BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: World: Africa
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Wednesday, 3 October, 2001, 18:31 GMT 19:31 UK
The rise and fall of Tony Yengeni
Tony Yengeni and his wife, Lumka at the opening of parliament in 1997 (Pic: Sunday Times of South Africa)
Yengeni is known as a sharp dresser
By Carolyn Dempster in Johannesburg

Tony Sithembiso Yengeni has come a long way since his early years as a popular anti-apartheid struggle activist and street fighter.

The corpulent chief whip of the ruling African National Congress is well-known in parliament and political circles for his smart dressing. He sports designer suits from Cape Town's most exclusive boutiques, and his expensive tastes are reflected in his lifestyle.

What kind of man uses a wet bag repeatedly and listens to those cries and moans and takes each of those people close to their deaths?

Tony Yengeni
It was not always so. Born in Cape Town in 1954, Tony Yengeni grew up to become a supporter of the black consciousness movement under the leadership of Steve Biko before joining the outlawed ANC in 1976.

In the wake of the Soweto student uprising and the subsequent government crackdown on anti-apartheid organisations, Mr Yengeni went into temporary exile as a member of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.


He went for military training in ANC camps in Botswana, Zambia and Angola before studying for a social science diploma in Moscow.

Upon his return to Southern Africa, he became the regional secretary for the South African Council of Trade Unions, based in Lesotho.

Tony Yengeni (Pic: Sunday Times of South Africa)
Luxury cars are now known as "Yengenis"

He was appointed by the ANC as leader of its armed wing in the Western Cape, but almost as soon as he returned to the Cape he was arrested by the National Party government in 1987 and spent four years in prison while awaiting trial for terrorism.

During his detention, Yengeni was tortured by former anti-terrorist squad policeman Jeffrey Benzien, who subsequently boasted to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he had perfected his "wetbag" interrogatory torture method, guaranteed to produce results in under 30 minutes.

It was one of the most mesmerising moments of the Truth Commission hearings when Mr Benzien re-enacted this method, using his former victim, Tony Yengeni, for the benefit of the Commissioners and the public.


The "wetbag" method consisted of placing a wet canvas bag over the head of the detainee's head and then tightening the bag at their throat, threatening to suffocate them time and again until they confessed.

In his cross-questioning of Mr Benzien, Mr Yengeni asked: "What kind of man uses a wet bag repeatedly and listens to those cries and moans and takes each of those people close to their deaths - what kind of human being is that?"

Mr Benzien's mild response was: "I have asked myself that question. I have approached psychiatrists to have myself evaluated".

Not all of Mr Benzien's victims lived to tell the tale, or interrogate the man who had tortured and humiliated them.

Mr Yengeni was publicly furious when his torturer was granted amnesty by the Truth Commission.


Mr Yengeni was never successfully prosecuted by the apartheid state and was finally granted indemnity as part of the political transition process in 1991.

On his release from prison he became general secretary of the ANC in the Western Cape, and briefly engaged in the race to lead the party in the region before it was decided that the ANC's interests would be better served by a mixed-race or "coloured" leader, as the coloured population forms the majority in the province. He dropped out of the race.

Whatever happens there will be blood on the floor

Tony Yengeni

Tony Yengeni cultivated a militant leadership style, joining other ANC populists like Winnie Madikizela Mandela and ANC youth leader Peter Mokaba to whip up support for the ANC in the lead-up to the 1994 elections.

He was characterised as one of the ANC's young lions and after the elections was rewarded for his dedication and hard work with the influential position as chair of parliament's Joint Standing Committee for Defence - the body which plays a key role in decisions relating to South Africa's arms purchases.

'Fat cat'

He was also subsequently appointed the ANC's chief whip in parliament, a role he has relished, and has carried out diligently.

South-African built Rooivalk CSH2 Armed Attack Helicopter
South Africa wanted to modernise its military

When Tony Yengeni first started driving around Cape Town in 1998 in his state-of-the-art dark green Mercedes Benz ML320 4x4 with its tinted windows and plush beige upholstery, there was the usual ribald comment in the media about "fat cats on the gravy train".

Then rumours started circulating in parliament that Mr Yengeni had received the car as a gift.

It was not until opposition member of parliament Patricia de Lille raised queries about kick-backs and corruption linked to the government's controversial R43 billion ($5 billion) arms procurement deal in late 1999, that Mr Yengeni's name was mentioned for the first time.

Full-page advert

In March, South Africa's Sunday Times newspaper exposed how Tony Yengeni had received a generous discount on his Mercedes Benz from an arms manufacturing company which had benefited directly from the arms deal.

He initially refused to testify to parliament's Ethics Committee which requires members to disclose all assets, saying he was not legally obliged to do so.

He called the Sunday Times articles "hogwash" and told a press conference that he was not going to be subjected to a "witchunt" by the media. "Whatever happens there will be blood on the floor" he threatened, resorting to the language of the struggle.

Yengeni is being charged with corruption, fraud, perjury and forgery
Yengeni is being charged with corruption, fraud, perjury and forgery

In a curious about-turn, in July this year, Yengeni took out a full-page advertisement in every South African Sunday newspaper, except the Sunday Times.

This was estimated to have cost the chief whip R250 000. In it, Mr Yengeni defends his vehicle purchase, calling the unjustified attacks on him "racist" and "McCarthyist".

But South Africa's townships, a luxury 4 wheel drive or a Mercedes is now referred to as a "Yengeni".

Now it is not the South African media that Tony Yengeni will be answering to, but South Africa's Commercial Criminal court on charges of corruption, fraud, statutory perjury and forgery.

His case resumes on January 25 2002.

See also:

08 Apr 01 | Africa
SA arms deal scandal widens
05 Apr 01 | Africa
SA arms deal under investigation
11 Jan 01 | Africa
ANC begins soul-searching
18 Sep 00 | Africa
SA army 'in racism crisis'
28 May 01 | Business
BAE faces African bribery probe
10 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: South Africa
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Africa stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Africa stories