This is an extract from the book 50 People Who F***ed Up South Africa: The Lost Decade by Alexander Parker and Tim Richman, with cartoons by Zapiro
b. 25 December 1959 (maybe)
Former spokesman of Nelson Mandela; unofficial spokesman of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Ace Magashule; almost Spokesman in the Presidency;
walking, breathing embodiment of the ANC’s journey
from high morality to absurdist farc
To many, Carl Niehaus is a running political joke, a man with the credibility of Richard Nixon circa 1974. Yet in some ways he is one of the more tragic of our 50 f***er-uppers, someone who sacrificed much for the moral high ground in his younger days, and who then sacrificed his reputation entirely with his subsequent behaviour. In so doing, he represents the greater reputational downfall of many in his party.
In 1980, Carl Niehaus was booted out of Rand Afrikaans University, weeks before his final exams, for distributing posters supporting the release of Nelson Mandela. He joined the ANC and transferred to Wits, where he excelled and graduated with a BA Summa cum Laude in 1983. That same year he was arrested with his fiancée Jansie Lourens. Aged 23, he was sentenced to jail for 15 years for high treason for, among other things, reconnoitring the Johannesburg municipal gasworks as a possible target for attack.
Reporting in The Washington Post at the time, Allister Sparks described him leaving the court: “As he left, Niehaus turned towards the public gallery where his parents, supporters of the segregationist government, sat among black Africans. Niehaus raised his fist and called out the congress slogan of ‘amandla’, which means ‘power’. As he did so his parents fell into each other’s arms and wept.”
He had joined the ANC underground and been rejected by his friends and family, because he was a principled young man who felt that apartheid was abhorrent. About this Niehaus was irrefutably right, and brave to boot. Whatever may have followed – and good grief, a lot did follow – there was a time when he appeared to have more principle in his pinkie than a good many of his white compatriots. For betraying “the Afrikaners”, he suffered the horrors of being gang-raped by more than 20 men the night before he was sentenced.
The story of Niehaus’s younger years makes what followed so much more outlandish, because the Carl Niehaus we know today – the Zuma-loving, Magashule-supporting, faux-combat-fatigue-wearing, gibberish-spouting, money-grubbing court jester – has gone further off the rails than Prasa under Lucky Montana (who also appears in this book).
Niehaus married Lourens in jail and earned a degree in theology through Unisa while incarcerated. Lourens served her full four-year sentence, while Niehaus served nearly eight years along with other ANC political prisoners. He was released in 1991. Like the ANC, Niehaus might have had a gilded future ahead of him, but from this point his fortunes track, with remarkable overlap, the fall of the ANC from iconic inspiration to insipid embarrassment.
On his release he became the media liaison for the ANC and even one of Mandela’s spokesmen. After the 1994 elections, he was elected to the ANC’s National Executive Committee and made an MP. By 1996 he was chairing parliamentary committees. He was a genuinely senior guy. That same year he was sent to the Netherlands as South Africa’s ambassador, where he gained a doctorate from Utrecht University.
It was after his return from the Netherlands that the wheels came off. It’s not clear exactly why this happened, but he ran into huge financial problems, defaulting on loans and mortgages, both formal and personal. Having allegedly used his relationship with Nelson Mandela to secure a job at Deloitte, he left in 2003 under a cloud of embarrassment because of his financial affairs. Later, he admitted to forging signatures of senior Gauteng officials to secure loans while chief executive of the Gauteng Economic Development Agency. He was evidently not terribly good at being corrupt, which in the context of this book is a strangely endearing trait.
That was 2009, the year Zuma came to power. With doubts about Niehaus’s past pouring forth, things came to a head in a Mail & Guardian interview that blew the lid on the shambles of his life filled with tall tales, broken promises and bad debt. It was clear he had been living far beyond his means, and he tearfully admitted to not having done a lot of what he said he’d done. Much of his CV, it turns out, was a complete invention.
