Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thabo's Boys vs Vula's Boys

Thabo's Boys vs Vula's Boys

Publication Noseweek

Date November 2001, Issue 37
Web Link

What are we to make of the arrest of 'Tony Yengeni, Parliament's former defence committee chairman, and the police raids on the home and offices of Shabir Shaik, MD of armaments company ADS and brother of South Africa's arms procurement chief, Chippy Shaik? What are the prospects that the official investigations of alleged irregularities in the government's (now R6O billion-plus) arms procurement programme will "go all the way"?

The current situation regarding SA’s arms purchases is eerily echoed in a 1998 report by Washington Post correspondent David Ignatius about a similar arms scandal that raged in France and continues to haunt French politics.

A large bomb is ticking away in the midst of French political life - a scandal that could explode with tremendous force or, as is often the case in France, be quietly defused and buried..."

In 1998 a corruption investigation of judge Eva Joly turned really nasty when she found evidence that French defence giant Thomson-CSF had acquired former foreign minister Dumas' mistress's services as a lobbyist - just when the company needed government approval for a $2.5b deal to supply frigates to Taiwan. Dumas had been a key opponent of the deal, but within a year it was approved - without any explanation.

"Chirac must decide soon," wrote Ignatius, "whether to encourage an escalation of the judicial probe (to include the frigate deal) - and, figuratively speaking, bring down the pillars of the temple - or instead try to contain the investigation. "

Will President Thabo Mbeki allow the investigation to go the whole way, risking bringing down the pillars of the temple, or will he seek to limit the enquiry to small-time corruption involving secondary contracts only? As we ask it, we know it's a foolish question.

But let's have a closer look anyway at the situation, both current and historical, and see if our suspicions are correct.

Arms-deals investigators will quickly have discovered that those within the ANC most interested in the deals can be divided roughly into two competing groups: the Vula Boys and Thabo's Boys.

While both are equally anxious to maintain their grip on power and their cut of the arms deal profits, the difference between them could just influence who will be sacrificed and who will be saved in the arms-deal investigations. The Vula Boys are the collection of communists and (mostly Natal) ANC intelligence operatives who set up Operation Vula the secret pre-1990 programme to develop the leadership and financial networks inside SA needed to launch a violent revolution. Vula was controversial because it was secret even inside the ANC: the wider ANC leadership - including Thabo Mbeki - knew nothing about it. (Treason? The Vula Boys would later claim their scheme had been sanctioned by party president Oliver Thambo, which sounds convenient, because, by then, he was too ill to confirm or deny this.) That gap between the groups appears to have persisted.

Vula was led by Mac Maharaj (later made Minister of Transport by Mandela - but fired by Mbeki). It included Siphiwe Nyanda (now Defence Force Chief), Ronnie Kasrils (moved by Mbeki from Defence to Water Affairs), Mo Shaik (demoted from national intelligence co-ordinator to ambassador in Morocco), and Shaik’s brother Shabir (who, recent events suggest, has lost the protection he once might have expected). Deputy President Jacob Zuma (then still ANC intelligence chief) was apparently also within the Vula network and is widely perceived to be the closest the group has to a protector in government. (Shabir Shaik is said still to handle his personal affairs.)

Operation Vula militated against another initiative within the ANC, the Mbeki-led efforts at dialogue with the apartheid state. Vula continued its secret operations following the ANC's unbanning in 1990, leading to increasing conflict between Vula operatives and the ANC leadership about strategy and the direction of negotiations. "The views of the Vula comrades were largely ignored,"the group's former communications man Tim Jenkin wrote in a 1995.

The level of conflict was such that in February 1990 Maharaj quit the ANC.

Mandela - just released from prison - persuaded him to retract his resignation, but in June 1990 Vula's cover was blown following the arrest in Natal of two of its operatives, Charles Ndaba and Mbuso Shabalala - both later murdered by security police, purportedly to prevent the exposure of Ndaba as a police agent.

In the midst of negotiations, Mbeki was confronted by the Nationalist negotiators with evidence of a secret ANC unit of which he had been unaware. FW de Klerk sanctimoniously charged the ANC with secretly plotting insurrection while negotiating a settlement.

Some sources believe Mbeki was so angry that, in effect, he allowed the Vula network to be hung out to dry. Maharaj and others were arrested and released on bail only after the Pretoria agreement with De Klerk had already been signed. Mbeki allowed these key hawks within the ANC to be side-lined. In mid- December 1990 Maharaj again "retired" from the ANC. Again Mandela brought him back - into the Cabinet.

