President Jacob Zuma secretly received money from Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and feared his own administration could be toppled, which led to his overwhelming bias when it came to dealing with the rebels in the North African country.
This was conveyed to United States presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, when she was secretary of state, in April 2011 by a close confidant, based on the information of unnamed “Western intelligence sources”.
According to them, Zuma feared that accusations about corruption could “spark a protest movement that could endanger his government”, particularly if South Africans could look to examples of movements that had succeeded in removing sitting presidents.
Clinton, who currently leads the race to become the next US president, was also told that Zuma was in the pocket of Gaddafi.
On New Year’s Eve, the state department released several thousand more pages of private emails sent and received by Clinton, who was the US’s top diplomat until early 2013. The emails, released as a result of a convoluted legal and political fight (see below), drew little attention, in part because they are just the latest in an ongoing series, and in part because they are heavily redacted.
But one unedited email paints an unflattering picture of Zuma. It was written by one of Clinton’s closest advisers, who is a likely candidate for high office in her administration should she win the November polls.
The email, now dubbed document C05780570, sought to advise Clinton on what was then a rapidly developing situation in Libya, when Gaddafi was being sorely pressed by rebels. Zuma, who had visited Tripoli shortly before, acted as a mediator between the two sides until the African Union mediation effort collapsed inexplicably later that year.
According to what Clinton was told, Zuma was not trusted, at least not by the rebels.
“According to knowledgeable individuals, NLC [National Libyan Council rebel group] officials also believe that, like many OAU [AU forerunner Organisation of African Union] heads of state, Zuma has accepted substantial secret financial support from Gaddafi. They add that the Libya dictator is now calling in these favours to gain international support for his regime.”
But another group thought Zuma was favouring Gaddafi because of considerations other than money. “At the same time, Western intelligence sources add that Zuma believes strongly that it would be a mistake to set a precedent for allowing protesters/rebels to replace a sitting head of state,” according to the email. “While South Africa has democratic elections and Zuma remains popular with a large portion of the South African population, his government has been plagued by allegations of corruption and other criminal activity. According to these sources, Zuma worries that these accusations will spark a protest movement that could endanger his government, particularly if they can look to Libya and other countries in North Africa as examples of where these movements succeeded.”
This week the US said the email had been written by someone not employed by its government at the time, and downplayed the influence it could have had on Clinton’s views, or those of the US. “He was relaying observations and comments from his own personal contacts,” said Heidi Ramsay, a spokesperson for the US embassy in Pretoria. “It is not unusual for Cabinet officials to have many different sources of information and to hear from a number of outside voices.”
But the author was more than just one voice among many – he was Sidney Blumenthal, once described in the Washington Post as Clinton’s “Svengali-like confidant”.
Blumenthal, an author and former journalist, was an adviser to Clinton’s husband Bill in the late 1990s. Hillary, the New York Times reported in 2009, had wanted to appoint Blumenthal to a senior position in her department after she took office as secretary of state. But she was blocked by those still angry about the fierce and negative way in which Blumenthal had campaigned against Barack Obama when he and Clinton went head to head for the Democratic Party nomination for president.
Other emails released in the past seven months show Clinton took Blumenthal’s analysis seriously, sometimes more so than that of her staff, and that she sought his advice on occasion. Ramsay said she could not comment on the relationship between Clinton and Blumenthal.
The presidency acknowledged receipt of questions from the M&G, but did not initially respond. Shortly before going to print it referred all questions to the department of international relations.
Hillary’s emails go public
It took the unlikely combination of an unemployed Romanian taxi driver turned hacker, a militant mob in Libya, nosey journalists and personal animosity in Washington to reveal just what the United States’s most likely next leader was told about President Jacob Zuma. On September 11 2012, militants identified as Islamic attacked the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya, and killed two people, one of them the ambassador. The incident would later become a defining moment in Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state when Republican political enemies tried to blame Clinton for it and derail her bid to become president.
Six months later, a hacker going by the handle Guccifer, who was later identified as an unemployed Romanian taxi driver, broke into the email accounts of several high-profile people in Washington, including Clinton’s confidant, Blumenthal. Guccifer revealed that he had been communicating with Clinton not on her official government email account, but using a private address.
In 2014, while preparing for an inquiry by the US House of Representatives into the Benghazi matter, the state department formally requested Clinton for all private documents from her time in office. Several negotiations later, Clinton handed over more than 50 000 pages of printed emails.
But several parties filed demands for access to the emails. One of the resulting court orders demanded that the emails be checked for sensitive information, redacted and released on a rolling schedule.