The overlooked history of the rise of Zuma

The overlooked history of the rise of Zuma
File Image: GETTY/AFP.

“If nothing else, the question of what ought to be done to President Zuma needs to acknowledge that his status is not just an inherited position but the result of something more profound; perhaps accidental; sometimes downright lucky but always masterfully executed. Failure to appreciate this leads to a miscalculated misunderstanding of the man and his ability to navigate politics with a level of intimacy none of us have learnt to appreciate”.

Khaya S Sithole

An Arsenal fan, the teacher and the cellmate

“Mr Gwala, what I would like you to talk about is the dialectic, taking in the objective contradictions, that accounts for the demise this season of the Arsenal football team.” – and so began John Carlin’s interview with Harry Gwala in 1992. These days, Harry Gwala is long gone – and the fortunes of his beloved Arsenal are as disappointing as they were back then. Yet it is the self-directed implosion of Gwala’s other love – the African National Congress; that would disappoint him more than the demise of the Gunners. Gwala’s influence on the current state of the state remains largely misunderstood; but as a teacher by training; he would appreciate nothing more than educating the current crop of citizens and civilians; about what the ANC once represented.

Harry was a great teacher – and one of his students was the revolutionary Moses Mabhida. But it was far from the classroom and deep into the solitude of a prison cell that Harry Gwala’s most important lessons were imparted. As a prisoner on Robben Island; Harry shared a cell with a young and poorly-educated cellmate. That cellmate had traversed an extraordinary path to Robben Island. His father – a policeman; had taken 2 wives and died when Harry’s cellmate was still young. His mother – in a spirited attempt to make ends meet had moved away from the family to try and secure work as a domestic worker. Burdened by these twin icons of disinheritance; the young man took on piece jobs in order to raise funds for the rest of the family. Naturally, the first thing he sacrificed was his own schooling. Strangely, even once the dream of formal schooling had disappeared; he sought permission from his elders to attend classes in the evenings when possible.

By the time Harry ended up in Robben Island; his reputation as the political teacher was well established. And in a strange twist of fate; the apartheid government decided to pair him up with a cellmate regarded as too illiterate to absorb anything from Harry Gwala. Unfortunately that turned out to be a miscalculation of sorts as Harry decided to teach his cellmate how to read and write in English. We now refer to that cellmate as Jacob Zuma.

The overlooked history of the rise of Zuma

Gwala was eventually released from Robben Island in 1988 and moved back to the Natal Midlands. Once on the ground, he revitalised the ANC as a credible and direct threat to the IFP. His most famous protégé – Sifiso Nkabinde – became a living icon in Richmond, thanks in large part to his passion for ending the lives of other people. What distinguished Harry Gwala from other Robben Island prisoners was the simple fact that he and Govan Mbeki rejected the idea of the rainbow transition that Nelson Mandela had in mind. As a result of that; Harry became the irritating dissenting voice within the ANC.

At the same time; the political landscape in KZN was very different to the rest of the country – thanks to the IFP. As 1994 loomed; Mandela’s biggest problem was the fact that Harry Gwala might just take charge of the ANC in KZN and destroy all hopes of a rainbow reconciliation. As a strategy towards neutralising Harry Gwala; the ANC deployed Gwala’s former student – Jacob Zuma – to run as the chairperson of the ANC in KZN. One of the important departures between Gwala and Zuma related to their approach to negotiations with the IFP. Gwala – adamant that the IFP had been too cosy with the National Party had little appetite for negotiating with Frank Mdlalose. Jacob on the other hand, decided to play the patience game and wore out the IFP brigade through sheer tactical mastery. By the end of 1994, Jacob Zuma had wrestled control of the soul of the party from Harry Gwala and Sifiso Nkabinde.

The problematic protégé

But Sifiso Nkabinde was no ordinary human being. Born in Richmond in 1960; Sifiso had a rather bizarre relationship with his parents. His father was an IFP leader who disowned Sifiso when he joined the UDF and the ANC. Later on, Sifiso tried to convince his mother that the IFP was no longer the party she should support – and his mother disagreed. So Sifiso did what any reasonable son would do – he simply ordered his followers to assassinate his mother and his sister in 1989. Luckily for them, they managed to escape and only their huts were burnt down. His mother would only return to Richmond in 1992 after Sifiso had found new targets for his political activism.

