MBEKI NEVER WANTED ZUMA
Former spy boss spills the beans
● Jazz has been the constant soundtrack to Vusi Mavimbela’s revolution.
Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Dinah Washington, John Coltrane, Brook Benton, Winston Mankunku Ngozi and Miriam Makeba all accompanied him through various stages of his life — high school, university (albeit briefly) and exile; as a freedom fighter, spy, political adviser and diplomat.
His first encounter with jazz was in 1970 as a freshman at Vryheid High School in northern KwaZulu-Natal. The school had a large number of students from Johannesburg and Mavimbela, a young lad from Bhekuzulu township, just outside the small town of Vryheid, was “smacked between the eyes by a culture I had not experienced before”.
In his memoir, Time is Not The Measure, Mavimbela describes how the big-city boys were something of an enigma.
“They were able to discuss intelligently a wide range of topics that those of us from small towns and rural backgrounds could not,” he writes.
“They had seen movies we had not seen. They had seen stage plays we had only read about. They were enlightened and politically conscientised. They had been to Orlando Stadium and watched Orlando Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs and Moroka Swallows.”
The two presidents
Jazz and politics became his first loves.
He immersed himself in music, reading extensively about the lives of jazz musicians, about their connection to slavery and the civil rights movement; and comparing that to his own experience in apartheid SA. The music would have a major impact on his future choices.
Mavimbela, known in ANC and government circles by his nom de guerre, Klaus Maphepha, is something of a closed book to most South Africans.
But this is a man who has had front-row seats to two presidencies which defined much of our postapartheid political discourse.
From 1994 to 1999, he was the political adviser in the office of deputy president Thabo Mbeki.
From October 1999 to November 2004, he was director-general of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). Following a brief spell working in the private sector for Tokyo Sexwale’s Mvelaphanda Group as executive director, Mavimbela returned to high office in 2009 as director-general in the first presidency of Jacob Zuma.
Now SA’s ambassador to Egypt, he tells the Sunday Times from the foyer of the Garden Court hotel in Hatfield, Tshwane, that the book had long been in the back of his mind. His erstwhile colleagues and comrades at the NIA were the first to plant the seed when he left the spy agency in 2004.
“They gave me a replica of a book with NIA colours, and they said, ‘We are giving you this book but it’s blank inside. We want you to fill up the pages. That’s the biggest gift you can give to us after departing, to write your story.’ The title of the empty book is Klaus Maphepha: The Journey of a Revolutionary by Vusi Mavimbela.”
It would take another 12 years before he could sit down and start writing — just after he left Zimbabwe, where he had been ambassador since 2011, for Egypt — but the end product is a thrill a minute. Apart from tracking his fascinating life journey, the book is thoroughly honest in its critical reflection of what went wrong, first under Mbeki and then under Zuma, and how the ANC lost its way.
The first resistance
In the opening chapter of Time is Not The Measure, Mavimbela recounts an encounter with his mother, which perhaps was the beginning of his political awakening.
It was a Sunday morning and, as usual, the family was preparing to start their day worshipping at the local NG Kerk. But the thought of going to the imposing red structure, which Mavimbela describes as “a gargantuan bird keeping watch over the sprawling township”, gave him sleepless nights.
When his mother noticed that he was not in his Sunday best, she seethed with anger. Realising that he was risking a severe scolding, even a possible hiding, he nonetheless plucked up the courage to rebel against the church and its divided setup.
“That white Afrikaner minister stays in town with his white family, where you and your black children are not allowed to get a house.
“We’re confined against our will to this accursed township, with no decent livelihood. Perhaps the only decent thing white people have given us is that church building. Should we not ask ourselves the question: why is it so important for the white man that this black township has a decent Dutch Reformed Church building and nothing else? Besides, Mama, why are we prohibited from worshipping in the white church in town?”
Things were never the same after that conversation. He never set foot again in that church, and the subject was never raised in his home again.
Following a brief spell at the University of Zululand, Mavimbela skipped the country in 1976, despondent at the conditions and treatment received at the Ongoye campus. He boarded a train to Swaziland and snuck across the border, then made his way to Mozambique to join the ANC in exile. Among the group that finally arrived at an ANC camp after the June 16 uprisings was struggle icon Solomon Mahlangu, who would be sentenced to death and executed by the government in 1979.
Young and politically naïve, the group envisaged receiving quick military training before being sent back to SA to fight “the Boers”.
Why is it so important for the white man that this black township has a decent church and nothing else?
