Carl Niehaus: monopoly capital or bust in Ballito?
Niehaus, once the voice of the ANC, is a man for whom the struggle has never ended
Carl Niehaus apologises in advance, saying he hopes I don't mind that he'll be picking me up from Durban's King Shaka airport in "a little Honda Jazz".
This interview with Nelson Mandela's former spokesman and one-time blue-eyed boy (literally, too) of the anti-apartheid movement has already been postponed twice, so I'm taking a flight to Durban to nail down my encounter with Niehaus. It's been more than 20 years since I last saw him, but now it can't wait another day.
He has very kindly offered to pick me up at the airport, and I'll spend a few hours talking to him before flying back. He's an old pro who knows only too well how the media works, and what journalists need, and the practicalities of an interview.
Still, I find it telling that Niehaus should forewarn me about his "little" car, as if I, with my old Conquest, would think less of him. Is this a glimpse of the venal and materialistic side of Niehaus, a public figure whose past money scandals spoke of an unhealthy interest in the finer things in life, things that on the face of it should not over-bother one who has made the struggle to end the poverty of others his life's work?To all who know the gory details of Niehaus's run-ins with his long-suffering creditors, his driving of a luxury car - any car at all - might have raised an eyebrow, even if it were a hypocritical one. He lied to comrades in the movement, borrowed big from some top names in our politics, and was less than enthusiastic about paying it back. Among them was ANC stalwart Derek Hanekom, who recently tweeted of Niehaus: "Carl Niehaus is a liar and a con artist."
There was a time, before the scandals of 2009, that Niehaus was also seldom out of the news - for the "right" reasons. As spokesman for the newly free Mandela, he enjoyed a view of the inner workings of South Africa's tumultuous transition that not many can claim to have had. Few were closer to Mandela.
Niehaus was among those who hand-delivered to the SABC Mandela's "message to the nation" when the assassination of Chris Hani brought the country to the brink of war in 1993. At a time when whites, especially Afrikaners, were wary of, or even hostile to, the future, the clean-cut Afrikaner in rimmed spectacles became a symbol of the Rainbow Nation in his own right.
Authoritative and affable, Niehaus was for many journalists a vital gateway to information and insight about the transition, and the mysteries of the "movement". Amid the often-haphazard culture of the ANC, he was the picture of near-military efficiency, although always with a steely, even doctrinaire, touch.
Perhaps that hardline aspect is unsurprising, given that Niehaus, 57, once imagined himself as a dominee, and not only studied theology but was named Unisa's best student of 1989. Undoubtedly bright, brilliant even, he grew up in humble circumstances in the ultra-conservative old western Transvaal - AWB territory. His parents would later back the right-wing Conservative Party of that other dominee, Andries Treurnicht.
After the family moved to Johannesburg, Niehaus encountered the other South Africa, as a young church worker in the hostels of Soweto. The stark conditions energised a precocious spirit and later, after expulsion from what was then the Rand Afrikaans University for distributing "Free Mandela" material, Niehaus would find himself in the dock, being sentenced to 15 years in prison for, among other things, being party to a plan to try to blow up Joburg's old gasworks."Amandla!" he shouted in court, and so began nearly a decade in an apartheid jail. He served nine years - a high price for having strayed from the volk, a man who had swapped "his people" for "the people".
His platteland origins come up in our small talk, in the Jazz, on the way to the luxury Zimbali golf estate, where we will find a corner to conduct the interview.
It seems "President Jacob Zuma", which is almost always how Niehaus refers to Zuma throughout our interview, was arrested in the western Transvaal, which led to his going to Robben Island for several years, which Zuma remarked on when visiting Niehaus in prison after his return from exile in 1990.
The link, tenuous as it is, clearly pleases Niehaus and is fortuitous, as it turns out, because Niehaus's take on how the ANC should work - he's all "discipline" - would not keep Zuma awake at night.
A security guard stops us at the gate of the estate, and there's a moment of doubt as to whether we'll get in. I ask Niehaus if people recognise him at all, and he says not really, especially with the beard he now wears.
To those who don't know him, he's just another nearly-old guy at the seaside, dressed in light chinos and a candy-striped shirt. There's a Breitling on the wrist, all the better to keep track of time in sleepy, swanky North Coast Ballito, where he now lives. It's as unlikely a beachhead from which to prosecute the struggle for radical economic transformation as one could imagine.
Anyway, Niehaus hasn't lost his revolutionary chutzpah, and we're soon let through the gates, en route to "a meeting".
We sit at a little table on an enclosed veranda overlooking sugar cane fields and the dull ocean. I have to sit on Niehaus's right side, and when I ask why he tells me it's from being tortured in prison, and the hearing aid he now wears is being repaired, in Switzerland. So I have to speak up.
