Page last updated at 13:02 GMT, Wednesday, 13 May 2009 14:02 UK

Can Jacob Zuma rein in his spies?

Jacob Zuma being sworn in as president

By Farouk Chothia
BBC News

To live up to the humble image South Africa's new President Jacob Zuma created at his inauguration by kneeling before the nation's founding father, Nelson Mandela, he will have to end the abuse of power seen during the rule of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki.

And this will not happen without Mr Zuma reining in the security and intelligence services, whose influence grew to a worrying level during Mr Mbeki's presidency of nearly 10 years.

Because the ANC is so dominant (in South Africa), it sends the message to people that if they want power, they can gain it through intrigue

Political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi

With Mr Mbeki believing, according to his unofficial biographer Mark Gevisser, that power is "gained and ceded through conspiracy", they played a central role in shaping the presidential battle.

Operatives in the now-disbanded organised crime-fighting unit, the Scorpions, advanced Mr Mbeki's cause, while their rivals in the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and the South African Police Service (SAPS), promoted Mr Zuma.

In the end, they helped Mr Zuma take the oath of office, in front of Chief Justice Pius Langa, without corruption charges hanging over his head.

NIA officials leaked to the Zuma camp the bugged conversations of the Scorpions chief investigator, Leonard McCarthy, which bolstered the new president's long-held view that he was the victim of a "conspiracy" intended to destroy his political career.

'Political hit squad'

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) then dropped the charges, sparking outrage in legal circles with one of South Africa's top advocates, Wim Trengove, warning that it was an ominous sign for the rule of law.

Nelson Mandela (left) and Jacob
Jacob Zuma knelt before Nelson Mandela at the auguration

"I do believe that it is time for all of us - and particularly for lawyers - to stand up and speak out about abuses of this kind," Mr Trengove said.

"Lawyers have a particular duty to do so and, if we don't, we might one day look back at this decision and realise that it was a tipping point leading to the slippery slope of erosion and ultimate destruction of the rule of law."

But, as the Zuma camp has often pointed out, the role of the Scorpions, formed when Mr Mbeki took office in 1999 and disbanded last year on the orders of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), was as ominous.

It had become, in the words of the party's treasurer general and lawyer, Mathews Phosa, a "political hit squad".

Nowhere is this clearer than in a report the Scorpions sleuth, Ivor Powell, drafted on the orders of Mr McCarthy.

The report, drafted after Mr Zuma's rape acquittal in 2006, called for "conspiracy to sedition" charges to be investigated, because Mr Zuma's presidential campaign seemed to have been "fuelled and sustained by a conspiracy played out both inside South Africa and on the African continental stage".

It said the alleged conspiracy could trigger a "rolling ground-level revolution", the formation of paramilitary units, and a "destabilisation" campaign from neighbouring Mozambique.

Mr Zuma was probably saved from sedition charges because the-then NPA head, Vusi Pikoli, rejected the report.

'Counter revolutionaries'

Mr Zuma was not the first victim of what some analysts call the "imperial presidency" created by Mr Mbeki after he succeeded South Africa's first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela.

South African president Jacob Zuma
He is the man of the moment. But is he the man for the moment?
Political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi

Early in Mr Mbeki's term, in 2001, his top aides, including those in the safety and security ministry, accused Cyril Ramaphosa, who authored South Africa's post-apartheid constitution, of working with "counter-revolutionaries" to overthrow the government.

With Mr Ramaphosa, the smear campaign, reminiscent of those used by ANC factions during the liberation struggle to silence critics, paid off.

He issued a loyalty pledge to the party, as a disciplined cadre of a liberation movement would be expected to do, and kept his presidential ambitions in check.

At the time, Mr Zuma took a different approach.

He too issued a loyalty pledge, but continued preparing to challenge Mr Mbeki.

He showed his hand at the ANC's conference in 2007, when he beat Mr Mbeki in elections for the post of party leader.

Mr Zuma then replaced Mr Mbeki as South Africa's head of state with a caretaker (Kgalema Motlanthe), won a general election, and has now been inaugurated as the country's fourth president of post-apartheid South Africa.

"He is the man of the moment," says the Johannesburg-based political analyst, Aubrey Matshiqi.

"But is he the man for the moment? I'm not sure. He has been part of the problem, not the solution. "

Cars tailed

And at the heart of the problem is the ANC's difficulty in adjusting from a liberation movement to a governing party, and to distinguish between party, state and the private sector.

Jacob Zuma (l) shakes hands with Thabo Mbeki
Mr Zuma (l) won a bitter fight against Thabo Mbeki (r) to lead the ANC

"If you gain power in the ANC, it gives you access to other forms of power as well, including economic power," says Mr Matshiqi.

"The relationship between money and politics has undermined our political culture."

Like Mr Mbeki, Mr Zuma had big businessmen backing his presidential bid.

But he knew their money, and the campaigning done by the Congress of Trade Unions, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ANC Youth League, was not enough.

He needed to break Mr Mbeki's hold over the state - and he managed to do this by winning the loyalty of key officials in the NIA and the police.

They tailed the cars of Mr Mbeki's backers, hacked into their computers and accused them of being linked to Western intelligence agencies and of having spied for the former apartheid government.

They also eavesdropped on Mr McCarthy's conversations with Mr Mbeki, the head of state.

It was clear that the rules which apply in a democracy had been thrown out.

Cold War mindset

The Mbeki and Zuma camps were still gripped by the mindset which had developed during the brutal apartheid war, and the Cold War.

Then, they fought off the "destablisation" campaigns of the apartheid government, and their international allies.

Now, they had turned on each other, as they fought for the spoils of power in democratic South Africa.

Some of Mr Mbeki's supporters saw conspiracies hatched in Luanda and Tripoli to advance Mr Zuma's ascent to power while the Zuma camp saw conspiracies hatched in London and Washington to prevent this from happening.

"Because the ANC is so dominant (in South Africa), it sends the message to people that if they want power, they can gain it through intrigue and if they succeed they will, of course, try to retain it through intrigue," Mr Matshiqi says, lamenting the ugly nature of the Zuma-Mbeki battle.

He says Mr Zuma will have to start rebuilding confidence in South Africa's democratic institutions, starting with the office of the president.

"Just look at how Mbeki conducted himself and how he was ousted, and it becomes clear that after Nelson Mandela left, the office lost its dignity," he says.

"Will Zuma be able to restore it? Will he able to stay above the fray? I don't know. I hope so (but) it might be that we will have to write off a certain period of our history, and look beyond."

The ANC's Mr Phosa is more optimistic about Mr Zuma's rule.

"He will recover Mandela's legacy," he said in a BBC interview.

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