“When we got there we were very impatient with the leadership.
“‘Why are you people sitting here? Mandela is rotting in jail. We want guns, we want to go back’,” he says they told the envoy whom the ANC had dispatched to meet and debrief them — one Jacob Zuma.
His political and military training in Angola, the former Soviet Union and German Socialist Republic (East Germany) were instrumental in reshaping the young man’s view of the armed struggle and why it was not practical to just pick up automatic rifles and head back to South Africa to confront “the Boers”.
Stories from the inside
This reality became important towards the latter days of apartheid, when the ANC was holding secret talks with envoys of the apartheid regime. Mavimbela, by then an ANC intelligence operative active in Swaziland, was convinced that a negotiated settlement was better than staring down the barrel of the enemy’s gun.
There were two schools of thought within the liberation movement. One wanted to give negotiations a chance; the other felt the apartheid regime could not be trusted and that the armed struggle had to continue.
In another chapter, Mavimbela recounts a meeting in Lusaka, Zambia, of the political military council (PMC) — a structure of the ANC responsible for carrying out political and military warfare.
It took place on the day former president FW de Klerk gave his famous speech unbanning the ANC and other liberation movements, and announcing his intention to free Mandela from prison.
Mavimbela provided administrative support to the PMC, and when word of De Klerk’s watershed address arrived, he remembers how Chris Hani was adamant that the announcement was not going to change their strategy towards the apartheid government.
This led to an exchange with another senior party figure, Josiah Jele, who felt De Klerk was introducing a dynamic that necessitated a complete change in approach by the exiled liberation movement.
In the end, it took a negotiated settlement to end apartheid. But did the ANC compromise too much?
“No,” he says. What the ANC failed to do was use the absolute majority it had in parliament, especially after the 1999 and 2004 elections, to effect the radical economic transformation it suddenly claims to champion now that its majority is waning.
“At one point we had an absolute majority in parliament and we sat on it and didn’t do anything. Now that we are teetering [on the brink], we want to do what we could have done back in the day.”
Mavimbela was Mbeki’s eyes and ears in power, both as adviser and, later, spy chief.
But were they afraid to tell him he was wrong on Aids, on Zimbabwe? Couldn’t they have reined him in much earlier?
It was difficult, Mavimbela sighs, because once Mbeki was set on a specific view it was almost impossible to advise him otherwise.
“When he decides something is right, it’s very difficult to move him … He’s got this tendency to push his position to the bitter end if he believes that’s the correct way. Whereas, as a leader, in as much as you need to be decisive, you must always try to accommodate other views or even try to find a compromise to take things forward, rather than ‘It’s my way or the highway’ .”
Mbeki was also convinced that Zuma was not the right person to succeed him and tried to prevent his ascendancy.
Mavimbela says Mbeki told him just before his own inauguration in 1999 that he was uncomfortable having Zuma as his deputy.
“He felt Zuma lacked capacity. But he needed a good reason not to appoint Zuma. Mbeki said to me that under Zuma's leadership, corruption would be institutionalised and become normal in government and the ANC.”
Disappointments and destiny
And how did they respond to Mbeki’s notion that he should anoint his own successor, knowing the danger it posed to the ANC?
“What we said to him was, ‘Whatever you do or say it must never be interpreted that you are trying to influence the outcome. If there is an indication of that, that is going to create problems within the ANC.’ Zuma was popular and that was going to divide the movement.”
In the end, Zuma’s presidency turned out as predicted. Corruption was institutionalised, state institutions were decimated and the ruling alliance brought to the brink.
How disappointed is he in both men, and how much did their political brinkmanship cost the ANC?
“We were a different ANC when we fought. We delivered political liberation. What happened subsequently is not what we wanted to see happening. In a way, we are all hurt about it and we have been disappointed by some of the leaders and what they have done,” Mavimbela reflects.
For now, he will go back to serving his country as a diplomat, but wants to be actively involved in the modernisation of the ANC, which he admits never fully transitioned from a liberation movement to a governing party.
“The ANC will have to change, it will have to modernise, it can’t continue as a national liberation movement. We can’t continue with democratic centralism when we are a parliamentary party.”
But whatever happens between diplomacy and politics, jazz will forever remain a welcome escape.
The ANC delivered liberation. What happened subsequently is not what we wanted to see happening
Vusi Mavimbela developed a love of jazz in high school, and took it with him through his long involvement in the liberation movement and beyond.