Sunday Times E-Edition

Billy Masetlha: from young activist to ambassador

The ANC veteran and former spy chief joined the struggle aged 14, was instrumental in the 1976 Soweto uprising and was a founder member of the Congress of South African Students. He leaves a mystery unsolved, writes

S’thembiso Msomi

‘It was agreed that everything identified with apartheid would be ruined. That was a goal and position that we were taking up’

Great spymasters, it is said, take their nation’s deepest secrets with them to the grave. Yet one feels that the relatively young South African nation would have been better served if Billy Lesedi Masetlha, who died last week, had shed light on some of the episodes that plunged the country and ruling party into a political crisis that has been running for more than a decade.

So much political drama has played out in South Africa since the early 2000s that it is easy to forget some major episodes and the personalities involved.

When the history of the run-up to the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane national conference is told in full, the fake e-mails saga will feature prominently.

A series of fake e-mails did the rounds in political, intelligence and media circles, purporting to be clandestine communications between senior government and ANC figures who were allegedly conspiring to prevent Jacob Zuma from succeeding Thabo Mbeki as the ANC’s and the country’s president.

In some of the “e-mails” it was alleged that former national director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka and businessman Saki Macozoma were writing to each other about “making sure the Zulu bastard ”— an apparent reference to Zuma — “is nailed to the cross”. There were others exposing a plot to drive a wedge between Masetlha, who was the director-general of the then National Intelligence Agency (NIA), and the then president Mbeki.

Masetlha’s NIA believed the e-mails to be true and launched projects based on their allegations.

It was all a fabrication, the inspector-general (IG) was to later find after an investigation. But the horse had long bolted. By the time the investigation was concluded the e-mails were regarded as fact by some senior ANC and government leaders.

Zuma supporters had seized on them and used the one that impugned an ethnic motive on the side of Ngcuka and others for not wanting Zuma to start the “100% Zulu” T-shirt campaign that was to propel his presidential campaign.

The fake e-mails were also used as “evidence” justifying the charge that the elite Scorpions anticorruption investigative unit had turned into a private army targeting the then president’s political foes. The Scorpions were later disbanded.

The IG’s investigation revealed the fake e-mails to be the work of Muziwendoda Kunene, a KwaZulu-Natal-based IT specialist with links to a church organisation said to have worked closely with the apartheid-era military intelligence in South Africa and the then apartheid government-controlled South West Africa.

What was Kunene’s link to Masetlha, and did he engage in the fabrications with his approval and support? The former NIA boss never fully explained his role in the saga.

Masetlha, who was born in Alexandra township on November 21 1954, grew up in Soweto’s Dube township in a working-class family of six children.

He was only 14 years old when he was exposed to political groups trying to mobilise for the resistance struggle that had been crushed inside the country after the banning of the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations. As a pupil at Orlando High School, he became one of the first to join the South African Students Movement.

By 1973, he was the Transvaal organiser of the National Youth Organisation and interacted with prominent Black Consciousness leaders such as Steve Biko. It wasn’t long before he was recruited into the ANC underground, working closely with the late Joe Gqabi and Elliot Shabangu.

He was trying to balance his underground work and his studies at a teachers’ training college in Hebron, Pretoria, when the 1976 student uprisings broke out. Masetlha worked closely with committees set up to support the students’ struggle.

“By the end of the week the uprising had spread to Pretoria, and a number of leaders had already been arrested or gone underground. I fled from my home to evade arrest. I went around to the unions and student movement underground. In terms of our programme, we agreed that if they killed and shot us, we’ve got to kill them. It was agreed that everything identified with apartheid would be ruined. That was a goal and position that we were taking up,” Masetlha told one interviewer.

“The ANC approached me directly during the course of the Soweto uprising, because I had become convener and also the head of the propaganda unit of the Soweto unit — making sure that we kept information, people were informed, and calling for stayaways, and all those kinds of things. The ANC pointed out that the students were confronting heavily armed police forces with stones, and requested that we identify students who could be provided with military training. This happened at the time when the ANC was preparing for the return of Tokyo Sexwale’s unit. This unit provided us with training, and we began certain military actions,” he continued.

By the end of 1976, Masetlha had been arrested and spent two years in jail. On his release he joined other activists in forming the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) — which was to play a leading role in popular youth struggles across the country in the 1980s. But soon after Cosas’s formation, he left for Botswana to formally join Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s military wing. He received military and intelligence training in several countries, including in Eastern Europe.

When the organisations were unbanned, he was among the first exiles to return as he had been tasked with Jackie Selebi, Vusi Mavimbela and others with reviving the ANC Youth League.

In post-apartheid South Africa, Masetlha served in various roles, including as security adviser to Mbeki, home affairs director-general and head of the country’s intelligence services.

At the time of his death he was ambassador to Algeria. He leaves his wife, Lynn, his son, Reabetsoe, a grandson, three sisters and a brother.

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