Jacob Zuma's downward trajectory from liberation days

Jacob Zuma’s life was intertwined with the liberation struggle from an early age, writes Nadine Dreyer, and those years deeply marked him

21 July 2019 - 00:00 By NADINE DREYER
Former president Jacob Zuma talks to his legal counsel at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture in Parktown, Johannesburg, last week.
Former president Jacob Zuma talks to his legal counsel at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture in Parktown, Johannesburg, last week.
Image: Alaister Russell

When Jacob Zuma made his dramatic appearance at the Zondo commission into state capture last week, South Africans resorted to their favourite sport of poking fun at a political figure. We are world champions at the kind of gallows humour that ridicules those who seek to rule us.

Andile Mngxitama of Black First Land First hit the nail on the head when he tweeted: “Dear all, just remember, Zuma started a chess club on Robben Island. When others were reading Hegel, he was perfecting his chess moves.”

On February 2 1990 FW de Klerk had made the dramatic announcement that the ANC would be unbanned and Nelson Mandela released. Documentary footage filmed shortly afterwards shows Zuma addressing activists demanding to know why the ANC was entering into negotiations with the apartheid state. Many were wary of entering into a pact with the devil and deeply suspicious of the enemy’s motives.

Zuma comes across as articulate, passionate, funny and dynamic. He points out with wry humour that no liberation movement had ever had the luxury of starting talks only at the moment when the enemy are on their backs, staring down the barrel of an AK47.

He disarms everybody by throwing in a bit of gossip about the Lancaster House agreement, which paved the way for negotiations in Zimbabwe a decade earlier.

He describes how a reluctant Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo were bundled onto a plane to London and ordered by the presidents of three frontline states not to return until they had agreed to a deal.

He gently pokes fun at rival political movements in SA voicing scepticism about the looming peace negotiations. “Where are their armies?” he jokes.

Zuma’s masterful seduction gives some insight into why he was earmarked as a rising star in the movement. It sheds some light on why a figure now widely loathed and derided was trusted by Oliver Tambo — a liberation strategist without peer — with critical missions as the country moved towards seismic change.

Tambo had tasked Zuma and Thabo Mbeki with exploring talks with the National Party government in 1987 at the height of state brutality and under a state of emergency. After De Klerk’s 1990 announcement, Zuma was one of the first leaders sent home to start the long process of negotiations.


With all the scandals Jacob Zuma has been entangled in it’s easy to overlook just how intertwined his life has been with the liberation movement.

He was born in rural Nkandla in 1942. His father was a policeman who died when Jacob was only five years old. Zuma snr had two wives, and Jacob was the eldest of three boys born to his second wife.

After his father’s death, his mother was forced to find a job in Durban as a domestic worker, but Zuma was needed at home. He helped her by finding odd jobs. “I used to polish the veranda, you know, jobs like that.”

The young boy took the initiative to teach himself to read and write and set up a night school while learning as much as he could from an elderly woman to whom the boys paid 25c.

Zuma was inspired by reminiscences of surviving veterans of the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion, the final Zulu resistance against British colonisation. But the greatest influence came from his elder stepbrother, Muntukabongwa Zuma, who had been a soldier in World War 2 and then became a trade union activist and an ANC member.

Members of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) chant slogans in support of Jacob Zuma outside the commission of inquiry into state capture.
Members of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) chant slogans in support of Jacob Zuma outside the commission of inquiry into state capture.
Image: Veli Nhlapo

Zuma jnr became an active member of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1963 in the wake of the banning of the ANC after the Sharpeville massacre. He was arrested shortly afterwards with a group of 45 other recruits en route to Botswana to receive military training and sentenced to 10 years on Robben Island for conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government.


It’s a bit of trivia, but it’s interesting to note that Zuma arrived on the island on December 30 1963, just six months before the Rivonia triallists started their sentences. The 21-year-old freedom fighter had regular contact with political giants such as Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and the other triallists.

He shared a cell with between 30 and 50 other prisoners.

There was only cold water to wash in. They were fed boiled mealies three times a day. Black prisoners had to wear mandatory “boy” shorts, a gross cultural indignity for black men.

In those difficult years, the young KwaZulu-Natal activist never received a single visit from a family member. His mother could not afford the journey. Zuma wrote to her to tell her to rather keep her savings for her other children.

When he was released at the end of 1973, struggle attorney Phyllis Naidoo found work for Zuma at a pet shop in Durban while he worked clandestinely to re-establish ANC underground networks in the province.

Soon afterwards, in 1975, Zuma slipped into exile to join his Umkhonto we Sizwe comrades. In 1978 he received military training in Russia and later rose through the intelligence ranks until he headed the intelligence department in Lusaka.


It was a world where betrayal and paranoia were rife. The stakes couldn’t be higher or the enemy more ruthless.

Relationships among exiles were intense as they stood side by side against a common enemy. When Zuma met Thabo Mbeki in 1975 it must have been an emotional occasion as Zuma had spent 10 years on Robben Island with his father, Govan. Mbeki reportedly taught Zuma how to use a gun but their tumultuous relationship in the post-1994 government was the stuff of Byzantine intrigue.

ANC and MK camps across Africa were under constant threat from assassins, military raids and infiltration by apartheid agents. Back in SA, activists were being murdered, tortured and detained without trial.

The movement had been heavily infiltrated at least from the time Wits student and spy Gerard Ludi attended a World Peace Conference in Moscow in mid-1962, on behalf of both the SACP and minister of justice John Vorster. His cover was only broken when the head of the Bureau for State Security, Gen “Lang Hendrik” van den Bergh, ordered that he come out as a spy so that he could testify at the trial of prominent revolutionary lawyer Bram Fischer.

