By Sylvester Asoya
I have not read a nonfiction in recent times as provocative as THE PRESIDENT’S KEEPERS: THOSE KEEPING ZUMA IN POWER AND OUT OF PRISON. This work is an irresistible page-turner. It is pacy, hot, evidential and an amazing piece of investigative writing by Jacques Pauw.
Pauw is a courageous and brilliant journalist who knows his way around words, people and sources. The author was a founding member of Vrye Weekblad , an anti-apartheid Afrikaans newspaper in the late 1980s. As a reporter during those dangerous years in South Africa, he exposed the Vlakplaas police death squads and did other investigative reports that hastened the demise of apartheid. Today, South Africa is free. So, despite all the absurdities and allegations in THE PRESIDENT’S KEEPERS: THOSE KEEPING ZUMA IN POWER AND OUT OF PRISON, many of the author’s compatriots see this latest effort as another patriotic gift from a patriot to his troubled country.
In this book, Pauw navigates rough weather like an experienced captain at sea. The journalist alleges that in the mid-2000s, Jacob Zuma was on trial for fraud, racketeering and corruption on 783 charges. He also writes about one man’s firm grip on his country’s institutions and the entire intelligence and security architecture. He provides insight on how the former president’s cronies worked to undermine a system he swore to protect. It is indeed, a damning report on Zuma’s life before and during his presidency. Pauw writes about Zuma’s well-guarded secrets and life, his alleged dubious deals, his men in strategic places and the absence of any serious record of his 15 years in exile, including the many years he spent in Mozambique where he trained recruits and co-ordinated violent attacks in his country during the apartheid era.
In an unprecedented manner in our continent, this fearless journalist takes on his country’s sitting president and calls his bluff. He shares with his readers, some horrifying details of the president’s controversial life as a public officer. He accuses Zuma of tax evasion in his first term and insists that the president was also a salary earner who received a disgusting monthly wage of one million rand from a private security company while in office. The writer questions the president’s campaign funds, his children’s relationship with tobacco smugglers, the issue of the controversial Gupta family and their unbridled influence on Zuma’s government, the one billion rand network of spies that he kept, the destruction of South African Revenue Service, the challenge of the president’s extraordinarily large family and his inability to pay back multiple loans and debts.
But Pauw returns with more fire as the book progresses. He comes down heavily on his subject and even describes him as a “gluttonous politician who has scant control over his carnal urges”. According to him, at the time Zuma was sworn in as president in May 2009, the daughter of one of his close friends was already pregnant with his 20th child. Apart from the president’s low moral standards, the book also deals with issues of state capture, cronyism, mediocrity in public service, depravity and gross abuse of power.
No one reads THE PRESIDENT’S KEEPERS: THOSE KEEPING ZUMA IN POWER AND OUT OF PRISON without a takeaway. The book opens the reader’s eyes to the complicity of senior government officials and members of the African National Congress, ANC, the ruling party, in the infamous Marikana strike where 34 miners were massacred by the police. There are also lurid tales of South Africa’s underworld, prostitution network, gang wars, the advanced mafia-like fiefdoms, drug trade and the deep-seated gang life that exist. In fact, the revelations invalidate the perception in some quarters, that Nigerian immigrants imported crime into South Africa; no claim would have been more ridiculous.
However, Pauw in this book, celebrates common South Africans and exceptional professionals in the public sector. He also praises his countrymen and women who stood to be counted. THE PRESIDENT’S KEEPERS: THOSE KEEPING ZUMA IN POWER AND OUT OF PRISON also reinforces South Africa’s strength and relevance as the undisputed continental power especially with the heroic and exemplary conduct of the judiciary and some regulatory agencies. The most fascinating for me, is the country’s strong institutions. For instance, in May 2014, shortly before the general elections, officials of the South African Revenue Service, SARS, seized a container of branded T-shirts with the portrait of a sitting president because Mpisi Trading, the importer, did not pay import tax.
For good measure, the author draws attention to how governments, and this is not restricted to South Africa, weaken government business and processes, especially during crucial elections by patronizing and arming thugs for undue advantage.
