Thabo’s boys vs Vula’s boys — the sequel

In November 2001, while working for Noseweek magazine, I wrote a piece titled “Thabo’s boys vs Vula’s boys”.

The story tried to understand, from available public information, the political background to the then nascent arms-deal investigation being carried out by the Scorpions.

One should recall that, at the time, all we really knew was that Tony Yengeni had been arrested (for lying about his car discount) and Schabir Shaik had been raided. The fact that Jacob Zuma was a key suspect was then unknown.

It is worth quoting extracts at some length because the trajectory I outlined (somewhat speculatively) appears to have had some predictive value.

And it may offer some insight into events today, 10 years later, as allegations about Mac Maharaj, now presidential spokesperson, resurface, as a new Zuma-approved arms-deal inquiry gets under way, and as former judge Willem Heath clumsily telegraphs the message that it’s open season on Thabo Mbeki and his acolytes.

So here’s some of what Noseweek carried in 2001.

“Will President Thabo Mbeki allow the [arms deal] investigation to go the whole way, risking bringing down the pillars of the temple, or will he seek to limit the inquiry to small-time corruption involving secondary contracts only? As we ask it, we know it’s a foolish question.

“But let’s have a closer look anyway at the situation — and see if our suspicions are correct.

“Arms-deals investigators will quickly have discovered that those within the ANC most interested in the deals can be divided roughly into two competing groups: the Vula boys and Thabo’s boys.

“While both are equally anxious to maintain their grip on power and their cut of the arms-deal profits, the difference between them could just influence who will be sacrificed and who will be saved in the arms-deal investigations.

“The Vula boys are the collection of communists and [mostly Natal] ANC intelligence operatives who set up Operation Vula, the secret pre-1990 programme to develop the leadership and financial networks inside South Africa needed to launch a violent revolution.

“Vula was controversial because it was secret even inside the ANC — the wider ANC leadership, including Thabo Mbeki, knew nothing about it. That gap between the groups appears to have persisted …

“Vula was led by Mac Maharaj [later made minister of transport by Mandela, but fired by Mbeki]. It included Siphiwe Nyanda [now defence force chief], Ronnie Kasrils [moved by Mbeki from defence to water affairs], Moe Shaik [demoted from national intelligence coordinator to ambassador in Morocco], and Shaik’s brother Schabir.

“Deputy President Jacob Zuma [then still ANC intelligence chief] was apparently also within the Vula network and is widely perceived to be the closest the group has to a protector in government.

“There are clearly ideological issues involved in the conflict. Maharaj, Pravin Gordhan and company are associated with the ANC’s left wing. At least two of the Shaik brothers have privately expressed concern at the ‘crude Africanism’ espoused by some of Mbeki’s acolytes …

“All this might lead one to suspect that the recent raids by the Scorpions on the offices of Nkobi Holdings and the home of Schabir Shaik might have been politically motivated. Not so, we are assured …

“But that’s not to say investigators are not under political pressure. They are, and the focus on the Shaiks has diverted attention from Thabo’s boys also having their snouts deep in the arms-deal trough.”

Mbeki’s spy
It should be recorded that I had the benefit of one source with insight into this shadowy world — the late Bheki Jacobs, a man alternately derided and feared as “Thabo Mbeki’s spy”.

It was Jacobs who played a pivotal role in South Africa’s post-apartheid history by blowing the whistle on the arms deal, inter alia through the so-called 1999 “De Lille dossier”, which it seems he played the primary role in creating.

Jacobs’s thesis was that the anti-Mbeki strand of the ANC, clustered around Maharaj, had positioned itself to use arms-deal cash to fund their factional battle.

It is worth recalling this interpretation in the light of information published by City Press last week. The paper reported that at one point in the legal tussle between Maharaj and the Scorpions, Maharaj had offered to explain alleged contradictions between what he told the Scorpions during his June 2003 in-camera interrogation and what it subsequently established about the existence of and payments into his wife’s Geneva bank account.

The explanation, Maharaj reportedly suggested, derived from sensitive internal ANC activities relating to the struggle against apartheid.

It seems Maharaj subsequently conveyed this explanation to an ANC committee appointed to investigate the “hoax emails” that attempted to portray the Scorpions, former national director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka and others as part of a conspiracy against Zuma.

Congress tradition
But there appears to be little evidence that Maharaj’s hinted explanation gels with the known facts, unless one argues that Schabir Shaik’s contribution to the financial and political survival of those individuals, such as Maharaj and Zuma, closely associated with the congress tradition in the ANC, represented a justifiable continuation of the struggle.