The relationship between Harry Gwala and Sifiso Nkabinde defined the history of Richmond. As the chairperson of the ANC in the Midlands, Harry Gwala was the de facto leader of the radical wing of the KZN ANC, his only counterpoint – the moderate Jacob Zuma – was the chairperson of the Southern Region of the ANC in KZN. Sifiso on the other hand; was the ANC deputy secretary general of the Midlands region under Harry Gwala. Nkabinde and Harry Gwala maintained an extraordinary stronghold over Richmond. Such was Nkabinde’s power in those days; police could not enter Richmond without his permission; and anyone who opposed him would be labelled as an informer and then summarily tried by Nkabinde’s court and – predictably killed. Over time; Nkabinde became a massive liability for the ANC and it became clear that a solution needed to be found to deal with his growing influence. Enter Jacob Zuma.

The Nkabinde defiance

It is most extraordinary that Jacob Zuma rose to the head up the intelligence unit of the ANC. And that is a story that deserves its own book. But what is becoming clear is that whilst his elevation to the presidency might just turn out to be accidental; his mastering of the intelligence structures of the ANC is unparalleled. And it is this type of problem the ANC needs to make peace with. Jacob’s great achievement is actually fostering peace in KZN. This he did through the patience and courage of negotiation. As a result, the 1994 elections were far less violent than they could have been in KZN. Jacob Zuma – alongside Sifiso Nkabinde and Harry Gwala; made it to the first post-democratic parliament in KZN. And then something happened soon thereafter that altered the course of history.

The first was the 1994 ANC conference in Bloemfontein (more on that later). The second alteration in the fabric of history was the death of Harry Gwala in June 1995. His natural successor was of course Sifiso Nkabinde. But having worked so hard to reach some form of peace settlement with the IFP; the last thing the ANC needed was the rise of Sifiso Nkabinde again – and they sought to ensure that this did not happen.

The overlooked history of the rise of Zuma

Firstly, Sifiso decided to run against Sipho Gcabashe for the post of provincial secretary general. But since he already had another post as an MPL; Luthuli House issued an instruction that Nkabinde would not be allowed to run against Gcabashe. Nkabinde ignored this instruction and ran anyway – and still lost to Gcabashe. But then he was elected to the provincial executive committee on the same day – and Thabo Mbeki was furious. Of the people who opposed Nkabinde running for the secretary post, one was indeed Jacob Zuma under instruction from Luthuli House. The reason advanced – that Nkabinde already had another post – was obviously rubbish; because Zuma himself occupied multiple roles in the ANC at that stage. Fast forward over 20 years later – and a young man called Andile Lungisa tried exactly the same thing – and had the support of Jacob Zuma in this case. Because that is how political amnesia works.

The Nkabinde saga pissed off Mandela more than Thabo Mbeki. Jacob Zuma famously declared “The ANC, I am sure, knows what to do.’’ So from the end of 1994 to the middle of 1997, the primary focus was on finding a way of getting rid of Nkabinde from the ANC. But it turned out to be a bit more difficult than originally imagined.

The 1994 conference

If the ANC is to complete its self-destruction in our lifetime, Bloemfontein in December 1994 might one day be remembered as the place where it all started. In reality the conference itself was mundane – the ANC was still trying to work out what it means to govern a country. The party was still burdened by the hangover of the 1991 conference. In that conference, the question of whether Hani or Thabo Mbeki should be deputy president threatened to split the party. So a very old Walter Sisulu agreed to stand as Deputy. For the rest of the key positions; Oliver Tambo became the chairperson and Cyril Ramaphosa became the secretary general, with Jacob Zuma as his deputy. Mandela himself believed that the greatest threat to the ANC would be factionalism that would be created if a battle for the Presidency ensued in the ANC.

On the other hand, he was worried about a perception that the ANC was becoming a Xhosa party. And yet, in a strange twist, Mandela essentially christened Thabo Mbeki as his preferred successor in the 1994 conference when most people thought Cyril Ramaphosa stood a better chance. And this is quite key. Cyril had a strong background in the trade union movement – his primary constituency. Thabo had the intellectual credentials but was not even the most popular young politician in his home province of the Eastern Cape – Bantu Holomisa owned that space.

Thanks to Mandela’s actions, Thabo Mbeki then ended up with the deputy presidency and eventually the presidency of the country without a single vote being cast. So much for the democratic ideal of Nelson Mandela.

In addition to the elevation of Thabo Mbeki to the deputy presidency, Jacob Zuma became the chairperson of the party, and Cyril Ramaphosa ended up as the secretary general with Cheryl Carolus as his deputy. But as we now know, Thabo Mbeki possesses a special type of paranoia that is only matched by his occasional political amnesia which always seems to strike on Mondays.

