Yet some refuse to believe Zuma could be guilty of wrongdoing.
A former Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) cadre told the Mail & Guardian: “I have never seen anything like this. The unwarranted and undeserved judgement by South Africans that Zuma could be involved in criminal activity is really cruel. Some of us who jumped fences with him at 2am on the Swaziland border cannot believe this. We know him better and we will never judge him on the basis of these allegations.”

Zuma joined MK in 1962 and was arrested a year later while trying to leave the country. He was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. He was released in 1973, and left South Africa in 1975 to join the African National Congress in exile. He joined the ANC’s executive in 1977.

In exile he is said to have brought a sense of urgency to the project of infiltrating South Africa with MK cadres.

Under his command, hundreds of young MK cadres crossed the Swaziland and Mozambique borders into South Africa. Zuma himself crossed illegally into South Africa several times during this period.

Former fighters said it was Zuma who persuaded the Mozambican and Swaziland governments to allow the ANC to operate from their territories, despite considerable pressure and threats from the South African apartheid government.

Later, Zuma was to return to ANC head office in Lusaka, where he became chief of the intelligence department. In 1993 the ANC’s Motsuenyane Commission implicated Zuma in human rights abuses by the ANC’s security organ known as Mbokodo.

One of the first leaders to return from exile and prepare the ground for negotiations with the apartheid government, Zuma was elected ANC national chairman in 1994. He returned to his violence-ravaged home province of KZN, where he worked to bring peace.

He was appointed Economic Affairs and Tourism Provincial Minister, but, said one KZN ANC member, he achieved little in that portfolio. He spent most of his time there preoccupied with party matters and with repairing relations between the IFP and ANC. “He was hopeless as an MEC, but his peace efforts were a spectacular success.”

Part of that peace effort was “keeping radicals such as Harry Gwala under control”. But “Most of the economic projects, such as the King Shaka airport, took off after he had left office.”

Mary de Haas, a violence monitor at the time, said: “Zuma was very much a negotiator - and a pleasant person to work with. His main contribution was to depoliticise the role of King Zwelithini and remove him from IFP control.”

Besides chairing political and peace initiatives in several countries, Zuma emerged as a smart diplomat able to negotiate with the Aids-activism lobby group the Treatment Action Campaign when President Thabo Mbeki and health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang had badly burnt their fingers on the issue.

Zuma’s mainstream stance on Aids and his personable character earned him popularity and he was increasingly seen as a natural successor to Mbeki. However, in 2001 he issued an unsolicited statement declaring that he had no presidential ambitions, prompting many to believe that pressure had come from above.

But the fall of Zuma began, opined United Democratic Movement leader and former ANC executive member Bantu Holomisa, when he got entangled in debt.

“Shaik realised that and took advantage of him. But that’s no excuse for Zuma. He has disappointed the entire struggle and people who respected him. The ANC will have to do some soul-searching to find out why people who were in the forefront of MK are behaving like this. Why did people such as Tony Yengeni, Mac Maharaj and Shaik get involved in such careless deals?”

Zuma was born in 1942 in Inkandla, KZN. His mother was a domestic worker in Durban. His father died soon after he was born. He received no formal education, teaching himself to read from magazines and, later, on Robben Island, taking “a more structured approach” (as he put it) to his self-education.

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane

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