Former president Jacob Zuma on the third day of testimony before the commission of inquiry into state capture. Picture: KIM LUDBROOK /AFP
Former president Jacob Zuma on the third day of testimony before the commission of inquiry into state capture. Picture: KIM LUDBROOK /AFP

It seems a high-stakes game for Jacob Zuma, but a bigger battle is unfolding with the former president’s appearance at the Zondo commission: one between Zuma and current president Cyril Ramaphosa.

Zuma appeared before the state capture commission of inquiry for the first time on Monday, where he launched into an almost three-hour diatribe about an elaborate plot — going all the way back to 1990 — to "get rid" of him.

Part of the story involved serious — if incredible — allegations that some of Zuma’s fellow ANC leaders were apartheid spies who had conspired with international intelligence organisations to discredit him, and even attempted to assassinate him.

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It’s quite clear that Zuma is angry and even bitter about the series of events that culminated in him being recalled from the presidency last year — something he claims was part of this bigger conspiracy.

"The NEC [national executive committee] was influenced to take the decision that Zuma must go. In other words, that plan I was talking about finally succeeded. I had to resign ... in order to leave the ANC intact because I love it," Zuma told the commission.

The former president’s comments could have serious implications for the ruling party, bogged down as it is by deep factional battles.

The challenge, for the ANC, is how to resolve its internal issues while maintaining stability in the face of this. This, while it tries to steady the country’s economy. At issue is whether instability in the ANC will affect the stability of the state — and the extent to which government officials can distinguish between state affairs and party political issues.

This could have a devastating effect on the country, as the markets and rating agencies look on.

The claims made by Zuma are also a litmus test for the party — a possible test of whether the ANC, having twice recalled a sitting president, has trapped itself by precedent.

This as rumours swirl that the ANC faction aligned to Zuma is talking about starting the push for Ramaphosa’s removal at next year’s national general council.

It seems Zuma himself has Ramaphosa in his sights. In his testimony, he made veiled references to the president while mapping out the supposed conspiracy against him.

Zuma went back to 1990 when, as ANC chief of intelligence, he said he received a report revealing that three intelligence organisations — two international and one local, connected to the apartheid regime — were plotting to discredit him. He said he then hatched a plan to find out why they so badly wanted him out.

"The answer was: ‘The reason why we wanted to character-assassinate Zuma ... was he has a lot of information that he holds ... as chief of intelligence, [that] there are spies infiltrated by us in his organisation who we want to nurture and ensure they grow inside the ANC so that at some point they lead the ANC’," he said.

Zuma then jumped forward a year, to the ANC’s 1991 elective conference in Durban, where he says the intelligence organisations realised it would be difficult to extricate him from the party’s leadership, so they decided instead that he should be removed as head of intelligence.

Speaking about himself in the third person, Zuma said: "I’m saying this because there has been [a] process, particularly against Jacob Zuma, a conspiracy. I’m sitting there and I am told by other organisations that in my organisation, as well as the NEC, there are people who are working for them, who they want to be in control of this country. It was a worrying point."

According to Zuma, the decision was taken to remove him as intelligence chief, and Thabo Mbeki as chief negotiator, at the first national working committee (NWC) of the ANC following the 1991 conference.

Zuma was replaced by Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbeki by Ramaphosa.

"This [Zuma’s removal as intelligence chief] was to be planned by three organisations. Why was it [the decision] made by the NWC? It was confirming that there may be spies here," he said.

Susan Booysen, director of research at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, says it seems that, for Zuma, the endgame is still unfolding and it is his belief that he has not been marginalised or pushed to the sidelines.

"In Zuma’s mind we see that there is the regrouping of forces for the next counterattack," says Booysen. "Not for him to come back as president, but for him to destroy Ramaphosa, because Ramaphosa was his successor and he outmanoeuvred Zuma."

Ramaphosa came in as Zuma’s deputy in 2012, kept quiet at strategic times to keep himself separate, and played a calculated and strategic game — and played it long enough to win the Nasrec battle for the ANC presidency.