I hadn't intended in this interview to dwell overlong on the regrettable aspects of Niehaus's past, even if his fall from grace in 2009 was so spectacular, and so awful in its duplicity and shamelessness, that it was an indelible horror to behold, especially for those who had never had occasion to meet that side of Niehaus's character.
Niehaus, who has made it his life's work to correct South Africa's broader past, certainly wants to put his own history firmly behind him. He admits to the toll taken by the "hurtful" attacks on him, and the constant criticism.'Consulting'
Perhaps that was why he was so insistent, before our interview, that I be "fair". We start our chat with an obligatory, but fleeting, nod to his past problems. He's doing "consulting" now - "politics and business". He assures me: "My situation is that I'm managing whatever's left of that debt. I don't think that I'm particularly unique in that regard, because I saw some statistics, you know a very large percentage of the South African population have debt that they have to manage, and that's what I'm doing." And then we swiftly move on to easier terrain, like radical economic transformation and organisational discipline and all that jazz.
Niehaus says he has deliberately been keeping "below the radar" - until recently, that is, when he surfaced on ANN7, the Gupta propaganda TV channel that provides queasy insight into the sinister psychology of "Gupta-think" while giving "white monopoly capital" a routine earbashing.
To camouflage its patent bias, ANN7 hosts quite a lively "debate" most nights, in which participants say much the same thing, often in the same words. The excerpt that caught my attention featured Niehaus - his is not a voice you forget easily: baritone Afrikaner, with Rs that roll all the way to Zeerust.
Niehaus is forthright, and speaks with assuredness. For those who don't know, he's firmly in the Zuma camp, although he's a stickler for the niceties of ANC etiquette, so his fealty is dressed up as loyalty to the ANC, and discipline, and following the dictates of what he calls "my family". What's more, he's an elected national executive committee member of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) , which is an admitted beneficiary of Gupta-family funding. He's also a spokesman for this barely camouflaged army of Zuma acolytes, which infamously "guarded", in full regalia, Luthuli House, from an anti-Zuma DA march earlier this year - an operation, he assures me, that was "symbolic protection".
Niehaus's main bugbear nowadays is, you've guessed it, "white monopoly capital", among whose guardians and beneficiaries he lists former finance ministers Trevor Manuel and Pravin Gordhan. Of Manuel, he said on ANN7: "Living in the lap of luxury and wealth has made Trevor Manuel forget his struggle history."
Although the leaked Gupta e-mails have exposed the role played by British PR firm Bell Pottinger in pushing the white monopoly capital narrative, Niehaus insists it is no recent invention.
"Clearly there are some comrades who have different views from others. I'm in the position where I believe we have a serious problem in South Africa with monopoly capital, and that monopoly capital in South Africa is defined as white. And I can give a good historical explanation for that, how colonialism happened in South Africa, how it became colonialism of a special type, and how that eventually morphed into white monopoly capital.
"If we want to implement the second phase of the national democratic revolution, there will have to be a radical transformation of the power relations in our economy."
The walls of the Zimbali golf estate cannot have heard much of this sort of struggle talk.
"There are comrades in the ANC who make a big thing of the definition of monopoly capital and don't want to call it white monopoly capital. I think they're wrong. I think they are revisionist and I can give you documents that date back three decades that show that we have referred to white monopoly capital for many decades.
"There are also comrades who don't seem to think it would be a good idea to go for land restitution without compensation. So we have a contestation around this. I don't have a problem with that."My concern is that we must do it as we have always done it, inside the organisation. We've got democratic structures within the ANC that provide us with the opportunity to debate these issues.
"What angers me is that there are certain comrades who don't make use of those structures. When their argument doesn't prevail, they go into the public domain. They don't just go into the public domain to raise the issue. They go and make common cause with people who are not members of the ANC, and sometimes they make common cause with people who are downright enemies of the ANC and, I would say, of the people.
"I have a concern about ill-discipline. There's a good example recently with Dr Makhosi Khoza. Dr Khoza was at the national policy conference. She didn't once open her mouth. She never said a word. After the conference ended, she goes out and then makes all kinds of what I consider wild statements, attacking the ANC, attacking the president, saying the president of the ANC should immediately resign."If she wants the president of the ANC to go, organise inside the structures of the ANC. If she manages to get a majority, good luck to her. That's her right. I'm very open to a contestation of ideas. In fact I love debate, it's the one thing that gets my juices going. I'm happy to argue with people as long as it's done within the disciplined organisational structures of the ANC."
I wonder, given the splitting of the ANC into factions and a political temperature raised by the white heat of avarice within the party's ranks, whether Niehaus doesn't imagine an ANC in his own mind that no longer exists, a forum for reasoned debate and fair-handed disciplinary action. Is the ANC Niehaus pictures from the comfort of his coastal idyll the same as it once was?