The reluctant secretariat – between 1994 and 1997

The Ramaphosa-Carolus alliance was a special type of relationship. Ramaphosa appears to have struggled with reconciling himself to the Mandela betrayal that anointed Thabo Mbeki as the future leader of the party. Ramaphosa had worked tirelessly in leading the negotiations with Roelf Meyer of the National Party. After the transition, he was at the forefront of drafting the new Constitution which was finally completed in 1996. But, still dejected and demoralised in equal measure by the Mandela betrayal, Ramaphosa chose to sulk his way into a multi-billion rand fortune by abandoning his post as the secretary-general in 1996. In his absence, Cheryl Carolus stepped in as the acting secretary general until the 1997 conference in Mahikeng.

During this period the ANC had a few vocal dissenters who had reservations about the Mandela philosophy of reconciliation – the most prominent voices in this camp would be Winnie Mandela; Harry Gwala, Bantu Holomisa and of course, Sifiso Nkabinde. Burdened with the realisation that the new dispensation was an economic and political compromise that made no sense for black people; Winnie and Harry Gwala became a thorn in the PR machine of Nelson Mandela’s government. Nelson Mandela – his petty and vicious dark side in full bloom; then committed himself to orchestrating the public humiliation of Winnie Mandela.

In February 1995, when Winnie was out of the country, Nelson ordered her to return at once. When she didn’t; the police mysteriously raided her house to look for evidence supporting that she was a criminal. The courts threw out the search as it was illegal and orchestrated by Nelson Mandela. In one instance; Nelson appeared to have forgotten the rules and fired Winnie Mandela from his cabinet in March 1995. It turned out that this dismissal was illegal and Nelson was forced to hire Winnie in his cabinet again and fire her again – so she resigned the day before he was going to fire her for the second time. Nelson of course –refused to explain to Winnie why she was fired in the first place. 22 years later, another ANC president, fired a member of his cabinet without explaining his reasons. And somehow that was frowned upon.

The other dissenters in the Mandela government had similarly interesting fates. Harry Gwala died in June 1995 and Winnie was one of the main speakers at his funeral. Completely free from any political loyalty to Mandela who had just fired her; Winnie spoke of the importance of Harry Gwala as one of the few leaders who remained resolute in the cause of the struggle radical political and economic transformation for the black masses that the ANC represented – and Nelson was predictably pissed off.

Bantu Holomisa on the other hand, ran into trouble in 1996 after his submissions to the TRC where he explained that one Stella Sigcau – a favourite of Nelson Mandela; had accepted bribes when she was in the Transkei. In addition, Holomisa outlined how Sol Kerzner – always comfortable with bribing a politician or 2 – funded the ANC’s election campaign and bankrolled Thabo Mbeki’s 50th birthday party in 1992. The ANC denied this until Holomisa stated that the source of his information was actually Nelson Mandela – who confessed that this was indeed true – and then dismissed Holomisa from his cabinet. The next time Sol Kerzner’s Sun City empire would be so prominent in the ANC would be in 2013 when the Guptas hosted their wedding there after landing in the Waterkloof air base.

Holomisa was eventually hauled before a disciplinary hearing in 1996 and was expelled from the party in September. He then embarked on a new political career which led to the creation of the United Democratic Movement – with Roelf Meyer abandoning the National Party to join the UDM.

Meanwhile, back in KZN, the Sifiso Nkabinde problem remained unresolved. By this stage there was no doubt that Nkabinde owned Richmond and had a personal hit squad that answered only to him. And – as expected – the ANC in Luthuli House enlisted Jacob Zuma to find a way to deal with the Nkabinde problem. And true to form, Jacob Zuma delivered.

As the head of intelligence, Jacob Zuma would be the first to know about traitors and spies right? So mysteriously, Jacob discovered/issued/unveiled an intelligence report that explained that Sifiso Nkabinde was an apartheid spy after all. On the 7th of April 1997, Cheryl Carolus – in her capacity as the acting secretary general of the ANC – called Nkabinde and asked him to fly up to Luthuli House immediately for a conversation. When Nkabinde arrived; he was summarily expelled from the party. And because Nkabinde was never going to disappear quietly – he joined the UDM instead and started competing with the ANC that he had created in Richmond.

Last week Friday – the 7th of April 2017, when the SAVE SA brigade marched against the President of the Republic, I kept asking myself whether Cheryl actually remembered that it was precisely 20 years ago when she participated in the expulsion of Sifiso Nkabinde based on an intelligence report that she had actually never questioned. The intelligence report which was unveiled by the same man who – only last week – declared that he was in possession of another intelligence report that facilitated the dismissal of Pravin Gordhan.

