Billy Masetlha: 'Mbeki dumped me'

Sacked director general of the National Intelligence Agency Billy Masetlha has lamented that President Thabo Mbeki, his close friend and comrade of 30 years, turned a blind eye as top ANC and government comrades set him up and assassinated his character.

In his first full-length interview since his fall from grace, Masetlha claimed that Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils, ANC businessman and NEC member Saki Macozoma, head of the policy unit in the presidency Joel Netshitenzhe and Inspector General of Intelligence Zolani Ngcakani had misrepresented him to Mbeki, while the president had betrayed him and sacrificed the long friendship they had forged in exile.

Masetlha made the startling claim that copies of the notorious emails suggesting a plot against ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma, which Ngcakani found to be fraudulent, were not the same as those collected by the NIA.

Battling to hold back tears, and eventually breaking into sobs during the interview, Masetlha also said he had played an important role in Mbeki’s accession to the presidency, as well as being central to building the internal ANC, particularly in Gauteng. He described his long struggle history in great detail.

‘The most painful thing to me is the deep sense of betrayal by those I regard as my comrades.

‘Ingishaya dizzy [it makes me dizzy]. I think I have served with distinction,” he said.

He also denied working for any side in the ANC’s internecine succession battle.
His detractors had found he could not be used to their advantage in the leadership race.

‘I have served Oliver Tambo, served Nelson Mandela and Thabo. I have never been a yes-man and have never been described as a Tambo man, Mandela man or Mbeki man.”

Masetlha described the origins of his friendship with the president, which reached its zenith after 1994, when he was successively appointed head of the South African Secret Service, home affairs director general and NIA chief.

He said he had held late-night meetings at Mbeki’s residence where the president had sought his help in understanding the intricacies of global espionage while the two men sipped single malt whiskey. He had considered himself Mbeki’s point-man.

‘Thabo would phone me at 11pm asking ‘Chief, where are you?’ Once I told him I was in Vanderbijlpark and he said: ‘How soon can you get here?’ I got to Pretoria after midnight.

‘We would sit and talk business and later have a drink. We had that kind of relationship. What went wrong? Angazi. [I don’t know.] That’s why I feel betrayed.”

Masetlha also claimed to have played a key part in making Mbeki the ‘king” at a stage when he lacked a sizeable support base in the country and overcoming the objections of former president Nelson Mandela and Mbeki’s parents.

The early years

Originally from Johannesburg’s Alexandra Township, Masetlha said he had based himself in Gauteng in the early 1970s as a protégé of ANC leader Joe Gqabi, who was later assassinated by apartheid agents in Zimbabwe. Gqabi had entrusted him with mobilising for the ANC and creating ANC structures.

‘At the time, I was motivated by black consciousness [BC] thinking. I knew Bra Steve [Biko] very well. I was detained at Cell number 18 when he died in cell 17 in Pretoria Central.

‘I am not name dropping. I slept at his place in Ginsberg in 1974. I admired him a lot. I also knew the brains behind him — Barney Pityana, Lindelwe Mabandla [Justice Minister Brigitte Mabandla’s husband] and others.”

Masetlha was detained in December 1976 after Tokyo Sexwale, Gqabi and 10 others were arrested for organising on the ANC’s behalf and for sabotage, but had refused to testify against them. ‘I told the police I could not give evidence against those I called my comrades. They threatened to torture and kill me. I said ‘go ahead’. Had I testified, Tokyo would have been hanged.”

In the early 1970s Masetlha was a member of the BC-oriented South African Students’ Movement (Sasm), becoming its Transvaal secretary and later its national secretary. He said he had helped organise the 1975 pro-Frelimo rally in Durban, which resulted in the arrest of current Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota and others under the Terrorism Act.

He said that at Sasm’s May 31 1976 rally in Vergespruit, Roodeport, he had pushed through a resolution in favour of protests and marches calling for a boycott of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools. This led to the June 16 student revolt.

‘We took the decision conscious of the consequences, but did not expect the police to respond in such a brutal manner,” he said.

He had also helped found the learners’ organisations, the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) and the Azanian Students’ Organisation (Azaso), in July 1979. ‘The first constitution of Cosas was typed by myself on my father’s typewriter.” As part of the ANC machinery in Johannesburg, he had worked closely with the late cleric, Beyers Naudé.


Tracing his friendship with Mbeki, Masetlha said he had first met him in 1979 while reporting to Gqabi in Botswana about mass mobilisation efforts in South Africa. He had gone to ask for more money for these activities and to buy arms.

‘Gqabi said Thabo was coming with money from Lusaka. When he arrived, he said he was concerned about the depth of the work we were doing in South Africa and wondered if we had the capacity.

‘I got to meet him more often after OR [Tambo] decided I should skip the country. He would come to Botswana delivering important messages from OR and I was often sent out to Lusaka for the same purpose. Alternatively, I would be instructed to help comrades cross into exile and then take them to Lusaka.

‘Even Thabo will tell you that during these years I have never acted in a manner unbecoming of an ANC cadre.”