I dare say that if this book was inspired for the benefit of all, without malice, and I believe so, then Pauw has done a great service to his fatherland, humanity and the journalism profession.
So, for a few days, I read this extraordinary book forcibly, and in-between tasks, because of its never-ending horror tales, the interesting plot structure, the disclosures, the rainbow sources and the author’s courage and style. I enjoyed myself regardless of reading for long hours.
I actually started reading compulsorily at the dawn of my journalism career over two decades ago. For reasons best known to my editors, I was the preferred “victim” for books and reviews. Incidentally, every book or author came with entirely new experience. The literary desk also afforded me the opportunity of meeting writers like Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Gabriel Okara, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Wole Soyinka, Mabel Segun, Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Kole Omotosho, Niyi Osundare, Elechi Amadi, Femi Osofisan, Chukwuemeka Ike, Zaynab Alkali, Okey Ndibe and other African writers.
Reading THE PRESIDENT’S KEEPERS: THOSE KEEPING ZUMA IN POWER AND OUT OF PRISON also brought back “agonizing” memories of those scary years when reviewing books was a nightmare for me. But without books, I probably would not have also met and interviewed Nadine Gordimer, Pauw’s countrywoman and South Africa’s Nobel Laureate, anti-apartheid fighter and the famous author of July’s People, A World of Strangers and No Time Like the Present. Like Pauw, Gordimer was also white, a lover of her country, a rebel during the apartheid struggle and a writer. It will be preposterous to say exactly what I feel about the concerns of these extraordinary writers from the former apartheid enclave but surely, they share the burden of their country’s lost opportunities, misfortune and failure to advance.
Nonetheless, this book is not just about Zuma and his proclivity for influence and absolute power. Nobody reads THE PRESIDENT’S KEEPERS: THOSE KEEPING ZUMA IN POWER AND OUT OF PRISON without marveling at the high-level corruption, greed, nepotism, lack of purpose, abuse of power, mediocrity and incompetence that pervade Africa’s corridors of power. South Africa is just representational and Pauw’s narrative encapsulates in a miniature form, the things our so-called leaders do in Africa. For emphasis, the author even cites It’s Our Turn to Eat, the moving account of a Kenyan whistleblower. Like Kenya, Nigeria is also plagued by turn by turn mentality which unfortunately is now a way of life across the continent.
In spite of the author’s low-spirited canvas, South Africa is clearly a great nation, not necessarily because of her first-class infrastructure and huge natural resources and wealth, but because of her people. I understand public officers write their stories after leaving office primarily to give account of their stewardship and to guide the coming generation. This is in contrast to the false and misleading narratives in the memoirs of Nigeria’s public officers and politicians whose writings smack of haughtiness and vanity.
I am sure no Nigerian journalist would have written the story of a sitting Nigerian president with such a scathing title and grisly details without very serious consequences. The freedom writers like Pauw and others enjoy, despite the long years of apartheid, is a credit to the government and people of South Africa. As we battle hate speech and anti-social media bill in Nigeria, we must remember South Africa and journalists like Pauw. In this season of strange happenings, citizens must remind leaders of their right to hold opinion, the right to protest and the right to hold government accountable.
For our continent, it is definitely a very long journey. Future progress surely depends on what we learn from history, though African leaders learn nothing and forget nothing. But we must be encouraged by Pauw’s experiences and the lessons he offers, but we also need courage.
When the government of South Africa tried to ban THE PRESIDENT’S KEEPERS: THOSE KEEPING ZUMA IN POWER AND OUT OF PRISON, the book won Nielson Booksellers Choice Award, a prize for South Africa’s favourite book. At the award, Pauw said it was the State Security Agency’s attempt to ban the book that conferred the status of the favourite book on his work. “They never learnt from apartheid, did they? As soon as you tell people not to do something or not to look at something, or not to read something, that’s exactly what they want to do. I want to lift a glass with you tonight because despite the threats from the state, you sold, and you sold, and you sold, and you sold. And to make a long story short, we sold around 200,000 copies. We are still selling”.