'I'll go with you, my child': How 'hero' top cop convinced Zuma to comply

Officer's respect, reassurances clinch peaceful arrest of former president

11 July 2021 - 00:05
By amanda khoza AND Amanda Khoza
Maj-Gen Nonhlanhla Zulu was the arresting officer when Jacob Zuma surrendered to police.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu Maj-Gen Nonhlanhla Zulu was the arresting officer when Jacob Zuma surrendered to police.

The last thing Maj-Gen Nonhlanhla Zulu wanted was to say anything to upset or agitate the famous man she was there to arrest.

"I was very nervous. There were a lot of things going on in my mind but I just prayed and asked God to lead me because former president Jacob Zuma is our senior citizen, so how do you go then and tell him that you are arresting him?" she told the Sunday Times this week.

As South Africans watched the midnight drama unfold on TV this week, little did they know that a soft-spoken 52-year-old policewoman was already inside the Nkandla compound, telling Zuma the game was up.

Even as the deadline loomed, a handful of supporters - led by Zuma's eldest son, Edward Zuma - gathered at Nkandla's gates, vowing they would not let him be taken, oblivious to the developments unfolding just metres away.

At about 11.15pm a convoy of vehicles whisked Zuma away. He is believed to have been seated in the back of a black BMW X5 when he was driven by his bodyguards to Estcourt, about 170km away, to start his sentence.

Zulu told how she summoned the courage to arrest the man who is now SA's most notable inmate.

She said her intention was never to make a spectacle of Zuma or be the gung-ho officer some assumed she would be. She wanted to make the arrest as dignified as possible.

Zulu said the presence of tearful Zuma wives and children, including his ex-wife and mother of his children, minister of co-operative governance & traditional affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, meant it all came down to her policing skills blended with her understanding of Zulu culture and the respect she had to accord Zuma.

She revealed that she was not hand-picked for the assignment but volunteered, asking her bosses "to please give me the opportunity to go and talk to baba".

She tossed and turned in bed on Monday and Tuesday night as different scenarios played out in her head.

"I didn't want to say anything that might trigger him. I was also thinking about what if I get disrespected when I get there? But, as a Zulu woman who grew up in the area, I knew my approach was going to be important because I was going to be speaking to an elder.

"I told myself, I am just going to humble myself when I speak to him."

I didn't want to say anything that might trigger him. I was also thinking about what if I get disrespected when I get there? But, as a Zulu woman who grew up in the area, I knew my approach was going to be important because I was going to be speaking to an elder
Maj-Gen Nonhlanhla Zulu

On Wednesday, Zulu, who hails from Vryheid, about three hours north of Nkandla, drove to the homestead alone and arrived at about 1.30pm. When she entered the property, she received a warm welcome and was offered something to drink.

"I declined politely because I just wanted to do what I was there for. He [Zuma] came towards me and humbled himself, listened to me and understood what I said."

When the moment of truth came, Zulu, who spoke to Zuma in her mother tongue, isiZulu, said: "I told him that he knew why I was there and that I was the one who had been sent to fetch him."

Her words to Zuma were: "Baba, all I am asking is that we do not do anything to destroy your reputation, dignity and all the work that you have done and fought for over the years. You have been attacked left, right and centre and I have never seen you do anything to deliberately destroy your dignity.

"Right now, this moment is for you to show that you can walk out of here with your dignity intact and not have me humiliate you and your family. I am begging you, with the utmost respect, please help me."

She assured him that "it would be me and his protectors only. I told him there would be no blue lights and that we will not run into police until we get to where we are going. It will all be done in a dignified manner."

Zulu was taken aback by Zuma agreeing to her request, albeit with conditions such as ensuring he was put in a safe facility and that there would be consideration for his ill-health. Zuma is 79 years old.

Zuma told Zulu, "Kulungile, ngizohamba nawe mntanami Mageba [It's OK, I will go with you, my child Mageba - Mageba being one of Zulu's clan names] as along as where you are taking me, it's safe. If you can assure me that I will be fine and eat a good meal, because you know my health condition needs healthy food.

"If you can make sure that someone cooks for me and I am protected from getting Covid-19 because I am not well and I would not like to get sick," she recalled him saying.

Zuma, she said, went on to say: "If you can do that one thing [I will be grateful]. I am not sure why your bosses failed to do what you are doing. This was very simple. You will tell me when you are ready and we will leave."

After an hour-long conversation with her, Zuma left to pack and Zulu picked up her phone and started making arrangements.

"I called the acting district commissioner who is in charge in [KwaZulu-Natal] and told them about [Zuma's] concerns and asked him to address them for me."

Zulu later insisted on personally seeing that Zuma would be comfortable in his cell.

She also spoke to Zuma's bodyguards to inform them of the plan to arrest him and drive him to Estcourt to hand him over to correctional services as per an order from the Constitutional Court, which found the former president guilty of contempt of court after he defied an order to appear before the Zondo commission of inquiry.

When the clock struck 11pm, Zulu told Zuma it was time to bid farewell to his family: "Baba ngicela sihambe, isikhathi sesishayile [Baba, please can we leave, the time has come]," she told him politely.

He asked Zulu: "Please give me 10 minutes to say bye-bye to my children and family." She said Zuma called his family into one room but it was only Dlamini-Zuma who was brave enough to say goodbye. He was surrounded by wives and children, but they did not see him off because most of them were distraught, Zulu recalled.

"It was heart-breaking to watch and it was worse because I was taking a former president. Prison is traumatising enough for a person who has not even been arrested; how much more when you have to go there and leave an elderly man and then have to take his fingerprints to make sure that you arrested him. It was not a nice feeling for me, especially as a Zulu woman," said Zulu.

At some point, "he gave them hugs and spoke to them. I don't know how to explain it, it was too emotional. You could see that it was difficult for him to give all of them hugs because there were a lot of them. So he raised his hand and got into the car."

Zuma was in a vehicle driven by his protectors and Zulu jumped into her own car and drove to Estcourt. When they arrived at the prison Zulu checked Zuma's cell and when she was satisfied, "I ushered him in and left him there".

After 28 years as an officer in the South African Police Service, said Zulu, this was an assignment she will "never forget".

"Every human being who has a heart would have also cried. I cried. Zuma is not the kind of person that you read about in newspapers, it was very difficult. When I left him, I got into my car and cried," said Zulu, weeping as she recalled the moment.

She lauded Zuma for making her job easier. "He humbled himself and placed South Africa first and his dignity. He trusted that everything that I said to him as a child was true, and accepted everything."

To her family and colleagues, Zulu is a hero. "When I got to the office I received a standing ovation … It was so emotional, I cried again."

National police spokesperson Brig Vish Naidoo commended Zulu for showing compassion while remaining professional. Police minister Bheki Cele praised her as the officer who talked Zuma into giving himself up, as ordered by the Constitutional Court.