Describing his role in Mbeki’s rise to the top job, Masetlha said that before the ANC’s 1997 conference in Mafikeng, former president Nelson Mandela had wanted Cyril Ramaphosa to become the next president

‘I said to him ‘no, not him; he is not ANC’. I said we — me and Peter Mokaba — will take Thabo by the hand to the length and breath of this country introducing him to the people­. We took a backroom operator boy and made him king,” Masethla said. He had also played a key role in delivering the Gauteng vote to Mbeki.

Masetlha described a trip he took to Idutywa in the Eastern Cape, where Mbeki’s parents lived. ‘We wanted Tata Govan Mbeki’s support ahead of the conference. uTata said: ‘Are you sure this boy has grown enough to be president? Do you know what it takes to be the president of the ANC? No, akakavuthwa kakuhle lomfana [this young man is not yet ready].’

‘We asked if he would support us if we gave Thabo the backing of experienced cadres like Joe Modise. He said: ‘Maybe you will succeed that way.’”

Ten years later, Masetlha said, ANC cadres were beginning to blame him for the infighting and factionalism that had dominated the ANC during the Mbeki years. ‘Comrades say I miscalculated, that I should have listened to Govan. I don’t agree. I still believe I was right. I say: ‘Look, this guy has changed in recent times.’

‘Thabo is very bright. But something must have seriously gone wrong with him, especially in the past two-and-a-half years. There is something I missed about him. I have the responsibility to find it out.”


Masetlha said he did not understand why Mbeki had fired him as NIA chief, or what the president meant by saying the trust between them had been ‘irreparably” damaged.

He also did not understand why he had been charged with fraud for contracting businessman Muzi Kunene to carry out intelligence work as part of Project Avani. The project was launched by the NIA ‘to gather, correlate, evaluate and analyse intelligence to identify any threat or potential threat posed by the presidential succession debate, foreign services interests therein, the impending Jacob Zuma trial, poor service delivery impacts and dynamics for the security and stability of the Republic and its people.

‘My job as intelligence officer is to recruit and pay people to work for me and provide me with important information. I gave Kunene the money to buy equipment needed to do the job. That is standard. There was nothing out of the ordinary about recruiting him. I recruited him four years ago; he is a registered agent.

‘I had people in very high places in far-away governments. I had equipment all over the world worth more than R14-million and these people reported to me daily. They call that fraud, as if I stole the money. The charge is malicious.

‘I wonder what it is that people fear about me; that they now want to destroy me. I have no skeletons in my cupboard.”

Masetlha claimed that Mbeki has been duped into believing charges trumped up by people plotting against him.

He maintained that the character assassination plot by Kasrils, Macozoma, Ngcakani and Netshitenzhe stemmed from a report he had submitted to the president concurring with an independent intelligence assessment by ANC secretary general Kgalema Motlanthe. This had warned that elements in the party, its NEC and the government were involved in ‘counter­-revolutionary” activities.

In September 2005 he had wanted to resign from his job as NIA chief because he believed he could not root out these elements while in government service. ‘I thought Thabo needed to know that people were intent on destroying the organisation. He, as president, and the ANC should deal with these things. I needed to leave and defend the ANC.”

He said he had reported his concerns to Motlanthe and his deputy, Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele, ‘outlining what people were saying on the ground”. He also told Motlanthe that the divisions in the ANC had to be healed before the national general council of 2005, where Zuma supporters rebelled against Mbeki’s bid to strip the ANC deputy president of his party post.

He suggested that the mysterious fire that had engulfed the ANC headquarters in central Johannesburg on August 27 2005 might have been related to ‘counter-revolutionary” forces.

Hoax emails

Masetlha said the ‘hoax emails” that had proved his undoing were falsified documents not supplied by him or Kunene.

‘Those are not my documents. I would never take state documents to Kgalema. That would be wrong and illegal. They are also not Muzi’s documents. I am being framed.”

He declined to say what the authentic documents contained, as ‘we are waiting for the court case to tell us whose [fraudulent] documents they are. They will have to answer in court.

‘In the court papers there are two statements making it clear who compiled those documents and how they got to Kgalema. The ANC commission report says where they were commissioned. It also makes a judgement on their authenticity. The parliamentary committee says they are not mine.

‘I tell you I am being framed. Look at Zolani’s statements and the language he uses; this makes it clear that there is a total campaign against me orchestrated by him and Kasrils.”

However, his detractors were not interested in his explanations. ‘They say they are Billy’s, that he manufactured them.”

Masetlha said some people had urged him to repay the money used to contract Kunene’s services, retire and drop his court action. ‘But that would be an admission of guilt. Paying the money back is not the factor here. This is about a campaign to destroy my integrity. Defending myself through the courts is a matter of principle.”

He insisted he had no reason to defraud Mbeki or the state when he had been ‘honourable and professional” throughout his years in the intelligence field.

‘Why would I do that in my fifties, when I am looking at the grave? I know I will never be rich. My reputation and integrity are the greatest wealth I have.”

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