Master of information

Bheki Jacobs, who died last week at the age of 46, was one of the most remarkable figures to come out of the liberation struggle.

Jacobs was the native who caused all the trouble, the man ultimately responsible for the fact that we have an arms deal scandal and the crisis around ANC president Jacob Zuma.

It was Jacobs who delivered the dossier of arms deal allegations to opposition MP Patricia de Lille, though he was not its only author. It was this information that helped launch the investigation that came to focus on Zuma and his financial adviser Schabir Shaik.

Information—its gathering, interpretation and dissemination—was Jacobs’s life-blood, a craft he pursued brilliantly and ceaselessly, even when he was partly paralysed by the cancer that killed him.

At his Muslim funeral on Monday, veteran investigative journalist Martin Welz spoke of Jacobs as a man of rare integrity. That was true: for an intelligence operator—an “information peddler”—he had a remarkably constant code of honour.

Jacobs ran what he called a guerrilla intelligence network (a concept that formed the subject of his uncompleted thesis at Moscow University’s Institute for Asian and African Studies).
Styled as a company, Congress Consultants, it ran on a shoestring. Key among its clients, Jacobs suggested, was “the chief”: Thabo Mbeki. The presidency has denied a relationship with Jacobs.

After his return from exile in 1994 Jacobs worked for a series of fronts that provided him with a salary and a cover for his political intelligence-gathering: first at ANC head-quarters, later as a security adviser to then-ANC chief whip Arnold Stofile and from 1999 to 2001 for the state-funded Africa Institute.

His long-time collaborator, Sobantu Xayiya, said they produced regular intelligence reports, mainly delivered through the office of Mbeki confidant Essop Pahad. Xayiya claimed their last meeting with Pahad was in November 1998, when Pahad accused them of “misinforming” the president and cut off their access to Mbeki.

The reason for the fallout seems to have been the arms deal.

Peace campaigner Terry Crawford-Browne said Jacobs approached him in June 1999. “He told me: ‘We’ll tell you where the real corruption is—around Joe Modise and the leadership of Umkhonto weSizwe, who see themselves as the new financial elite in post-apartheid South Africa.’

“He and his colleagues in ANC intelligence, he said, had seen the disastrous consequences in Russia of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when communists suddenly became super-capitalists. Such a gangster society, Bheki said, was not why he had gone into exile to fight for liberation from apartheid. Something had to be done.”

What Jacobs did was to craft relations with members of the opposition, media and civil society, beginning with the dossier for release by De Lille. His approach to information had become radically democratic: to share it as widely as possible.

Arms deal bidder-turned-whistleblower Richard Young said Jacobs subsequently played a crucial role by revealing and sharing documentary evidence on the arms deal. This put Young, and ultimately investigating authorities, in a position to make allegations that are now facing the test in Zuma’s prosecution. “But Bheki’s focus was certainly not Zuma only—he was interested in the full spectrum,” Young said.

Indeed, Jacobs had a complex relationship with his alleged masters in the Mbeki camp. His code of honour did not exclude disclosing information damaging or plain inconvenient to Mbeki or his allies. The full story of his hand in post-arms deal media scoops remains to be told.

There were attempts to discredit him. In a front page Sunday Times story in 2001, media “Mata Hari” Ranjeni Munusamy suggested Jacobs was some kind of nut who had duped government officials with bogus intelligence reports.

At the height of the Zuma-Mbeki proxy battle that was the 2003 Hefer Commission, Jacobs was suspected of being the writer of a document that made damaging claims about Zuma and his allies. He was arrested and flown to Pretoria, apparently on the instigation of Mo Shaik. All charges were later dropped.

“He was a genius, but he couldn’t work within an organisation,” Shaik said last week.

Jacobs’s comrades insist he blew the whistle on the arms deal because of a deep frustration that the ANC was betraying its most sacred principles. In this, as in much else, it seems he has been proved right.—Sam Sole and Stefaans Brümmer

Being right was no comfort
Bheki liked to meet in coffee shops, never the trendiest ones, of course, or the most down-at-heel. He preferred anonymous, middle-of-the road joints where you stood little chance of being spotted by mutual acquaintances.

Once you were installed in your seat there would be few pleasantries. He would almost immediately pull a sheaf of documents from his briefcase and begin to compose a spiralling fugue of deals and personalities.

In his world bright lines of interest shimmered between previously unrelated facts; scraps of banal company news suddenly glowed with revealed meaning—and I struggled to keep up.

In fact I usually failed. My finger aching where I grasped the pen, I would miss things and, six months later, when some fraction of what he had been saying saw the public light I would curse the inadequacy of my stenography.

Of course he was one of the first to grasp how the headlong plunge into business would corrupt the ANC, how its internal politics would become a savage contest for resources, and just how early in its victory the party would lose its way. He also saw very clearly how the culture, and the relationships, of exile, played out at home.

Throughout the meeting he would drink black coffee, smoke and intermittently swallow medication.

Above all what astonished me was his ability to keep in his head a sprawling, immensely detailed circuit diagram of economic and political power in South Africa. Sometimes that made him sound like a wild conspiracy theorist, but he was so often proved right that I eventually (slowly) learned that when members of the ruling elite have a paranoid and conspiratorial world view, they act conspiratorially and, as a result, conspiracy theory becomes crucial to understanding their behaviour.

He is gone, but the South Africa he saw emerging behind the bright platitudes of the 1990s is now manifest all around us. Being right was no comfort to him.—Nic Dawes

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