Publication: Mail and Guardian Issued: Date: 2003-11-14 Reporter: Drew Forrest

Losing the Plot



Mail and Guardian

Date 2003-11-14


Drew Forrest

Web Link


Deputy President Jacob Zuma has a serious difficulty in relation to the bribery investigation that still hangs over him. If the allegations are, as he says, "defamatory" and "utterly baseless", why does National Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka take them so seriously?

Crude character assassination will not do the trick. Even if Ngcuka was an apartheid spook and has secret accounts in Switzerland, as the anonymous whispering campaign against him would have us believe, it would not explain his insistence that there is a prima facie case against South Africa's second citizen.

To that extent, the Hefer commission is a colossal sideshow. So what if Ngcuka was an apartheid spy 15 years ago? What bearing does that have on whether Zuma solicited a bribe?

What has not been sufficiently emphasised is that the spy claims form part of a larger conspiracy theory. In fact, no less than four conspiracy theories have been put into circulation by what appears to be "the Zuma camp", all designed to show that the national prosecutions chief is not his own man, but the stooge of other, sinister forces.

The sheer convoluted improbability of these accounts when they are examined at close range, and the fact that four of them have been piled on top of one another, strongly indicates a coordinated propaganda war by present or former intelligence operatives, versed in the dark arts of "contra-mobilisation".

The intelligence community and the former African National Congress underground are reliably said to have been mobilised in defence of Zuma, a former ANC intelligence head.

One theory, echoed by ANC secretary general Kgalema Motlanthe, has it that the Scorpions are serving the interests of failed arms deal bidders. Nowhere is it explained why Ngcuka would do this. If favouritism was the motive, why would he look after disappointed businessman Richard Young rather than protect an ANC leader and comrade? If palm-greasing is intimated, where is the evidence?

Theory number two - at the centre of the Hefer inquiry - suggests that Ngcuka is hostage to white, old-order interests. It proposes not only that he is spy, but that his spying activities are known to old-order elements in the Scorpions, who are manipulating him into investigations and prosecutions embarrassing to the ANC.

To work, a conspiracy theory must have a grain or two of truth. It is common cause that Ngcuka was the subject of what a Scorpions insider described as "a half-arsed" probe by ANC intelligence in the 1980s known as "Operation Bible". It is also true that the Scorpions, like every security-related arm of state, inherited apartheid-era officials and investigators.

Operation Bible would be known to Zuma and to former intelligence operatives Mac Maharaj and Schabir Shaik, his close allies - also under investigation by the Scorpions. If they knew Ngcuka's guilty secret, what could possibly have motivated him to probe all three of them at once? Would that not have been sheer suicide?

And leaving aside the question of whether he was a spy, other elements of the theory are merely unproven assertions. Where is the evidence that Ngcuka's old-order subordinates knew of his spying - such sensitive information would, one assumes, not be bandied about - and that they twisted his arm into wrongful prosecutions?

More specifically: Who in the Scorpions forged the most damning piece of evidence against Zuma, the coded letter in which Thales executive Alain Thetard discusses the R500 000-a-year bribe? Did the conspirators also dream up Zuma's chaotic personal finances and heavy "borrowing", and his umbilical dependence on Shaik, as outlined in the Shaik charge sheet?

On this, in fact on all the details, the Zuma camp is silent. Everything is left vaporous, so that nothing can be shot down.

Theory three is geopolitical, suggesting that British MI6 planted the bribe story to discredit a French company, Thales, with strong connections to the French government. The grain of truth here, insiders say, is that the Scorpions have on occasions worked closely with British intelligence.

But the assumption is that Ngcuka and level-headed Scorpions boss Leonard McCarthy are too dim or gullible to spot a fairy tale - unless there is a further (unproven) claim that they are on the MI6 payroll.

It is also improbably assumed that the British government would destabilise one of its closest African allies to score a rather weak point against the French.

The final conspiracy theory has the most surface plausibility, and partly explains why the left - and specifically the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) - has flocked to Zuma's banner.

It is that Ngcuka, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Penuell Maduna and President Thabo Mbeki are in cahoots to destroy Zuma politically, together with any campaign he might mount for the presidency after Mbeki steps down in 2009. Zuma has publicly theorised that the bribery investigation is linked to a succession battle in the ANC.

The sad fact is that Mbeki has inadvertently bolstered this theory in two ways. By ordering Zuma to stand up and disclaim any ambitions on the presidency three years ago, he made it crystal clear that he regards his deputy as a political threat.

And his repeated attacks on Cosatu leaders have made him so heartily feared and disliked that unionists are prepared to forgive a potential rival almost any short-coming. Bear in mind, also, that Zuma has assiduously positioned himself as the workers' friend.

Given Zuma's prominence and popularity in the ruling alliance, it is reasonable to suppose Ngcuka consulted the president on the Scorpions's investigation. And it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Mbeki gave him the nod.

But that is quite different from saying the allegations against Zuma were trumped up in the president's office. To suggest Mbeki was party to a fabrication is to underestimate his intelligence. Besides the moral and organisational issues, such a course would be far too uncertain and laden with risk.

The peddlers of the conspiracy theories know that politics is about perceptions, not facts. In the South African public - habituated by any number of real security force plots under apartheid - they have a receptive audience.

Zuma's uproarious welcome at Cosatu's recent conference, and the fact that he features among the top five candidates on all provincial ANC election lists, shows that he has not been hurt, and may even have been strengthened, by the bribery allegations.

He has cleverly reversed the onus on his accusers, creating a victim- ology in which he is being oppressed by heartless and secretive police bureaucrats who make unscrupulous use of the media, will not let him clear himself in court and have even refused to confirm he is under scrutiny (as if any suspect has that right). His supporters have successfully sidetracked the Scorpions inquiry into the empty media bash of the Hefer commission.

To have himself re-appointed deputy president, and effectively installed as South Africa's crown prince, Zuma needs survive only until the elections. Barring the emergence of unforeseen new evidence, he shows every sign of doing this.

With acknowledgements to Drew Forrest and the Mail&Guardian.