As pressure mounts on South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, he blames an old enemy: Western intelligence agencies

Zuma arrives in Havana for the funeral of Fidel Castro on November 29 after surviving an attempt to oust him. Rolando Pujol/EPA

South African President Jacob Zuma has had his back to the wall. The National Executive of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) met at a hotel in Pretoria over the weekend of November 26-27. The discussions – so intense that delegates almost came to blows – were over whether to remove the president from his post.

For the journalists who hung around outside the ANC meeting to decide the fate of their president, it was a long and dreary wait, which continued into the Monday. The president was facing numerous allegations, ranging from corruption and bringing the ANC into disrepute to – perhaps most telling of all – charges of allowing the opposition to take key cities during municipal elections earlier this year.

A number of cabinet ministers got up to call for his resignation, but in the end attempts to remove Zuma as president failed. The ANC rallied round, declaring that his detractors would not be punished for their opposition.

A familiar scapegoat

On the face of it, this was a bruising victory for the president, but nothing more. But there was one really worrying development. According to Bloomberg, Zuma used a particularly toxic argument to face down his critics: he blamed Western intelligence agencies for the criticism he was facing, saying he would not hand himself over to his enemies.

If this had been a one-off it might be possible to dismiss it as the bluster of a man fighting for his political life. But it is not. Blaming Western intelligence agencies, and their local lackeys, for all of South Africa’s troubles has been the hallmark of politics whenever the ANC leadership hits a sticky patch.

In May this year, one of the country’s best known commentators, Gareth van Onselen, wrote in financial newspaper Business Day that he was aware of at least ten recent examples of this behaviour.

Under pressure the African National Congress (ANC) has historically relied on one red herring above all others to negate responsibility and divert attention from dissatisfaction with its own performance: a “third force”, be it the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or white supremacists, is supposedly the root cause of its many and varied problems. Always unseen, never proven and yet constantly alluded to, its claims to this effect are the ultimate abdication of agency.

Some of these conspiracies were truly bizarre. They include an allegation that former President Thabo Mbeki made at an ANC caucus meeting in October 2000 accusing the CIA of being part of a “conspiracy” to promote the view that HIV causes AIDS.

If Mbeki occasionally used the CIA as a scapegoat, Zuma has perfected the technique. It should not be forgotten that Zuma was a leading member of the ANC’s military intelligence while in exile. The organisation he ran, iMbokodo, was known as “The Grindstone”. The ANC’s internal inquiry into the atrocities committed against its own members in guerrilla camps in Angola in 1983, described iMbokodo as “the most notorious and infamous department in the camps and perhaps in the whole movement”.

Turning to old friends

In his book, External Mission: The ANC in Exile 1960-1990, the historian Stephen Ellis said Zuma’s time in iMbokodo shaped the rest of his life. “For the remainder of his political career, this experience in charge of intelligence was to be Zuma’s key institutional base,” Ellis wrote.

According to Ronnie Kasrils, intelligence minister under Mbeki who spent years in the ANC underground with Zuma, the president drew extensively on his former security colleagues when he came to power. “The first people he appointed were in his security team,” said Kasrils in an interview in The Sunday Times newspaper earlier this year.

It is this reliance on the intelligence community and their penance for conspiracies that is the hallmark of the Zuma presidency. He is now in his second – and final – presidential term. As his power gradually wanes, Zuma faces the looming possibility of imprisonment once he loses office.

As the South African journalist Stephen Grootes concluded in his analysis of the NEC’s decision not to oust Zuma, the president may well turn to various arms of the security services to counter his critics.

Zuma may try to use the security cluster, the Hawks, the spooks, the Nhlekos, Ntlemezas and the Mahlobos against them. Phones will be re-tapped, contacts re-monitored, charges laid again. It will become even harder to determine fact from fiction.

South Africa will be in for a very bumpy ride if Zuma seriously looks for traitors in his midst who “serve foreign masters” to head off the rising tide of criticism of his tarnished presidency.