Murky drama

Published : Nov 17, 2006 00:00 IST

An insider's account of how the political machinations in South Africa impacted on the author and her family.

DOES a liberation movement necessarily degenerate into a self-enriching and infighting coterie when, after attaining its objective, it becomes the political party of government?

The scenario is one not unfamiliar to Indians, even to those who belong to the post-Independence generation with no memories of participation in the freedom movement. Indeed, such a transition is seen now as the culmination of an almost axiomatic trajectory in most countries that were once under colonial rule and are now free nations.

Given the ravages that South Africans went through because of the unique kind of colonialism in their country, whose apogee was institutionalised apartheid, as well the inspirational anti-colonial resistance, warts and all, one would have expected that a similar trajectory would not be re-enacted in a free and democratic South Africa. Anyone following the developments in South Africa would know that such hopes and expectations are being belied, though there are also important political issues that underlie the seeming power struggle, and exchange of sharp abuses, that is going on within and among the partners of the tripartite alliance - the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Has the ANC, the oldest and most well-organised liberation movement on the continent with the widest mass support, "degenerated" beyond redemption within a decade and a half of the removal of the apartheid regime and its own transformation into a party of government?

Though the book under review does not deal directly with these issues, these are nevertheless the subtext of this moving, and also sometimes angry, account by a "longstanding ANC member" (description from the blurb) of the complex ways in which the liberation movement and, even more so, the post-Nelson Mandela government impacted on her and her family, in particular her husband, Mac Maharaj, an authentic hero of the liberation movement.

Satyandranath Raghunan Maharaj (born on April 27, 1935, popularly known as Mac Maharaj), active in the resistance against apartheid since his student days, spent 12 years on Robben Island (1964-76) following his conviction in what came to be known as the Little Rivonia Trial (reports of that trial had described him as "the most tortured political detainee in South Africa"). A close comrade of Nelson Mandela and other Rivonia prisoners on the Island (he smuggled out the first draft of Mandela's autobiography), Mac Maharaj, under instructions from the ANC, slipped out of house arrest after his release and went to London in July 1977, where his wife had preceded him three years earlier, having left South Africa on a one-way exit permit.

This was followed by a decade of intense political activity in exile in London, Lusaka and other front-line states of southern Africa. At the time of his clandestine return to South Africa, sometime in 1987-88 as internal commander of Operation Vula, he was in the highest leadership of both the ANC and the SACP and was a leading member of the ANC's main operational organ, the Politico-Military Council.

He played an important role in the transition to democracy, having been the ANC's alternate member in the Transitional Executive Council. After serving as Transport Minister in the first democratically elected government (1994-99), he voluntarily left the government at the end of the Mandela presidency and joined business, like many other ANC leaders before and after him. However, in a strange combination of chance and circumstance, and quite possibly, if one goes by the author's account, also political vendetta, he became marginalised and has been more or less in the political doghouse for the last three years.

A trained mathematician and social scientist, Zarina Maharaj had been active in the liberation movement even before she met her future husband. While the primary focus of the book is on the more prominent player, much of the most interesting parts are the insights it offers into the author's personal and social background, which is both typical and unique.

The fifth child, after four sons, of Josephine (Jo), a Cape coloured, a recognisably distinct community within the coloured community, and Amod Abdul Carim (Ami), a South African of Indian origin, Zarina Maharaj is truly a salad of racial genes. Jo was engaged to a "rich Afrikaner farmer" when she met Ami who soon thereafter broke off his own engagement to a "very rich Indian woman" and eloped with this 20-year-old pretty girl. Jo duly converted to Islam. This scandalised her family but was welcomed by her husband's family members who were smitten by her, "not least because of her alabaster-like complexion, seen by them not only as very beautiful but also as a mark of social status".