The looming no-confidence vote in Zuma is a case in point of the ANC having to deal with unprecedented circumstances. Amid the push by opposition parties for ANC MPs to follow their conscience and vote, Niehaus is unbending. ANC MPs are there to follow the dictates of the party, says Niehaus, a former ANC MP, and a very good one at that.
"I didn't go to parliament because my name is Carl or because I'm such a good-looking chap," he says, giving a glimpse of the humour that, through all his trials, has not entirely deserted him.
"I went to parliament because I was a member of the ANC, and the ANC had put me on the parliamentary list to go to parliament. For people to argue now that the MPs should now vote in terms of their personal conscience I find foreign to the character and discipline of the ANC, and I don't think there's any political party in this country, and I'll be very surprised if there's many in the world, in democracies, that allow this."
Although Niehaus sets much store by "discipline", it seems some comrades enjoy a lesser protection, among them former president Thabo Mbeki who, along with Manuel and Gordhan, occupies a place of particular infamy in the legion of white monopoly capital devils. "I've never been an Mbeki fan. The Aids policies Mbeki pursued were criminal," he says, adding that was because Mbeki was "not so clever in terms of his intellectual analysis".
Perhaps a greater "crime" of the Mbeki era was that Mbeki had a two-thirds majority in parliament and would have been able to institute the sort of changes to the constitution's property clause that the white monopoly capital brigade wants. "He had two-thirds and he did nothing with it."All he gave us was Gear, an economic policy informed by the new liberalism. It gave us non-inclusive, jobless growth. So that's the legacy that President Mbeki bestowed on us and it's not a legacy that I think he can be proud of, and I don't think it's the kind of legacy the ANC wants to associate itself with."
I ask him about another "devil" of white monopoly capital, businessman Johann Rupert, a fellow Afrikaner.
"I've got very little in common with Johann Rupert," he says, "beyond that we both speak Afrikaans." (And have a liking for fancy watches, perhaps?) Rupert's wealth, he says, "is no coincidence".
"It has been built up through decades of collaboration that his father, Anton, had with the old apartheid regime. He simply moved all of that wealth - that, in many instances, were ill-gotten gains - into the new South Africa."
The wealth of the Rupert family, and the Oppenheimers, offers a neat segue into what Niehaus calls "the very unfortunate debate we have about state capture".
"The state capture debate has been made so narrow and concentrated on such a small period in our history, just the last while of the term of the administration of President Jacob Zuma, but it doesn't help us to understand how very rich people, white people - others are of British descent and other nations, but white - have managed to gain control of the South African economy over decades."
He says the private sector has not shown "any preparedness" to contribute to the upliftment of poorer South Africans.
"I don't think they've showed patriotism to this country: they simply want the South African economic situation and their control of the economy to continue unabated. They want to maintain the status quo.
"Regardless of any issues they may have with President Zuma, the main reason why we have seen the kind of vicious attacks against President Zuma is because they are concerned about the economic policies he's been pursuing, about his backing for radical economic transformation, and we've seen an intensification of the attacks on him."
Which seems a good occasion to bring up the Guptas, who Niehaus claims never to have met. In any event, he says, the MKMVA does business with other firms as well, among them firms not linked to the Guptas. He insists: "MKMVA is not the Guptas' private army."
Of course, being the man of many words that he has always been, Niehaus has much to say about lots of things, and has a pointed "go" at the SACP, whose stance towards Zuma is not considered good form, from an alliance point of view.It's an "outrage", he says, that the SACP banned Zuma from its recent congress, inviting instead Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. The SACP is trying to "blackmail" the ANC and - in perhaps a putdown of critics of Zuma's incumbency - "Blade Nzimande has been secretary-general for 20 years".
What is one to make of Niehaus? When many of his former comrades have either sold out, or bought in, Niehaus remains a man for whom the struggle has never ended.
We chat a bit about his MK background, and he tells me his nom de guerre during the struggle was "Bruce", and he grins widely. It's not the most martial name, but then Niehaus is something of an unusual revolutionary. His is very much a South African story, complete with its hubris and heroism and little deceptions and self-serving struggle camouflage.
A person of unusual ability, stuck in the Groundhog Day of perpetual struggle, he calls to mind the Shakespeare quote in Julius Caesar that goes: "There is a tide in the affairs of men / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; / Omitted, all the voyage of their life / Is bound in shallows and in miseries. / On such a full sea are we now afloat / And we must take the current when it serves..."
Apt, and perhaps raising the question whether he is hitching his raft to the right boat this time around.
So I leave Niehaus, the permanent revolutionary, to command his war against white monopoly capital from the subtropical playground of Gauteng's rich and powerful. And I wonder whether his being mired in struggle, his apparent inability to move on, is a matter of choice, or whether he is forced by circumstance, the bitter fruit of reckless decisions for which he is now paying. Maybe he doesn't have much of a choice but to continue the struggle. But even if he did, I doubt he'd have it any other way...