I wondered if any of the people that were marching across the country even understood just how delicate and intricate that history of the ANC they now seek to destroy actually is. Because far from advocating for the implosion of the ANC, its depth of history and heritage remains deeply ingrained in its MPs and the NEC. Failure to understand the depth of consequential effects of such bonds leads to a superficiality in debate that is simply – quite embarrassing. If nothing else, the question of what ought to be done to President Zuma needs to acknowledge that his status is not just an inherited position but the result of something more profound; perhaps accidental; sometimes downright lucky but always masterfully executed. Failure to appreciate this leads to a miscalculated misunderstanding of the man and his ability to navigate politics with a level of intimacy none of us have learnt to appreciate.

Because the reality of people like Cheryl and Thabo Mbeki is that they occasionally suffer from political amnesia where everything wrong with the ANC is the creation of one Jacob from Nkandla. But for those of us with memories that last longer than political terms – it remains unclear where Cheryl for one reached her Damascus moment. So in one age, Cheryl is happy to be part of an ANC that uses an intelligence report to fix a political problem, and in another age she denounces a president who appears to have done the same thing. So what was your Damascus moment Cheryl? Can you tell us?

The overlooked history of the rise of Zuma

It appears that Cheryl Carolus these days finds a lot of comfort within the arms of the SAVE SA brigade. And assuming that such a structure is an NGO, it would represent perhaps the most complete evolution of Cheryl Carolus as a human being in history. Because just 20 years ago, in the Secretary-General report at the Bloemfontein conference; Cheryl Carolus had nice things to say about NGOs. She famously referred to NGOs as “constituents in a concerted effort to halt transformation” and also referred to “a proliferation of reactionary, well-resourced NGOs moving into the new democratic spaces with vigour.” Naturally, I am completely lost about when Cheryl Carolus decided that Jacob Zuma was now a greater danger than NGOs. But Cheryl didn’t stop there – we still had the issue of Winnie Mandela to deal with.

The Winnie fix and accidental elevations

Having essentially dispatched of Bantu Holomisa and Sifiso Nkabinde from the ANC, Mandela’s government still had one burning issue – the Winnie Mandela outbursts. As the party meandered towards the 1997 Conference, Winnie remained far more popular than the ANC desired. As the leader of the Women’s League, she retained a strong support base in the party. Her other key ally, was Peter Mokaba who commanded the ANC Youth League at that stage. Nelson Mandela had already stated that he had no desire of running for the Presidency in 1997 and essentially, Thabo Mbeki’s coronation was complete long before the conference started – without a single vote being cast. But the conference remained key in the history of the ANC – specifically its second day. Because of all of Thabo and Cheryl’s political crimes, the public humiliation of Winnie Mandela must reign supreme in their consciences.

It was carefully planned; viciously executed and dramatically staged. In the planning, there was a need to isolate Winnie from the party and her core supporters. So long before the Conference, Nelson Mandela advised various constituencies against nominating Winnie. Having won a landslide in the Women’s League elections; it was inconceivable that Winnie would fail to get a nomination from the branches – and yet it happened. And then, in the submissions to the TRC, the ANC had an interesting strategy. Essentially, one blanket submission was made on behalf of the party to solicit amnesty. Winnie Mandela however, had to make her submission independently from the rest of the party – because that made it much easier to then use her own submission to the TRC to explain to the branches that she could not run for a senior position in the December conference.

Around this time; Thabo’s paranoia had reached record levels. Mandela had remained convinced that having another Xhosa leader taking over the ANC after Thabo Mbeki would make it a Xhosa party and alienate the Zulu faction. So Thabo committed to finding a candidate whose primary features had to be simple – don’t be Xhosa and don’t threaten Thabo. And Jacob Zuma was regarded as the one who fitted such a profile. So he was earmarked to run as the Deputy President in the December 1997 conference. But this did not stop Winnie Mandela from entertaining a campaign of her own. Failing to secure a branch nomination in the run up to the conference was not a disaster, because one could always be nominated from the floor.

The overlooked history of the rise of Zuma

And then the conference happened. As the acting Secretary General of the party, Cheryl Carolus chaired the session alongside the President-elect Thabo Mbeki. But the main agenda item – masterminded by Thabo of course – was the amendment of the rules of congress. Historically, any nomination from the floor had to be backed by 10% of the delegates in order for it to be voted on. And the first agenda item at the conference was the amendment of the rules so that 10% was no longer the number but 25% would now be required. Thabo and Cheryl managed to get this amendment passed. And then the nominations were opened – and Winnie failed to pass the new 25% mark.

