As head of intelligence for the outlawed African National Congress during apartheid, Jacob Zuma neutralized perceived traitors and sidelined opponents to shore up his position, people who worked with him say.
Decades later, as South Africa’s President, he hasn’t lost his touch.
Lampooned in the media, jeered in public and now facing calls from inside and outside the ANC to resign over millions of rand of improper state spending on his private home in Nkandla, the 73-year-old’s grip on power seems like it should be weaker than at any point since his election in 2009.
Yet he endures, thanks to skills honed decades ago in the exiled ANC underground, promoting little-known officials who do his bidding to powerful positions within the security and intelligence portfolios, politicians who work around Zuma say.
He has also changed the way the party votes on internal appointments, including making members photograph ballot papers to prove their allegiance.
Critics, including former cabinet ministers and top commanders of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), say Zuma’s administration also demotes opponents and intimidates dissenters. One example: Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, a constitutionally mandated anti-corruption watchdog investigating the spending on Zuma’s home, became the subject of an intelligence ministry probe into allegations she was a CIA spy.
Zuma’s spokesman Bongani Majola did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this article or for an interview with Zuma. ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa also did not respond.
Intelligence Ministry spokesman Brian Dube denied that security institutions were being misused. “These allegations are not new. They have been made before and remain unsubstantiated,” he told Reuters in answer to emailed questions.
One senior ANC source, who did not wish to be named for fear of retribution, said the key to Zuma’s power was his lock over the party, regardless of his standing among the public.
“So-called experts have been saying Zuma is finished for years but they don’t have a clue how politics here works,” said the ANC official. “People ask, how does Zuma survive? No one asks, how does Vladimir Putin survive?”
Zuma, whose Zulu middle name, Gedleyihlekisa, means “the one who smiles as he hurts you”, joined the ANC in 1959. The son of a policeman and domestic worker from what is now rural KwaZulu Natal, he had little formal education.
After 10 years on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela, he fled apartheid South Africa to emerge in the late 1980s in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, as deputy head of the ANC’s secret police and head of the ‘Green House’, its intelligence unit. ( Reuters)