That argument is not wholly without merit, given the strange places Mbeki was taking the country as he succeeded Mandela, but it is not an easy one to make legally.

To resume the narrative: it appears that in 1999, when Jacobs tried to alert Mbeki to the political threat posed by the arms deal, he was rebuffed, not least because of the ambiguous role played by his contact in the presidency, Essop Pahad.

Jacobs went on to practise what he called “guerilla intelligence”, which the established spy agencies condemned as information peddling.

It appears he was later reabsorbed into the orbit of the presidency and had an open channel to the Scorpions. The latter was notably visible in Jacobs’s follow-up “De Lille dossier”, released in November 2003, at the height of the Hefer Commission confrontation between “Mac and Moe” on the one side and Ngcuka and Mbeki on the other.

The follow-up dossier made the following claim: “Hamaid Baig deposited large sums of money into Zarina Maharaj’s bank account, which was then transferred into Mac’s bond account on his Hyde Park house … Hamaid Baig is a Pakistani with United States citizenship.”

It is now clear that the information about Baig was almost certainly drawn from Maharaj’s in-camera interview with the Scorpions, which had taken place just five months earlier.

Opposing forces
The second “De Lille dossier” alleged: “The fight around Bulelani Ngcuka has become the terrain of battle by both forces, the constitutional, legitimate forces of the state represented by the president and the unconstitutional, underground, parallel structures, represented by Mac Maharaj/Jacob Zuma/Moe Shaik.”

The dossier resulted in Jacobs being arrested on the eve of Shaik’s testimony at the Hefer Commission in an operation driven by the Crime Intelligence Service (CIS), notably Mark Hankel and Ray Lalla, the latter then the acting head of the CIS.

There is evidence the Scorpions also attempted unofficially to have Maharaj bugged but that was picked up by a well-connected South African Revenue Service (Sars) official and reported to Shaik.

Lalla, once part of the Vula machinery, has now rejoined his old comrades at Sars and the odds are Hankel will survive the current purge of the CIS.

In his Hefer evidence, Shaik made the dramatic claim that other individuals associated with the Scorpions were about to be arrested.

That didn’t happen but he probably had in mind Ivor Powell, whose entrapment by crime intelligence (on a drunk-driving charge) would happen only in January 2008, after his so-called “Browse Mole” report had been leaked and publicly discredited.

Where does all this history leave us today? Here are some tentative conclusions:

  • It is the turn of Thabo’s boys — and Mbeki himself — to face the arms-deal heat. Whether or not Heath survives being indiscreet, his message was in tune with the un-spoken subtext of the new arms-deal commission of inquiry.
  • There is a consolidation of the battlelines and the weeding out of those, including Gibson Njenje and Moe Shaik, who want to limit the extent to which state institutions are again dragged into this war and are damaged by it.
  • There is deep suspicion about the ex-Scorpions network clustered around Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) head Willie Hofmeyr (centred on former Jackie Selebi prosecutor Gerrie Nel) and of Hofmeyr himself. It is worth recalling that Hofmeyr was Mbeki’s parliamentary counsellor before being appointed by him to head the AFU and later the Special Investigating Unit, replacing Heath. The way in which Hofmeyr is perceived to be able to drive some investigations, such as the Hawks probe of crime intelligence, is regarded as a threat. Hofmeyr is seen as having changed sides once too often.
  • The criminal justice system, with the intelligence services, has become entrenched in the dominant political culture as primarily a means to secure and protect political dominance. Although Mbeki may have initiated this process, it is sadly ironic that Maharaj, who once rightly warned against abuses of state power, is the mouthpiece of an administration that appears bent on finishing what Mbeki started.
  • The media has and will continue to be used as a tool to smear opponents. We will have to fight against being drawn into conspiracies and allegations of conspiracy, such as the one Maharaj is calling on the Hawks to investigate in relation to the Mail & Guardian and City Press.
  • The political battle we are witnessing feeds on old fissures in the ANC, drawing on fears about the dominance of a communist cabal.

What is glaring in this whole saga since 1999 is the failure of people such as Maharaj to eschew a politics of open dissent in favour of a politics of conspiracy, just like their enemies.

Unless we change, that sort of politics will continue to smother the dream of 1994.

* Got a tip-off for us about this story? Email [email protected]

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.

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