Where are the Vula Boys now? They are positioned strategically throughout state structures. The Shaik brothers' mentor, that stalwart communist academic Pravin Gordhan, like Maharaj, was unlikely to be welcomed into Mbeki's political structures; instead he heads the SA Revenue Service, where he has been joined by old comrades Vuso Shabalala (Customs), Ivan Pillay (Special Investigations) and Sirish Soni. (It is said ex-poachers make great game-keepers! (- Ed.)

Solly Shoke is now mission director for the SANDF, Raymond Lalla is a senior official in police intelligence and Mpho Scott is an MP who appears to be somewhere at the centre of just about every major empowerment deal - including the arms deal.

The repeated surfacing of Vula members in alleged plots is no coincidence. Remember the report which the ill-fated Georg Meiring (then SANDF head) presented to President Mandela in which it was alleged that Meiring's 2IC (Siphiwe Nyanda) was plotting with ANC radicals against the government? Whatever Meiring and friends' interest in its telling, there could've been something to the story - only the plot is more likely to have been against Mbeki than Mandela.

Maharaj's name was floated by ANC sources in connection with last year's bizarre Mbeki plot allegations.

There are clearly ideological issues involved in the conflict. Maharaj, Gordhan and company are associated with the ANC's left wing, which includes much of the white left, and is seen as sympathetic to ex-trade unionist Cyril Ramaphosa. At least two of the Shaik brothers have privately expressed concern at the "crude Africanism" espoused by some of Mbeki's acolytes.

It is said that, in the course of their arms-deal inquiry, tile Scorpions have taken an interest in the relationship between Maharaj, Gordhan, Zuma and the Shaiks. (Ronnie Kasrils is suing several newspapers for suggesting that the Scorpions were at one stage investigating him.)

It would be no surprise if they were. While Maharaj was in charge, the Department of Transport got Shabir Shaik's company Nkobi Investments on its feet via a R4-billion tollroad contract on the N3 highway. (Nkobi has a small share of the consortium.) This was followed by a R400m contract for the production of credit card-type driver's licenses - Nkobi's first joint venture with French arms company Thomson-CSF and with Denel. The N3 toll consortium is worth a closer look.

Among the major shareholders is Rand Merchant Bank, part of the FirstRand Group, where Comrade Maharaj has since become a director. (Two other group subsidiaries, Wesbank and FirstAuto, also each won R750m contracts while Maharaj was transport minister). Also on the RMB board is Ahmed Sadek Vahed (of tile AM Moola group), whose daughter is married to Shabir Shaik.

And, thanks to Rapport, we now know that Pravin Gordhan, Commissioner of the SA Revenue Service, at the request of Shaik solved a t.a.x problem for the AM Moola group. This personal service, explained a spokesman for SARS, was part of Revenue's open door policy.

Rapport also told us that Gordhan's brother-in-law works for Shabir. And that Shabir handles Jacob Zuma's finances. All one big happy family.

All this might lead one to suspect that the recent raids by the Scorpions on the offices of Nkobi Holdings and the home of Schabir Shaik might have been politically motivated. Not so, we are assured: the raids took place on the basis of specific information. Furthermore, judges in Paris and Mauritius -where raids took place on Thomson-CSF (now called Thales) offices - have to have been convinced that good grounds existed for those raids.

But that's not to say investigators are not under political pressure. They are.

Government is desperate to avoid any suggestion of corruption in the prime contracts, which would place them in jeopardy. Investigators have been told not to bother former Defence Minister Joe Modise, who is apparently dying of cancer. There are whispers that Jayendra Naidoo (who negotiated the final deals) has also been declared out of bounds to investigators. Ian Pierce, an accountant who is reputed to have several present and former cabinet ministers as clients, and who set up many of the empowerment companies involved, continues simply to defy a subpoena to hand over documents. And the focus on the Shaiks has diverted attention from Thabo's Boys' also having their snouts deep in the arms-deal trough.

With acknowledgement to Noseweek.

PrintShare ContributePOSTSCRIPT ANTE

In July 1990, five months after the South African government had unbanned the ANC, security police in Durban raided a local house. An informer had tipped them off about a group of externally trained ANC cadres giving military training to township militants. The way in which one breakthrough now led quickly to another gave police no reason to believe they were dealing with anything out of the ordinary - except perhaps that this training was taking place six months into what was supposed to be a new era of negotiation. But police were astonished at what they stumbled upon.

Their initial prize was Siphiwe Nyanda, the ANC's most successful regional military commander. Under the nom de guerre of Gebuza, Nyanda had headed the Transvaal urban machinery of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK), since 1977. Based mainly in Swaziland, he had sometimes crossed into South Africa on operations. The last that South African intelligence, or most of his ANC comrades, had heard of him - in 1988 - was that he had been sent to the Soviet Union for an advanced military training course. They guessed the move was to prepare him for a senior post in the defence force of a putative post-apartheid South Africa.

