He came out suddenly from behind a bush. We were in a garden in Harare, then Salisbury, in the mid-1980s. I was with Frank Chikane, the new general-secretary of the South African Council of Churches. We had just met Frank’s younger brother who was in the Intelligence Department of the ANC in exile. Frank had come at his request. Hugs all round.
There was something threatening about the way the man appeared and about the man himself. I did not like the cut of his jib, made my excuses and left. I learnt later that it was Jacob Zuma and that his Zulu second name was appropriately gedleyihlekisa, “the one who laughs while he endangers you”. He had just become head of ANC Intelligence at the time. He is now about to be the former President of South Africa.
Harare wasn’t safe then though it was significantly safer than South Africa when the apartheid system’s security apparatus had you on their books. ANC leaders were assassinated in Rhodesia as they were in all the surrounding countries. Some like the Anglican priest Rev. Michael Lapsley survived the letter and parcel bombs courtesy of the Orwellian-named Civil Cooperation Bureau but lost an arm and an eye. Frank was also to become another survivor, victim of organophosphate poisoning while he was in Namibia, ordered by Adriaan Vlok, South African Minister of – ill-named - Law and Order. He survived thanks to being taken into a US hospital and getting intensive treatment after a later attack.
The South African security state conducted an extensive programme of infiltration of the ANC and anti-apartheid movement. The head of the London ANC turned out to be in the pay of the Bureau of State Security (BOSS). You could be forgiven for believing most of the pay went on drink. The ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) was a prime target that generated, unsurprisingly, a high level of paranoia in ANC cadres in Angola and Zambia. As witch-finder general Zuma presided over the deaths of young South Africans who fell under suspicion in the exile camps.
Frank Chikane went on to become chef de cabinet for President Thabo Mbeki, a remarkable transformation for a Church leader, and wrote a fascinating insider account of how Zuma became the 4th. President of South Africa which presented the process as both unconstitutional and a de facto coup d’ėtat. Mbeki, urbane, a subtle political strategist, fond of his Black Label whisky, often in English tweeds when I met him in the back of London pubs, was in personality the antithesis of Zuma. As President he quickly dropped an economic prospectus that was radical and pro-poor under pressure from the monetarist Chicago boys and the US. He refused to put pressure on Robert Mugabe, and to everyone’s surprise was discovered to hold bizarre views of the causes of the AIDS pandemic that swept South Africa, with the tragic result that effective national responses to HIV were delayed. This all left wide open a gaping populist, left flank, for Zuma to occupy. Backed by the powerful trades union movement, COSATU, and an electorate loyal to the ANC yet disappointed that the black economic mountains left to climb after apartheid had barely been tackled, skillful in the internal politics of the ANC, he had a strong political base.
The rest, charges of corruption, rampant cronyism, a repellent lifestyle, is history. Cyril Ramaphosa who cut his political teeth in the mineworkers’ union, went on to become a multi-millionaire businessman displaced him as President of the ANC on 18 December 2017. The men in grey suits have been visiting Zuma in ever increasing numbers. A particularly damaging decade in South Africa’s political history is coming to an end. Like Mugabe’s retirement, loyalty to the leaders of the generation that risked their lives in the liberation struggle will mean Zuma gets away with it.
You wonder why all the sacrifice and idealism of the struggle against apartheid, within a lifetime, threw up someone like Zuma. More so after the extraordinary example of Mandela. I suspect it is the same answer to the question of how the USA got a Trump after an Obama.