In an attempt to save the situation, Winnie asked for a delay in proceedings so she could consult her constituency – and Thabo Mbeki stood up and told her in front of all the delegates that there would be no such thing. Thabo’s reasoning was simple semantics. Winnie actually said “I want to consult with the structures so that I do not appear divisive.” Thabo famously answered “Nominations from the conference floor are from individuals and not from party structures.”

So Winnie could not consult anyone and walked off stage to total humiliation and the only person who offered her support as she walked off was Peter Mokaba of the Youth League. Ironically, another conference in 2015 was conducted under the 25% rule that Thabo and Cheryl had authored. That conference delivered Collen Maine as the ANC Youth League president when Ronald Lamola missed the 25% mark by 2 votes.

As Winnie left the stage, it then turned out that there was now just one name on the ballot for the Deputy Presidency of the ANC. And that is how Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela and Cheryl Carolus delivered Jacob Zuma to us – not a single vote was necessary.

On Monday, Thabo Mbeki advised ANC MPs to vote with their consciences on the matter of no-confidence on the President. It is a wonderful thing to take advice from elders; and if I was an ANC MP I would no doubt be open to advice from the elders. But given his record of crushing dissenting voices at every possible opportunity, it appears that Thabo Mbeki has a less-than-credible right to make such recommendations. Thabo understands the distinction between party structures and individuals today as well as he understood it in 1997. And yet he now he acts as if no such thing exists and the ANC MPs are driven by a conscience. Had such a thing existed in Thabo’s ANC, surely his AIDS denialism would have been defeated much sooner in the ANC?

It is also quite surprising that Thabo Mbeki managed to plot his way to the top of the political tree without ever exposing himself to the democratic process of a vote at a conference. In the 1997 coronation – no one stood up against Thabo because Nelson Mandela had decided Thabo was the crown prince of the ANC. In 2002, the first breakout of the Schabir Shaik and Jacob Zuma links became public knowledge just before the conference – exactly like the Winnie Mandela TRC debacles had become a thing just before the 1997 conference. The only time Thabo Mbeki ever subjected himself to the indignity of a popular vote within the ANC was in a place called Pokolwane in 2007. And we all know how that turned out.

Perhaps Thabo should write to ANC MPs this week and explain why democracy within the ANC is suddenly a thing when he owes his entire legacy to the fact that such things could always be ignored in elevating him into power?

And that – I suppose – is essentially the problem we have today. Thabo Mbeki is for some bizarre reason, regarded as the legitimate statesman – and yet – his was a path built on the singular platform of massaging democratic processes and silencing all dissenting voices in the ANC. He now holds a level of social legitimacy that makes his legacy sound far more majestic than it really was. This is the social legitimacy that Zuma has lost long ago.

The overlooked history of the rise of Zuma

Jacob Zuma on the other hand – whether we like it or not – enjoys the electoral legitimacy that was won through the Polokwane ballot – something that remains a source of permanent trauma for Thabo Mbeki. This political/electoral legitimacy is of course – the issue we need to be confronting rather than who owns it. Under this political legitimacy question, we must remember that Thabo Mbeki’s record at significant ANC elections during national conferences is absolute zero. Jacob Zuma has never lost at such conferences. So if we have all decided that the political architecture is problematic because it makes it impossible to remove a sitting president – then that is what we ought to discuss. If we feel that what we want is social legitimacy rather than political legitimacy – then we can go ahead and make heroes out of Thabo Mbeki, Pravin Gordhan and Cheryl Carolus.

What I find particularly problematic is the reduction of the debate to the actions or inactions of one man; when the very political architecture we fought so hard to protect delivered him to us. The fact that politicians are full of nonsense is not unique to Jacob Zuma; in another life, ask Nelson Mandela what he did to Winnie Mandela. Ask Cheryl Carolus how she feels about her actions at the 1997 Conference. Ask Thabo Mbeki what happened to Cyril Ramaphosa, Bantu Holomisa, Sifiso Nkabinde and Winnie Mandela. Then we can finally understand that we primarily have a political architecture problem; then an ANC problem; then a problem of politicians masquerading as social activists before we end up with a Zuma problem…

And Arsenal lost again last night; as if the memory of poor Harry Gwala didn’t have enough drama to deal with already…

Khaya Sithole is an accountant and social activist who writes on issues relating to social justice. He presents a radio show on Kaya FM

You can follow him on Twitter: @coruscakhaya