South Africa has become the latest focus of WikiLeaks attention after the whistleblower website published confidential diplomatic cables last night, which revealed unflattering information about the country’s top leaders.
Amongst the politicians mentioned in the diplomatic exchanges was Julius Malema. In 2007 he was a provincial secretary to the ANC Youth League when he paid a visit to the US embassy in Pretoria. According to a leaked memo, Malema started his conversation by telling diplomats how the ANC taught him to use a gun when he was nine years old.
“He then boasted that Limpopo’s ANCYL has more members than any other province and is ‘100% united’ in its support of Zuma. Malema never explained why he or the league supports Zuma, bud did admit that Zuma would likely not have been picked by the ANCYL ‘if Mbeki hadn’t gone after him'”, the confidential memo, scheduled for declassification in 2019, said. Malema said that the ANCYL did not support Mbeki because “he thinks he’s too clever for all of us and he won’t engage with us”.
The memo continued by saying that, “Malema stated matter of factly that Zuma is ‘a victim of a conspiracy similar to what would happen in American politics'”.
“In a subsequent aside, Malema admitted that ANCYL president, Fikile Mbalula, did not want to support Zuma during the rape trial but that the regional leadership insisted, arguing that if the YL defended Zuma on corruption charges, they could defend him on rape charges since both acts are immoral. He also hinted that Fikile was told his position depended on his support of Zuma.”
Malema made various other damaging comments during the 2007 meeting, saying that although ANC Secretary General Kgalema Motlanthe “is brilliant, you can’t understand anything he says”. He dismissed the possibility of having a female successor, saying that South Africa needs “a man who is ahead on issues, but who can walk with the masses”.
A confidential November 2009 memo discussing Malema was entitled ‘Controversial Youth League President Retains Limelight’ and went on to list many of his headline-grabbing activities, from throwing extravagant parties to intimidating traffic officers who pulled him over.
“It has never been adequately answered whether Malema speaks on his own or with backing from senior leaders of the party”, the memo added. “Regardless of whether his views are sanctioned, however, it is becoming clearer that President Jacob Zuma respects Malema and his place within the movement.”
The memo questioned Zuma’s stance on these issues and noted that Malema’s outbursts may be therapeutic in that they “might even serve as something of a safety valve by making disgruntled youth feel that their anger was being heard by the ANC’s senior leaders.” However, the memo expressed concern that the current generation of South Africans “may be less content to accept mere rhetoric to express their anger at what they may see as continuing inequality”.
President Zuma fared better than the likes of Malema. “Zuma’s rise to the pinnacle of South African politics at the same time that serious questions about his character were headline news is an astonishing political achievement in itself,” said a diplomatic cable before Zuma was sworn in as president in May last year. “Mbeki believed that a Zuma presidency would be a disaster for South Africa and would split the ANC”, the cable continued.
After being elected he received criticism in a cable detailing the 2009 luxury vehicles for cabinet ministers debacle. Zuma’s government was seen as losing credibility and needed to improve on service delivery to eradicate “entitlement and inefficiency”. The memo also questioned the massive spending by ministers at the time of the economic recession.
Thabo Mbeki has received his fare share of attention – a confidential 2001 cable was entitled “Thin-skinned Mbeki will require deft handling”. Soon after Mbeki became president, US ambassador Delano E Lewis said it would be a challenge for the US to accept Mbeki and called him an “important but hypersensitive African figure”. Some areas of concern were his difficulty in accepting criticism and the fact that he refused to accept the scientific link between HIV and Aids. His failure to criticise human rights abuses in Zimbabwe was also pointed out. “U.S. government officials meeting with Mbeki should be prepared to recognise his defensiveness and high sensitivity to criticism,” a cable warned.
According to the memo, Mbeki’s effectiveness was undermined by his reliance on advisers who “lack the experience and diplomatic seasoning”, such as Essop Pahad and Mbeki’s legal advisor Mojanku Gumbi. Spokesperson Parks Mankahlana “had lost almost all credibility with his key audience, the South African press, in the months before he died of a disease that most were convinced was Aids, but he would never admit,” the cable stated.
“Mbeki remains unblinkingly loyal to cabinet ministers, such as the often insulting and thoughtless minister of safety and security Steve Tshwete, who outraged the Portuguese community here by questioning their patriotism when they criticised Mbeki’s handling of crime issues, or the truculent and petulant foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, or his health minister [Manto Tshabalala-Msimang] who circulated to the entire cabinet large sections of a book by a totally discredited Aids denier.”
“Why Mbeki, whose intelligence is widely acknowledged and who is well respected personally, should exhibit a tendency toward shrillness and defensiveness is hotly debated. Some speculate that Mbeki and the majority of ANC leaders and office holders are still handicapped by the experience of the struggle against Apartheid. Then, enemies were everywhere and the world fit very neatly into shades of black and white,” the cable said.
Ambassador Lewis said that Mandela’s global stature “has something to do with Mbeki’s occasional manifestations of a fragile ego”.
Former President Nelson Mandela was also mentioned in the leaked cables, which showed that he was against the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and he thought that President George W Bush ignored calls by the United Nations for restraint because then-Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan is black. Mandela also thought that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was acting as “America’s foreign secretary” because he supported the war on Iraq.
The diplomatic exchanges contain revelations on how South Africa and the US view the leadership of Zimbabwe. In November last year, Donald Gips, the American ambassador to Pretoria, met South African International Relations and Co-operations Minister Maite Nkoane-Mashabane. The latter called Robert Mugabe a “crazy old man” and admitted that South Africa’s attempts to remedy the political situation in Zimbabwe had failed and said that, “we cannot do quiet diplomacy forever”.
Another assessment, from the US mission to the EU, said Mugabe had “lost the plot of normal human interaction”. However, other leaked memos describe Mugabe as being “fit, mentally sharp and charming”, as well as a “superb debater”. However, he was surrounded by “dodgy”, “cold” and less intelligent hardliners.
The American government slammed WikiLeaks for starting the process of releasing more than a quarter of a million diplomatic cables last month, saying it was a “reckless and dangerous action” that put lives at risk.
“To be clear – such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement last month.
The South African government declined to comment when WikiLeaks first began releasing the cables. “It is the policy of this government not to comment on leaks”, said international relations spokesman Saul Molobi.
Earlier this month government spokesman Themba Maseko added that WikiLeaks was not a threat to the government. “Our assessment of the content thereof does not point to any national security threat and we will continue to monitor developments,” he said.
“The South African government has not and will not block access to the site,” he added.