Part II of the book, Jo and the Shattered Urn, a metaphor for the author's abusive and philandering father and her parents' broken marriage, provides several insights into the workings of the coloured and Indian society in Cape Town, and later in Johannesburg, that the author straddled without ever allowing questions of `identity' to diminish her. Thus, her mother's parents and her extended family remained Christian while her mother, like all converts, became a devout Muslim. The daughter, however, remained comfortable with three faiths: Christianity (her maternal grandparents), Islam (her parents and siblings) and Hinduism (her first and second husbands).

This section of the book also provides grim insights into the lives of the coloureds, truly the very lees of the ravages that racism, segregation and apartheid wreaked upon the people of South Africa for centuries. However, unlike the three other major racial categorisations of the apartheid regime (whites, Asians/Indians and blacks), who at least knew who they were, the coloureds were "neither here nor there", despised by all and even more so by themselves, a society marked by extreme instability and violence. Few escaped from this self-destructive cycle or got out of their stereotypical image of dagga-addicted violent gangsters. The two accounts that Zarina Maharaj provides of such violence, one involving her father and the other her brother, bring out the internalised racism common to even the worst victims of racism. Thus, when she is walking with her brother, who is very dark, near their house in Johannesburg, they are accosted by some neighbourhood coloured youth who threaten her brother for daring to go out with a girl who is very fair and abuse her too for going out with a kafir. Her passionate intervention explaining that she is not his girlfriend but his sister makes the self-defence only more poignant.

Such insights only add to the appeal of the book whose theme is very broadly the interaction between the personal and the political during the struggle against apartheid, as well as in the post-Nelson Mandela dispensation, as these impacted on her family. The former deals with Operation Vula, almost all the details of which are now in the public domain; the latter with what the author sees as systematic and officially inspired attempts, assisted by "trial by media", to diminish and demean her husband well after he had left the government. This murky drama, now involving other, far more powerful, personalities is even now being played out.

When the author was preparing to return to her country with her two children in July 1990, her husband had already "returned" some weeks earlier. However, this "return" of Mac Maharaj had some extraordinary features: He had been inside South Africa, having entered the country secretly sometime in 1987-88 as the head of "Operation Vulindlela" ("Open the Road", that is, create underground structures to `open the road' for the eventual return of exiles), a secret ANC initiative by the highest ANC leadership in exile (Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo) that was known to very few others in the exiled leadership.

Following the unbanning of the ANC and other related developments of February 1990, Mac Maharaj, then clandestinely in South Africa, left the country secretly in May 1990 and re-entered legally in June. However, when a raid on an ANC safe house near Durban led to the discovery of some incriminating materials, he was arrested with several other Vula operatives in July 1990 and detained under the provisions of the notorious Section 29 of the Internal Security Act, which provided for virtually indefinite detention and other even more unspeakable horrors. The arrest was quite in character; for though the apartheid government was talking to the ANC, it was still trying to exclude the SACP from such talks. The official claim was that Operation Vula was an SACP operation with a "Left faction" of the ANC joining it, with a view to derailing the then ongoing "talks about talks" and with an agenda of an insurrectionary seizure of power.

Was Vula an ANC-SACP maverick operation, undertaken independently of the ANC-SACP leadership? Nelson Mandela himself put paid to such claims in a statement issued on June 22, 1991, by which time most of the Vula operatives, barring those who had been killed, had been indemnified. Zarina Maharaj recounts early in the book two conversations she had in London following the news of her husband's arrest, in one of which, much to her dismay, an ANC official upbraided her for insisting to a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reporter that Vula was very much an ANC operation. According to the BBC reporter, the ANC official had said on record that it was a "maverick operation neither sanctioned nor supported by the movement".

An interesting sidelight into this controversy that has a bearing on the internal politics of the ANC and the SACP and perhaps on the more recent travails of Mac Maharaj is provided by Howard Barrell, former editor of Mail and Guardian of Johannesburg. According to Barrell, some of the ANC leaders not in the know, including Joe Modise, who was the overall commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the military wing of the ANC), "the very man whose task it was to direct all ANC armed activity in South Africa", were quite enraged when details of the operation became public. According to Zarina Maharaj, this also explains the prolonged delay, considering that Vula was initiated by Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo, in Mac Maharaj getting released on bail (he was released in November 1991, four months after his arrest) and getting indemnified (it took another four months). The bitterness clearly comes through in the opening pages of Chapter 10.

