Tony Yengeni: Struggle veteran to flawed politician

The ANC's Tony Yengeni spent Sunday night in jail after being arrested for driving his Maserati GranCabrio “erratically”. Yengeni reportedly had a blood alcohol level almost three times the legal limit.

Given the circumstances that surrounded his last drunk driving arrest, many cynical South Africans are half expecting to see Yengeni, so often seen as a protected political fat cat, to get off with a rap on the knuckles. But there is little evidence that history will repeat itself in this regard.

The popular image of Yengeni is of a man carried to prison on the shoulders of his comrades, hailed a hero by ANC heavyweights including the former Western Province premier Ebrahim Rasool, provincial ANC chair James Ngculu and former minister in the presidency Essop Pahad.

That was all the way back in 2006, when Yengeni was convicted of fraud and sentenced to four years in jail, after accepting a discount on a Mercedes-Benz, while a member of Parliament’s defence committee, offered by a company involved in the arms deal.

Yengeni went to prison, head unbowed, proclaiming he was the victim of an “unfortunate travesty of justice” and that he would "come out stronger".

Public perceptions of Yengeni weren’t helped by any of the details that emerged in the following months – barely a few hours after arriving at the austere Pollsmoor Prison, he was apparently served a large lunch in a prison boardroom, then whisked off to the more modern, and comfortable, Malmesbury Prison.

He was released a mere four months later.

The ANC chief whip Mbulelo Goniwe at the time famously said, "Tony Yengeni is us and we are Tony Yengeni." But many appear to have overestimated his relevance to the politics of the country.

Powerful struggle credentials
Yengeni’s powerful struggle credentials cannot be denied. He joined the ANC and went into exile as a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), received military training in Angola, Botswana and Zambia and studied social science in Russia.

After returning to South Africa and taking up a role with MK in the Western Cape, he was detained in 1987 and tortured over a number of months by Western Cape security branch operatives.

It emerged during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he had been tortured using the "wetbag" technique, which is similar to waterboarding, during his detention.

He was held in custody for a further three years, and put on trial for terrorism before his eventual release during the transition from apartheid.

In the early post-apartheid years, he became first the secretary general of the ANC in the Western Cape, then chair of Parliament’s joint standing committee for defence. He later became chief whip of the ANC in Parliament.

Yengeni’s taste for the finer things in life did not go unnoticed. Known for his stylish clothing and flashy cars, Yengeni was also known as a “Gucci socialist”.

It later emerged that he had been a central figure in dealings with the German Frigate Consortium, which won the R1.4-billion tender to supply four corvettes to the South African navy – part of an estimated R70-billion arms deal which involved fraud and bribery on an epic scale, a scandal that implicated several top government officials, and which has yet to be resolved.

For a while he appeared to be among the politically protected in country. When Yengeni was arrested for drunk driving in 2007, he faced the possibility of a return to jail, having broken his parole conditions. The incident marked the beginning of a twisted affair, implicating ANC higher ups in an attempt to cover for Yengeni.

The blood samples and docket for the infraction were both tampered with in the days after the incident. The police station commander who dealt with the incident, Siphiwo Hewana, later claimed in court that he had been ordered by the commissioner of police in the Western Cape to falsify the evidence.

Tabloid Tony
Yengeni emerged unscathed from the incident but has made periodic appearances in the press, more for his personal life than for any real political clout.

Last year, Yengeni reportedly almost came to blows with South African Communist Party leader Blade Nzimande, during a heated NEC meeting. It was during a debate on the possible expulsion of former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, when Yengeni yelled, "Who the fuck do you think you are?” at Nzimande.

A month later, he was fined by traffic police for driving a Maserati with an expired licence disk and no licence plates.

In 2010 it emerged that he had failed to inform companies and intellectual property registration office of his fraud conviction. This was significant as the Companies Act prohibits those convicted of fraud, theft, forgery or perjury from serving as company directors. Yengeni held six directorships at the time. He was forced to resign from them after the Democratic Alliance laid charges against him concerning the omission.

Yengeni said he was under the impression that the law only prevented him from holding directorships in public companies.

He made headlines again in 2011, when he split from his wife Lumka amid reports that he had left home and moved in with a young stock broker, whom he had showered with lavish gifts, including overseas trips and a convertible Jaguar.

Tony who?
In recent days, Yengeni has been referred to as the head of the ANC’s political school but it is unclear whether he actually fills this role. During the Mangaung conference last year, President Jacob Zuma announced his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe would be heading the school once it was running.

But despite this and frequent references to the school by members of the ANC over the past few years, it has as yet failed to materialise.

Although he once led the party’s political education unit, that role is currently being filled by Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa.

According to ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu, Yengeni’s role in the ANC is as a member of the party’s NEC, providing political guidance to branches, regions and provinces, doing election work and attending NEC meetings.

Mthembu said the party had not released a statement on the incident because it concern’s Yengeni’s personal life.

"We've kept quiet because there is no political side to this issue. There was no reason for us to issue a statement. It’s a matter which [Yengeni] is dealing with himself," he said.

It’s unclear whether the same loyalties that protected Yengeni the last time he was arrested for drunk driving will come to bear this time.

Waning influence
While his political fortunes may have waned over the years, his military background and torture at the hands of the apartheid government may grant him a degree of sympathy from higher up.

Political analyst Steven Friedman said that while Yengeni may well continue to get support from the ANC, this would not be because he is strategically valuable.

Once a Mbeki supporter, Yengeni switched sides around the time of the Polokwane conference, which saw Mbeki ousted by the Zuma faction, Friedman said. But with the ANC’s last elective conference ending in a clean sweep for Zuma, he may not be as needed now as he once was.

"If he is shown any loyalty, it is because the usual ANC loyalties pitch in – because he showed loyalty to the president and he showed value to the struggle."

On a practical level, there are also now more checks and balances in place to ensure that the evidence in the matter is not tampered with – greater public interest given the deceptions involved in the investigation of his previous arrest, video footage at the station where he was processed and an opposition transport mnister keen to convict

Yengeni’s court appearance is sent for March 4 next year.

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