Vorster once bragged that the majority of ANC exiles were spies. Although this was a gross fabrication, taunts of this nature helped foster fear and suspicion within the exile movement.

President Nelson Mandela met with Jacob Zuma, left, Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Ben Ngubane in 1996 to discuss the ongoing violence in KwaZulu-Natal.
President Nelson Mandela met with Jacob Zuma, left, Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Ben Ngubane in 1996 to discuss the ongoing violence in KwaZulu-Natal.
Image: Nicky de Blois

After 1976, ANC camps were overrun by young activists who knew little of the movement and its history and this fuelled a claustrophobic, paranoid environment and sometimes contributed to a lack of discipline. Many infiltrators left the country via “escape routes” established and run by the security police and went on to hold critical posts in the exile machinery.

In the meantime, South African security forces took the struggle to the frontline states, staging military attacks in neighbouring countries. A raid in Gaborone in 1985, for example, killed 12 people, including women and children. Only five victims were ANC members.

Details of Zuma’s 15 years in exile are scarce. He has never opened up about this period, but the security organ of the ANC, known as Mbokodo (the grinding stone) was greatly feared. Its mission was to stamp out and punish traitors — sometimes executing them. Mbokodo’s Lusaka headquarters was known as “Green House” and the occupants had a reputation as paranoid, violent and ruthless thugs. There remain to this day suspicions about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of some MK comrades, abuses in the camps, and ANC officials failed to answer queries at the time.

Two earlier ANC inquiries into abuses in the camps were controversial and failed to bring closure. Then Zuma failed to turn up for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing that might have brought some answers, but the TRC nevertheless found that Mbokodo had been responsible for “gross violations of human rights” and that torture and executions had occurred in camps.

Even Chris Hani was once sentenced to death by Umkhonto we Sizwe’s high command in Tanzania for putting forward the grievances of MK soldiers.

In the mid-1960s, recruits had complained about camp conditions and Hani was sentenced to death for plotting a mutiny. His life was saved only when Tambo stopped the execution. Back home, those who were accused of spying were often dealt with by the barbaric “necklace”, filling a tyre placed around the victim’s neck with petrol and setting them alight.

Zuma operated in this twilight zone of lies, danger and double lives. Psychologists have observed that agents can become subtly detached or separated from other people, even when they resume normal lives.

Zuma’s appearance at the Zondo commission last week revealed the degree to which the murky sphere of espionage and counter-espionage has engulfed his world.

On Monday, Zuma had a rare opportunity to give his version of the state-capture narrative, but instead he delivered a two-hour rant filled with claims of poison, plots, threats, betrayals and international assassins.

According to this alternative narrative, in 1990, after the ANC had been unbanned and negotiations began, Zuma was informed about a long-term plot by three spy agencies (two of them international) to maintain a network of informants and influencers in the new government. As ANC head of intelligence, Zuma claimed, he had a list of the names of who these apartheid spies were, and because of the threat he posed to their scheme they had been out to get him ever since.

Really? So are we to believe enemy agents were behind the Khwezi rape trial? That his odious conduct had nothing to do with this? That all the corruption, fraud, graft, sexual predation and other crimes he has been linked to since 1990 were part of a foreign propaganda plot? That all the accusations of ministerial incompetence, captured SOEs and large-scale theft were part of a grand conspiracy?

That David Mahlobo, Siyabonga Cwele, Faith Muthambi and Bathabile Dlamini were all devoted and committed servants of the people? That Des van Rooyen would have made a great finance minister? That Dudu Myeni is a model of corporate efficiency?

That he had never used Stalingrad tactics to capture the police, judiciary and finance ministries by appointing his own people? Or to delay his legal battles? That Duduzane got a job with the Guptas despite being his son? That the Saxonwold compound was not worthy of a visit because they served lousy tea?


The president told deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo there had been several attempts on his life and some had involved poison, stadiums and suicide bombers. (On Friday he told his supporters that on several occasions, unspecified objects had been found on the presidential plane “in order that it not reach its destination”. He also threatened to name the askari who leaked the location of Chris Hani’s home in Lesotho to the South African security forces.)

During his Monday soliloquy, Zuma said he had been provoked enough. He accused Ngoako Ramatlhodi and the retired general Siphiwe Nyanda of being apartheid spies. (The two both happen to be Ramaphosa supporters.)

Then president Jacob Zuma with former Limpopo premier Ngoako Ramatlhodi.
Then president Jacob Zuma with former Limpopo premier Ngoako Ramatlhodi.
Image: Halden Krog

Zuma’s actions continue to raise a thousand questions. He continues to avoid providing any answers. Instead he continues throwing mud in the Dirty Game: smears, mysterious “intelligence reports”, rumours, far-fetched stories, innuendo. This is the world he inhabits.

Why only out alleged spies now? Is it not treason to withhold the names of enemies of the state? But most critical of all: what kind of person makes accusations of spying against former comrades purely out of spite? And how on earth did such a person get to govern the country for almost a decade?

In the post-Zuma era we have bemoaned the lost years the country suffered on his watch. Instead we should be going down on our knees and give thanks that we actually managed to survive nine years under a leader who has shown the level of moral judgment that Nero demonstrated when he fiddled while Rome burnt.

And while we are on the subject of ancient history, let’s remember that Julius Caesar tried to capture the Roman state. Look what happened to him.

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