Part I of the book, The Last Stepping Stone, recounts the author's traumas as she learnt, in distant London, of the developments that threatened to transform what was to be a stepping stone to final freedom and a happy reunion with her family in her homeland to a slippery slope to unfathomable despair. She had to put her return on hold, for being also marginally involved in the operation, she could well have been arrested had she returned.

Though the arrested persons were all released on bail in December 1990 and the charges were later dropped, Mac Maharaj decided to withdraw from all political activity soon after his release. It is widely believed that he felt let down by the lack of support he received, especially from the SACP. However, he resumed full political activity following his re-election as a member of the ANC's National Executive Committee at its Durban Conference in July 1991, and eventually as a Cabinet Minister under Nelson Mandela, though he did not renew his SACP membership. At the end of his term, he decided not to seek re-election to Parliament, though he remained active in the ANC. He then joined a bank, because he said he wanted to make time for his family.

Home is the sailor, home from the sea? Hardly. On February 16, 2003, Sunday Times of Johannesburg carried a report that he, along with his wife, had received gifts to the value of Rand 500,000 from Schabir Sheik, a Durban-based businessman, then on trial on charges of bribery and corruption of a much grander scale relating to a multi-billion rand arms deal. It is now widely known that untested allegations relating to Mac Maharaj were leaked to a carefully selected group of (black African) journalists, with a touch of anti-Indian racism, as Maharaj later maintained, who were briefed by no less a person than the national Director of Public Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, projected in his own statements and in the media as a Savonarola-like figure, austere, distant and single-minded in his pursuit of the corrupt, irrespective of their status or their history as icons of the anti-apartheid struggle.

The story is murky and the last word is yet to be heard. The allegation was that these were bribes paid, when Mac Maharaj was in government, for assisting the clearance of tenders made by a consortium in which Sheikh had an interest. According to the author, decisions in this regard were taken by the State Tender Board and the National Road Agency, both autonomous agencies functioning independently of the Transport Ministry. According to Mac Maharaj, payments made to his wife were for her work as a consultant to Sheikh's companies.

Subsequently, Mac Maharaj disclosed, in response to a journalist's question, that Ngcuka had been investigated by ANC intelligence in 1989-90 (when Mac Maharaj was heading Operation Vula inside South Africa, whose details, as noted earlier in this essay, the government came to know of, leading to the arrest of Vula operatives, including Mac Maharaj), and it had been found that he had "probably" been a spy for the apartheid regime. According to Mac Maharaj's deposition before a commission of inquiry headed by Justice Joos Hefer, set up to inquire into these allegations, this inference was made on the basis of a report made to him by Mo Sheikh, then in charge of the ANC's intelligence inside South Africa. When he, Mac Maharaj, then secretly and illegally in the country, wanted to get in touch with the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL), he was told by Sheikh that it would be unsafe to do so because a high-level functionary of NADEL, meaning Ngcuka, was believed to have been an apartheid spy.

Bigger events and more serious allegations and accusations involving more powerful personalities soon overtook these charges and countercharges. The commission cleared Ngcuka, but it also found that in respect of the leaks of allegations against Mac Maharaj and his wife, neither of whom has (until now) been prosecuted, there had been "intolerable" and "unacceptable" abuse of power. The author notes with some bitterness that while Ngcuka, having quit as Director of Public Prosecutions, is now happily in business (his wife incidentally was appointed Deputy President of the country following the sacking of Jacob Zuma from that office), they, wife and husband, still have the untested and unproven allegations of corruption and bribery hanging over them like a dark cloud.

Any moral of this tale will have to await the playing out of the bigger political drama that is currently gripping South Africa and that has the president and the deputy president of the ANC as its principal, visible actors.

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