"Zuma has not forgiven him and has no plans to ever forgive him for that," says Booysen. "The only prize — and it could be the ultimate prize for Zuma — would be Ramaphosa’s fall."

In Zuma’s mind we see that there is the regrouping of forces for the next counterattack. Not for him to come back as president, but for him to destroy Ramaphosa
Susan Booysen

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga agrees that Zuma is waging a vendetta that has spilt over into the ANC.

Zuma is trying to create a picture of "an orchestrated effort by interest groups aimed at causing problems for him within the ANC because of the work he does within the ANC", he says. "He is positioning himself as someone who has decisions taken against him simply because he is progressive."

Mathekga says Zuma, in his testimony, referred to people such as Johann Rupert — representing the private sector — because they are seen to be Ramaphosa’s allies.

Zuma told the commission that minister Fikile Mbalula had been at Rupert’s farm when the businessperson told him to tell Zuma not to remove Pravin Gordhan as finance minister because that would shut down the economy.

"He is saying to [Ramaphosa]: ‘You were part of this, [and] you people have turned against me’," says Mathekga. "There is nowhere where he takes individual accountability."

At the time of going to press, Zuma had hardly dealt with the actual allegations made against him.

Nine witnesses have given testimony that implicates Zuma either directly or indirectly. These witnesses include former government communication & information system head Themba Maseko, former ministers Barbara Hogan, Nhlanhla Nene and Ngoako Ramatlhodi, and current ministers Mbalula and Gordhan.

Zuma told the inquiry he believes the state capture commission is the culmination of this global intelligence plot to get rid of him.

When evidence leader and head of the commission’s legal team Paul Pretorius asked Zuma on Monday whether he believed all nine witnesses who had implicated him were also part of that plot, Zuma made a strange comment: "I think, Chair, that the plan was done by three intelligence organisations. I said the plan was made by them and there are separate people to implement them … I didn’t say that the people doing it [coming to the commission] were part of the plan."

Except one, that is. He singled out Ramatlhodi, saying he was a spy who had been recruited when he was a student in Lesotho.

(Ramatlhodi has denied the charge, and called on Zuma to subject himself to a lie-detector test before the commission.)

Then, having used Ramatlhodi as an example, Zuma resorted to threat. As a result of his intelligence background, he said, he had dirt on many people, which he might be forced to reveal. He also claimed to have a list of those who were spies, but he has so far not named them.

The former president told the commission no-one had any proof that he was corrupt, or that he had done anything wrong. It was, he insisted, all part of the great conspiracy against him.

But Zuma himself has not presented any proof of the elaborate plot he mapped out for the commission.

As Booysen points out, conspiracies are an effective form of counteraccusation because they can seldom actually be proved.

What it means

Is Zuma’s endgame the ousting of Cyril Ramaphosa as president?

"It is so safe [to rely on a conspiracy theory] because you go about with innuendo and manipulation, and you play on the sensitive points of your target, and you accuse people of having been spies — and you know it’s going to take years to undo that damage," she says.

These "targeted attacks" can stick, she says, regardless of how lacking in credibility they may be.

What, then, are the implications to the commission of Zuma’s assertions of a conspiracy?

To be fair, the inquiry was established to look into allegations in which Zuma is central — but he is by no means the only player.

Booysen says she doesn’t believe his claims will damage the commission’s credibility. If anything, she says, the commission has so far helped nurture a broader culture of accountability.

Mathekga, on the other hand, is more sceptical. "It’s not about all these allegations being proved. All they need to do is raise doubts about the process of this [commission]," he says. "And now they are raising procedural issues, which raises the issue of credibility."

Mathekga says, if anything, the commission has been too soft on Zuma in not pushing him to answer direct questions about the allegations against him.

That, he says, may itself serve to undermine the commission’s credibility, as people start to ask what the commission will actually achieve, and what the end result will be. South Africans at last want to see those in positions of power take responsibility for the actions that placed the country in its current parlous position.