He did not, in fact, graduate from Wits, let alone cum laude. He does not have a doctorate from Utrecht. He was not on the boards of the Maatschappij der Nederlandse Letterkunde or the South African Netherlands Chamber of Commerce or the Afrikaanse Skrywersvereniging or Civirello (Pty) Ltd or the African advisory council of Heineken or the President’s Awards for Young Achievers. He was not the chair of the finance committee of the South African Council of Churches. And while he was head of South Africa’s delegation to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), he was not South Africa’s Permanent Representative on the OPCW Executive Council.
Perhaps most disturbingly, the story of his gang-rape in prison appears to have been a piece of fiction, “revealed” in an open letter to his 11-year-old daughter. The pathology behind that particular story must be quite something to unravel.
By this stage he had managed to run up debts that make the eyes water. R700 000 from Rhema church. R300 000 rent owed on a vast property in Midrand. R2-million on a mortgage for a home in Morningside. He was sued by Magula Makaana, a businessman, for failing to repay a loan of R350 000. He was sued by the advertising agency Mortimer Harvey for R900 000 for work done for the Children United Foundation of South Africa, plus a R600 000 personal loan to boot. Legacy All Suites Management, which manages the luxury apartments at the Michelangelo Towers, wanted R230 000 for unpaid rent. And there was the unfortunate travel agent called Cheryl Clur, who told The Star that Niehaus “stiffed” her of R90 000 for a Mauritius holiday. He and his family had been in desperate need for the holiday, you see, on account of the “leukaemia treatment” he was undergoing, and so she’d been persuaded to advance him the payment…
In all, Niehaus’s debts appeared to be to the value of more than R4.5-million. This all starts to look less and less like incompetence and more and more like brazen, abusive entitlement. Sound familiar?
Niehaus was forced to leave the ANC. He dropped out of the headlines for eight years, only to reappear in 2017 as a rabid pro-Zuma man, suddenly now with a background in the MK. It was the same year he fictitiously killed off his 88-year-old mother – having done the same to his father five years before – to avoid legal action over the R4.3-million he owed for rental of two luxury apartments in Sandton “as well as damage to expensive furnishings and artwork, unpaid concierge charges and interest”, according to Toby Shapshak writing in Sunday Times. Nevertheless, he felt he had something to offer to the Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma campaign for presidency of the ANC and, most astoundingly, her campaign managers felt justified in welcoming him on board.
Stephen Grootes asked and answered the obvious question: “Why would someone employ a known liar and cheat? It can only be because they need that person to lie and cheat for them.”
For Niehaus, a victory for NDZ might have signified a chance at redemption and a second time in the sun. Instead, a landlady at the luxury Zimbali resort in KwaZulu-Natal told the Sunday Times of how he had promised her government jobs in lieu of rent once Dlamini-Zuma was running South Africa, and that once she had lost at Nasrec, he “ran away in the middle of the night”. Of course he had.
Thus aligned with what we may describe as the “more bad” ANC faction, Niehaus has fared poorly in the Ramaphosa era, descending to the level of a clown in the court of Zuma and Magashule, dancing for his dinner alongside fellow clowns Kebby and Des, running Twitter battles against the weathervane clown in the opposite court, Fikile Mbalula, appearing as trial support for the relevant accused cadre as needed, and – again, really quite astoundingly – apparently writing Magashule’s press releases.
Niehaus’s perpetual defence, mentioned practically every time he appears in front of a camera, is that he spent eight years in jail. It seems hard to refute this particular fact, but literally everything else he has done is now up for question.
The scary thing is that Niehaus, like NDZ herself, so nearly made it. This career liar was a few votes away from being the spokesman in the presidency. Perhaps the tale of Niehaus’s spectacular fall from moral authority and personal sacrifice to self-deluded hollow vessel parallelled that faction of the ANC’s own trajectory so closely that they couldn’t resist him. He just fits in so well.
50 People Who F***ed Up South Africa: The Lost Decade is published by Mercury, available in all good bookstores and online, R285