Who is Zuma really afraid of?

Years ago when Thabo Mbeki was president, I used to play a little game during the regular ANC parliamentary caucus on Thursday mornings. Unlike the current president, but like Madiba, Mbeki used to come to caucus frequently to address the ANC MPs.

After a few months I started to time how long it took Mbeki to get to some conspiracy theory during his speech. There was always someone or something to be blamed. Foreign powers, the media, big business, the pharmaceutical companies and as the years went on, it became clear that he got to the “bad boys behind all our troubles” faster and faster.

When Jacob Zuma became No 1, people assured me that the conspiracy theories faded away and everything became a lot more relaxed. That is until recently. From what I am being told the paranoia is back. Big time.

Of course there is the whole Bell Pottinger-inspired “white monopoly capital”conspiracy. What started out as a not-so-subtle political spin strategy, has now been taken on board by the vast majority of ANC role players as if Jesus himself declared it to be the ultimate truth.

As is often the case when someone else designs a strategy for you there seems to be little consensus about what it actually means. Depending on who you speak to it refers to all things white and/or anyone associated with too much “whiteness” (as Malema pointed out about Cyril Ramaphosa) or anyone who has a lot of money and/or any big business or just anybody criticising the current regime.

But whilst the ANC has been using white monopoly capital as the main actor in this noisy year of political theatre, there is also another form of paranoia that has taken hold in certain quarters. Many people in the ANC, and I am told No 1 in particular, are extremely concerned about a foreign government intervening in our business and trying to secure regime change. Parliament even wants to investigate new rules of party political funding based on the suspicion of foreign influences through opposition parties.

Of course this is all rather ironic with all that has been coming out about the Guptas, but irony aside, I have been told that the president himself is extremely worried that some foreign power is trying to get rid of him. Apart from them manipulating regime change Zuma is apparently concerned that he is in personal danger and might, for example, be poisoned.  Of course this sounds very much like so many paranoid dictators throughout history, who were trying to hang on to power for too long.

Still, one can never be too sure about these things. So I asked who the main suspect/s might be. Typical of the ANC these days, there seems to be little consensus.

America, was the first answer. Of course it is true that America has seen Africa as strategically important for many decades. So strategic that I was told that over a twelve month period they have recently added more than 50 bases on the continent – the biggest being in neighbouring Swaziland and Botswana.

This is apparently part of their fight against the growth of radical Islamic elements, but also to counter the footholds Russia and China have gained in Africa. That might be true, but I am not sure that Donald Trump has any interest in us, or even the foggiest clue where we are. He has a lot going on back home and I honestly don’t think getting rid of Jacob Zuma is high on his to-do list.

The second group of ANC compatriots brought up the Russians. They claim correctly that the Americans are after all not the only dirty tricks experts. Russia is well known for their expertise in poisoning, cyber hacking, regime change and fake news.

What cannot be denied is that Russia and Putin want to expand their global power and South Africa, with its uranium and platinum mines as well as a strategic sea route is central in their campaign to have a strong foothold in Africa. Control of the energy supply was clearly key in the South African “capture”.

As the Ukraine found out in 2014 and again in 2015, if you can switch off the electricity (or gas in their case) you can demand just about anything. Clearly the nuclear deal is off the table for now (even more so after all the Guptaleaks of late) and many argue that this in itself could make things very uncomfortable for those who had promised the Russians a lucrative, albeit radio-active, deal.

In a recent energy debate in Parliament Nazier Paulsen of the EFF said: “Let me be clear that there will be no more nuclear power stations built in South Africa. So all those who took bribes had better pay them back or the Russians will deal with you. Those who took the bribes will not go to Dubai but to prison.”

Of course the Russians have other nuclear deals on the go and it could be argued that the financial loss of one nuclear reactor is not such a big deal for them. That might well be true, but surely they will not easily give up on their attempt to gain a strong foothold in South Africa.

Which raises the question: If they don’t have control over the light switch, what might that foothold be? Rumour has it that the president has travelled to Russia frequently in recent times always accompanied by intelligence officials. And so, many that I spoke to suggest that the relationship is also about intelligence cooperation – more specifically that the SVR (the Foreign Intelligence Service that replaced the old KGB) might be assisting President Zuma and his cronies.

One can only shudder at the thought of what that could entail. Of course, given the laughable intelligence report that apparently got Pravin Gordhan fired, the guys might well need help, but that kind of help comes at a high price.

It’s hard to figure out how much of all of this really only belongs in a Bond movie, but clearly there are many questions that need to be answered.

It all boils down to whether our president and his ministers sold our country to the Russians for a nuclear reactor. If, as many suspect they did, it could have serious consequences for many high placed individuals as well as the country now that the judges have thrown a spanner in the proverbial nuclear reactor. Maybe a bit of paranoia is not a bad thing after all.

– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.