The police haul of documentation indicated a worrying degree of ANC penetration of South African intelligence, the existence of an incipient national underground leadership of the ANC, as well as there having been regular three-way communication between Nelson Mandela in his cell at Pollsmoor Prison and the ANC leadership abroad, via this underground leadership; between the latter two, this communication had sometimes been daily. And it was clear that Nyanda and his associates had control over a large network of arms caches.

Another discovery followed: that the commander of this internal underground leadership was Mac Maharaj, a member of the ANC's national executive committee, one of Mandela's closer colleagues in Robben Island prison between 1964 and 1976, between 1978 and 1983 the head in exile of the ANC's internal reconstruction and development department and, since then, a leading member of the ANC's main operational organ, the Politico-Military Council. Maharaj, police found, had lived underground inside South Africa since July 1988 - for some 18 months before the ban on the ANC had been lifted. Before his disappearance from the ranks of ANC exiles in 1988, ANC members had heard Maharaj was desperately ill with a kidney complaint in the Soviet Union.

Police also discovered that Maharaj and Nyanda had been joined inside the country by Ronnie Kasrils in early 1990, a few weeks before the ANC's unbanning. Kasrils, also a member of the ANC national executive, had headed ANC military intelligence between 1983 and 1988 and, after that, had served as secretary of the ANC's internal political committee. Shortly before his disappearance from the ranks of exiles, ANC colleagues heard he had been seriously injured in a Jeep accident in Vietnam.

Moreover, police investigations revealed that, after the unbanning of the ANC on February 2 1990, Nyanda had remained in place underground inside the country, while Maharaj and Kasrils had, in order to preserve the security of their project, clandestinely left the country, returning to it openly by a circuitous route.

In July 1990, in the midst of delicate opening moments in the new era of negotiations, security police arrested first Nyanda, then Maharaj, followed by a number of other key figures in the operation. Kasrils went underground again.

State security officials were seriously embarrassed at having failed for so long to detect the project, known as `Operation Vul'indlela' (meaning `Open the Road'). I shall be calling it by its shorter name, `Operation Vula'. Nyanda, Maharaj and Kasrils, perhaps the South African security system's three most effective operational opponents, had long outwitted them. For its part, the De Klerk government was furious. It alleged the operation, particularly its persistence after the ANC's unbanning, indicated ANC bad faith in the talks about talks then under way. Moreover, the government charged that the fact that most of the key individuals involved in the project were members of the South African Communist Party indicated the source of this bad faith. Ill-informed journalists took up the cry that Operation Vula was an attempt by the Communist Party to undermine both moderates within the ANC and the talks process. The result was that the fragile fabric of contacts between the government and the recently unbanned ANC looked, momentarily, close to unravelling.

The government attended the next meeting with the ANC a few weeks later - in Pretoria in August - determined to use Operation Vula as a stick with which to beat concessions out of the ANC. In the event, this proved unnecessary. The ANC had itself decided before the Pretoria talks to offer a suspension of armed activity by its military wing. This concession, perhaps more than any other, saved the momentum towards negotiations.

A common view of Operation Vula is, one, that it was an episode which nearly unravelled the peace process of the early 1990s in South Africa and, two, was the most successful attempt by the ANC to construct a national internal underground leadership in the three decades after the disaster of 1963-4, when Nelson Mandela and almost the entire ANC leadership were jailed.

Operation Vula was both of these. But it also had another significance. Operation Vula was a fairly complete expression of the operational strategic crisis in which the ANC found itself after 1986. The clue to my claim lies in the response of many ANC leaders to the government's disclosures about Operation Vula in July 1990. Many ANC leaders were, privately, enraged. Their fury was not a response (not in the first instance at any rate) to the fact that the state had wound up an ANC project. Rather, they were enraged because they felt they had not known about Operation Vula at all. They, too, had believed that Maharaj was on a dialysis machine in the Soviet Union, Nyanda was in a Soviet military training camp and Kasrils was languishing in plaster of paris in a Vietnamese hospital bed.

Among those who had never been told about Operation Vula was Joe Modise, who was none other than the over-all commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the very man whose task it was to direct all ANC armed activity in South Africa. When the news of Vula broke in July 1990, Modise was, according to one of my interviewees, a senior operative in Vula, `the moer in' - euphemistically translated as `fucking angry'.

The exclusion of key ANC and MK leaders from the secret that was Operation Vula lay not merely in considerations of security. It lay in a long and bitter history of failures, frustrations and rivalries in ANC operational affairs and strategy. It is to this history that I now turn, and I will end my review with a description of when and how the decision to launch Operation Vula was taken.

( SA History Online)

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