Zuma, the once invincible chess hustler exposed

Revelations about the former president’s abuse of the intelligence arms of the state to secure power and riches for himself and his cronies are profoundly disturbing.

The ANC has long sustained a paranoid current that sees dissent, whether internal or external to the organisation, as illegitimate and a threat to the nation. The roots of this go back to the exile period. As early as 1969, the situation was so severe that plans were made to execute Chris Hani after he appended his name to a memorandum that declared that the leadership of the movement had “become professional politicians rather than professional revolutionaries”.

By the 1980s, Jacob Zuma was a dominant figure in the movement’s department of intelligence and security, known as iMbokodo. It was notoriously authoritarian, and tortured and executed people suspected – often wrongly – of betrayal. It has been credibly claimed that there were cases in which young women who refused to have sex with powerful figures in iMbokodo were detained and accused of being agents of the apartheid state.

Opposition to iMbokodo was a central reason for the 1984 mutiny by ANC guerrillas in Angola. In the same year, a commission established by the ANC reported that iMbokodo was “the most notorious and infamous department in the camps and perhaps in the whole movement”. 

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Along with its paranoid dimension, the ANC also has a long history of conflating itself with the nation. This is, for obvious reasons, common among national liberation movements, but is not compatible with any kind of meaningful democratic commitment.

The paranoid and authoritarian currents in the movement were carried over into its transition to a political party after 1994, as was the assumption that it represented the nation rather than a constituency within the nation. The first generation of autonomous popular organisations that emerged around the turn of millennium were understood in paranoid rather than democratic terms, subject to surveillance and met with repression. The Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town was particularly hard hit.

There was also a consistent tendency to see independent and critical organisations as covert vehicles of foreign powers. Zackie Achmat, the extraordinarily effective and principled leader of the Treatment Action Campaign, was, absurdly, denounced as an agent of the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency. When Abahlali baseMjondolo emerged in Durban in 2005, it was met with similar paranoia and violently prevented from exercising democratic rights as basic as organising protest marches or participating in live discussions on radio and television.

Disturbing information

For years there have been seemingly credible reports from activists and journalists of being approached to work for state intelligence agencies to provide information, or to try to drive particular agendas inside organisations. It has often been thought that pop-up pro-ANC organisations, as well as some individuals who have conducted themselves in a highly damaging manner in progressive organisations, have some connection to intelligence. There have also been widespread suspicions that at least some of the “dossiers”, “open letters”, “reports” and the like that have periodically slandered individuals and organisations were linked to intelligence. Certainly, they have tended to follow the classic intelligence strategy of mixing a few facts with floods of malicious fabrication. 

But, in many cases, these suspicions have had no confirmed empirical basis, and in some instances could have been misguided. The sometimes thuggish and often wildly dishonest sectarianism that has festered in the Left outside of the ANC carries its own toxicity, and while it lays itself open to exploitation by state intelligence, it is not necessarily organised and funded by the state. 

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In this context, democracy would be well served by public clarity on how state intelligence has operated in the post-apartheid period, and by establishing clear mechanisms to prevent it from acting in anti-democratic ways in the future. The High-Level Review Panel Report on the State Security Agency, released in May last year by a panel that included some highly credible people, was an important step forward. 

It contained important information, such as showing that the Workers Association Union was set up and funded by intelligence to rival the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union on the platinum belt, that the progressive non-governmental organisation (NGO) Right2Know and the 2015 student movement had been effectively penetrated by intelligence, and that trade unions that had broken away from the ANC had been placed under surveillance. 

The information coming out of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture is profoundly disturbing. It does not just show that during the Zuma period the intelligence services functioned in a deeply anti-democratic manner. Evidence has been led that indicates there were organised attempts to bribe judges, influence the media and establish organisations and projects of various kinds to support the centralisation of power in the person of Zuma. The information that has come out so far exposes just a fraction of the covert operations that were carried out.

The evidence also shows that the paranoia and authoritarianism that has festered in the ANC for more than 50 years ramped up during the Zuma period, and that the long-standing conflation of the nation with the party was replaced with a conflation of the party, and therefore the nation, with one person: Jacob Zuma. This is the route to rule by a dictator.

17 March 2017: Jacob Zuma during the official launch of the Invest South Africa One-Stop Shop at the Department of Trade and Investment campus in Pretoria. (Photograph by Alet Pretorius/ Gallo Images)

Shady intelligence operations

The State Security Agency (SSA) was formed as an amalgamation of the domestic intelligence arm, the National Intelligence Agency, with its known history of anti-democratic and politically partisan conduct, and the foreign affairs intelligence organisation, the South African Secret Service Agency, which had been a respected, professionally organised service. This happened shortly after Zuma took office in May 2009, and he signed off on it in September 2009 in “breach of legislation”.

Senior ministers and the former director general of the SSA, Arthur Fraser, have been implicated by witnesses at the Zondo commission as the main culprits in setting up an avalanche of shady intelligence projects in service of Zuma’s accumulation of personal power. 

The amalgamation of the services was a cunning move that “echoed the pre-election 1994 mindset of the warfare state”, says Sydney Mufamadi, who was chairperson of the panel that conducted the review of the SSA. It was, he said, “reflective of an allergy to accountability in that it was done without reference to Parliament and the attendant public consultation required by the Constitution”.

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Mufamadi’s political roots are complex and reach back to the 1976 uprising. They include significant participation in popular democratic organisations. He was elected as the Transvaal publicity secretary of the United Democratic Front after its launch in Cape Town in 1983. Two years later, he was elected as the assistant general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions at its launch in Durban. This aspect of his political background is in striking and fundamental contrast to that of Zuma.

Mufamadi is well placed to offer a credible account of the wholesale capture of the state intelligence structures by Zuma. On Monday 25 January, he gave testimony before the commission on the contents of the “declassified reports” on the intelligence underworld. He explained that during its information-gathering work, the panel received testimony of “incidents that speak to the weaponisation of intelligence services for partisan and/or factional purposes”. He spoke in alarming detail of how hundreds of millions of rands in public funds was funnelled from the SSA to run unaccountable covert operations for political and personal benefit.

Flipping the chessboard

Zuma is a ruthless and crafty political operator. He is also an avid chess player, and was able to bring the skills required to play chess to the political terrain. For years, he was always a few moves ahead of his opponents, able to move his proxies into powerful positions, willing to sacrifice his pawns, pin opponents into immobility and strike hard when defences were down.

We will almost certainly never know the full extent of all the covert operations run during the Zuma period, and just how many organisations were established, influenced and penetrated by state intelligence. But we do know that, for a long time, a band of unscrupulous, self-serving agents with access to staggeringly huge sums of money and all kinds of other resources had the power to exert considerable covert influence on our society – from grassroots organisations to the highest reaches of official forms of authority.

This week’s testimony, though presented in the slow, careful and often tedious prose of the legal process, tells a story that runs like a spy thriller. It is a dystopian tale in which a James Bond villain wins state power in a brutalised and once radiantly hopeful country, and then swiftly proceeds to destroy its institutions, manipulate its media, campuses, trade unions, NGOs and courts, preside over the massacre of striking miners and the assassination of grassroots activists, and put a permanent end to any remaining innocence about its past, present and future. 

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