For my Country: Why I Blew the Whistle on Zuma and the Guptas

Themba Maseko, For my Country: Why I Blew the Whistle on Zuma and the Guptas (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2021)

THIS might well have been the routine story of a young struggle activist who graduated to a successful public service career in a liberated South Africa and retired with acclaim. Thanks to the deficiencies of the ANC, it turned out to be very different narrative.

A schoolboy in 1976, Themba Maseko witnessed the opening day of the Soweto Uprising. A student leader at Wits and underground member of the ANC/SACP, in 1988 he decided to go into exile but was arrested on the Botswana border, detained for a month, and then released. The following year he avoided a Vlakplaas ambush in Eswatini; while in 1991, his friend Bheki Mlangeni was killed in a dirty tricks operation intended for Dirk Coetzee.

As general secretary of the South African National Students Congress Maseko was involved in the education crisis and the Mandela Reception Committee. By the age of 30 he was an MP, but this was short-lived and he resigned to start a public service career as superintendent-general in the Gauteng department of education. Here he grappled with the integration of multiple apartheid-era departments, the problem of leaked examination papers, and the misguided introduction of outcomes-based education.

But most serious of all he encountered what was to become a recurrent problem: political interference with administrative matters that should ordinarily be the remit of the civil service. In this case the culprit was Mary Metcalfe. His next posting was as director-general at the Department of Public Works where he clashed with Stella Sigcau, identifying spending that failed to match expectations and excessive outsourcing accompanied by ‘world-class excuses’. He does, however, record with satisfaction the Expanded Public Works Programme.

Maseko took a break from public service, but was subsequently appointed to the role for which he became best-known and well-respected: CEO of the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) and government spokesperson. It is a measure of ANC practice that he felt he had been hoodwinked into the latter role, which may explain other far less successful appointments. As CEO he insisted on well-prepared, businesslike meetings that lasted no more than a morning and did not involve extensive or lavish catering.

Maseko was committed to telling the truth and had a good relationship with the press. Just as crucial, he worked successfully with Thabo Mbeki and was well briefed by him. He notes that Mbeki read everything he was given, and more; and was often a step ahead of the economics cluster. However, Maseko had to present the official face of the suspension of Vusi Pikoli for his refusal to delay the arrest of Jackie Selebi. And in deploring the ruthless dismantling of the Scorpions, he wonders why the bucket toilet system could not disappear just as fast.

The conviction of Schabir Shaik and dismissal of Jacob Zuma as deputy president were pivotal in the lead up to the ANC elective conference at Polokwane. Maseko notes the poisonous atmosphere, says he felt ‘ashamed and embarrassed’, left early, and argues that his party was never the same again. He correctly identifies the heightened influence of the fractious politics of KwaZulu-Natal within the ANC. Mbeki did not survive long as president and Maseko found himself serving first Kgalema Motlanthe and then Jacob Zuma.

With the latter he had no working relationship at all, but instead there was a prevailing atmosphere of mistrust within a vacuum. Zuma’s ministers proved even more interfering, particularly over procurement matters, treasury was sidelined, and extravagance reigned. (For example, apart from the matter of vehicles new ministers threw out all their predecessors’ furniture and conducted cleansing ceremonies.) Failures of governance and general irregularities led in Maseko’s words to a ‘derailing of the revolution’ that centred on the racketeering of Zuma and cronies. An early example was the dismissal of the International Marketing Council (IMC) and its virtual takeover by the Guptas.

Then Maseko was summoned by Ajay Gupta to Saxonwold. En route he was phoned by the president with a request that his friends be assisted. The assistance was the small matter of turning over the entire government advertising budget to the Gupta business empire. When Maseko refused, explaining that in any case the GCIS had a co-ordinating role and departments controlled their own budgets, he was told to centralise them. Again, he refused. Later he realised that he should have proceeded straight to the nearest police station to lay a criminal charge. Maseko was one of many people to experience the arrogance and bullying of the Guptas (G-Force) as they tried to establish their media empire including New Age and ANN7 television.

But he was now at the centre of a storm of irregular activity, paranoia and mistrust; and would soon fall victim to his own principles. His handling of communications around the hospitalisation of Nelson Mandela, while entirely fit and proper, was found wanting by an absent Zuma who demanded his sacking. It comes as no surprise to read that this happened in a way that constituted unfair labour practice and that Mzwanele (Jimmy) Manyi was the beneficiary. Maseko was redeployed as direct-general to public service and administration where he was treated like an administrative clerk by Richard Baloyi. He left government in July 2011, effective discard and perceived as belonging to the wrong faction.

From this account Maseko was clearly a dutiful public servant. He admits naivete and an overdeveloped level of trust that prevented him understanding state capture. This was replaced by growing awareness of and anger about the existence of what he describes as an alternative state and incremental hijacking of its legitimate counterpart that amounted to an informal coup d’état. The ANC’s Leninist preoccupation with two centres of power is well-known, but Maseko points out that it became four with Nkandla and Saxonwold also part of the equation.

Maseko went public with his experiences in 2016 inspired by Mcebisi Jonas and Vytjie Mentor and the encouragement at various times of Frank Chikane, Collins Chabane and Pravin Gordhan. Interviewed by the ANC’s national executive committee and the Public Protector, he eventually appeared several times before the Zondo Commission. The price was high. A renegade element of the Hawks tried to intimidate him with a false investigation as he was appearing before Zondo, but far worse was ostracism by the party and government he had served loyally for so long. His new leper status meant that he could not find employment and suffered financial difficulties, although eventually a place was found for him with Business Leadership South Africa.

Clearly Maseko exhibited courage in exposing wrongdoing knowing that it would involve a lonely road of estrangement from a movement that had been a lifetime’s involvement. He and others made it possible for a thorough investigation by the Zondo Commission of the treason that state capture involved. But why did it take them so long to act? The press sounded early general alarm bells and individuals were in possession of evidence that should have been handed straight to the police.

Even more damning is the reaction of members of the ANC to Maseko and other whistleblowers. Are they and their institution so devoid of political morality that they cannot or will not recognise criminality when it is self-evident, and act properly? Nothing much has changed: this is precisely how most whites behaved during the apartheid era – because it suited them to do and say nothing. There is a great deal of debate at present about the need for practical and legal protection for whistleblowers. Given the prevailing mood in the ANC and the fact that most exposés involve the party, the chances of any progress on this front are slim.

But Maseko has at least survived to tell his tale.


Book review by Christopher Merrett, reproduced from his web page, From the Thornveld