Keeper of the party purse — and the party’s dirty se­crets

Sunday Times - - News Politics - Pic­ture: Masi Losi

Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa de­liv­ers a eu­logy dur­ing a funeral ser­vice for ANC stal­wart Mendi Msi­mang held at the Chris­tian Re­vival Church in Pretoria. Msi­mang, who died in Pretoria this week at the age of 89, was SA’s first post-apartheid high com­mis­sioner to the UK, one of the old­est re­main­ing strug­gle vet­er­ans of the ANC and its trea­surer-gen­eral when the con­tro­ver­sial arms deal was ne­go­ti­ated.

● Mendi Msi­mang, who has died in Pretoria at the age of 89, was SA’s first post-apartheid high com­mis­sioner to the UK, one of the old­est re­main­ing strug­gle vet­er­ans of the ANC and its trea­surer-gen­eral when the con­tro­ver­sial arms deal was ne­go­ti­ated.

He kept a low pro­file but was ANC aris­toc­racy and part of the in­ner fam­ily of re­turn­ing ex­iles. As keeper of the ANC purse he knew more about the ex­tent and source of party fund­ing than any­one, and who may have ben­e­fited and how. This made him a fig­ure of power and in­flu­ence in the party.

‘Small boys’

In ex­ile he was close to the cen­tre of power, no­tably ANC pres­i­dent Oliver Tambo, who he knew from his days as an ar­ti­cled clerk in the Tambo and Man­dela law firm. This may have saved him when he was found to be run­ning his own pri­vate in­tel­li­gence net­work in the 1960s.

He was, and re­mained, a close friend and con­fi­dant of Thabo Mbeki. He was a wit­ness at his mar­riage to Zanele in Lon­don in 1974.

He was cho­sen to give the per­ora­tion on be­half of the ANC at the funeral of mur­dered South African Stu­dent Or­gan­i­sa­tion (Saso) leader Onkgopotse Tiro in Botswana in 1974.

Saso was started by Steve Biko. Re­la­tions be­tween its Black Con­scious­ness-aligned ac­tivists and the ANC were strained af­ter Biko said the ANC and Pan African­ist Congress no longer com­manded mass sup­port in SA and were less in­flu­en­tial than BC ac­tivists. The ANC re­garded them as up­starts and sent the quiet but not-to-be-messed­with Msi­mang to Tiro’s funeral to put them in their place.

In his speech he slapped them down bru­tally. They were “just small boys” who should grow up and be­come part of the ANC’s youth wing, he told them. He had cut his political teeth in the ANC Youth League where he got to know Wal­ter Sisulu.

Born on De­cem­ber 8 1928 in Mar­shall­town, Jo­han­nes­burg, he ma­tric­u­lated at Mar­i­annhill High School in KwaZulu-Natal, went to Univer­sity of Roma in Le­sotho (then called Pius XII Univer­sity) where he met fu­ture ANC trea­surer-gen­eral Thomas Nkobi and other fu­ture com­rades.

Pol­i­tics in­ter­rupted his stud­ies and he never grad­u­ated. He did the book­keep­ing and ad­min­is­tra­tion for Sisulu’s real-estate firm on the sec­ond floor of Chan­cel­lor House in Jo­han­nes­burg. Man­dela and Tambo’s law firm was on the floor be­low.

Close to Tambo

As the only black law firm in Jo­han­nes­burg at the time it was in great de­mand. Dur­ing the De­fi­ance Cam­paign of the early ’50s its of­fice was swamped with peo­ple whose rel­a­tives had been ar­rested. Sisulu sent Msi­mang to help it out. Msi­mang duly be­came ar­ti­cled to the firm and de­vel­oped a close re­la­tion­ship with Tambo in par­tic­u­lar.

When Tambo went into ex­ile in 1960 to be­gin the ANC’s in­ter­na­tional cam­paign against apartheid, Msi­mang went to help him es­tab­lish the ANC in Lon­don.

From there he was sent to Tan­za­nia to set up ANC of­fices in Dar es Salaam and Moro­goro, Tan­za­nia. From Dar es Salaam he ran his own in­tel­li­gence-gath­er­ing ap­pa­ra­tus in Lon­don. Much of the in­for­ma­tion was about South African ex­iles ar­riv­ing in the city.

Work on ed­u­ca­tion

When some of his col­leagues dis­cov­ered the ex­is­tence of his pri­vate net­work in 1967 they con­fronted him but he re­fused to give any ex­pla­na­tion.

He was sent to In­dia as the ANC’s chief rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the late ’60s, then re­turned to Tan­za­nia and worked on the ed­u­ca­tion desk in Dar where he helped es­tab­lish Solomon Mahlangu Free­dom Col­lege in 1979. He helped ANC cadres and stu­dents who had left SA af­ter the 1976 stu­dent upris­ing to fur­ther their ed­u­ca­tion.

From there he was posted to Lusaka where he worked in Tambo’s of­fice until be­ing sent to run the ANC of­fice in Lon­don, where he stayed until re­turn­ing to SA in 1994. Af­ter the elec­tions he be­came MP and first chair of the ANC cau­cus in parliament.

While serv­ing as high com­mis­sioner in Lon­don he was elected trea­surer-gen­eral of the ANC at the 1997 Mafikeng con­fer­ence, hand­picked by Mbeki.

He had lit­tle pub­lic pro­file dur­ing the Mbeki pres­i­dency but much in­flu­ence. It was spec­u­lated that this got his wife, Manto Tsha­bal­ala-Msi­mang, her job as health minister. It may also have made her po­lit­i­cally unas­sail­able when her bizarre the­o­ries about HIV/Aids made her a na­tional li­a­bil­ity.

Shady ne­go­ti­a­tions

As trea­surer-gen­eral Msi­mang was party to some del­i­cate, if not shady, ne­go­ti­a­tions and agree­ments in­volv­ing Mbeki and oth­ers around arms deal con­tracts, and in a po­si­tion to share, if he had a mind to, what­ever dirty se­crets at­tached to them.

For­mer Thales fixer Ajay Sook­lal told a judge un­der oath in 2014 that Msi­mang had ac­cepted a cheque for à1m (about R14m at the time) from the French arms bid­der to be paid from a se­cret Dubai ac­count into an ANC-aligned trust nom­i­nated by Msi­mang.

Thales’s SA sub­sidiary Thint was awarded a R2.6bn con­tract to fit four navy frigates with com­bat suites. Ac­cord­ing to Sook­lal, the cheque was handed over to Msi­mang at his home in Waterk­loof, Pretoria.

Among his other roles, Msi­mang was a mem­ber of the ANC’s in­tegrity com­mis­sion.

Msi­mang mar­ried his first wife, Agnes, also a strug­gle stal­wart, in Lusaka. They di­vorced and he mar­ried Tsha­bal­ala-Msi­mang, who died in 2009.

He is sur­vived by four chil­dren. Four chil­dren pre­de­ceased him.

Pic­ture: Andy Katz/Sun­day Times

Mendi Msi­mang at an Aids pol­icy press con­fer­ence in 2002.

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