The dangerous rise of Jacob Zuma's private army

The most chilling threat was the statement that it was ‘“mobilising” its members, who would be “combat ready”


By Sara Gon 

Back in April, when President Zuma confined us to junk status, the Democratic Alliance (DA) sought permission to march through the Johannesburg CBD in protest. The African National Congress Youth League (Youth League) and some branches threatened violence against the marchers if they came near Luthuli House, the ANC’s headquarters.

The most startling sight was that of uMkhonto we Sizwe Veterans Association (MKMVA)’s militia, otherwise known as “Zuma’s private army”, drilling in front of Luthuli House.

They were attired in military camouflage with khaki belts, black military boots and predominantly black berets.

The DA dropped its plans to march on Luthuli House on April 3, so the need to “defend” Luthuli House fell away. Still, about 600 MK “veterans” assembled outside the ruling party’s headquarters.

Two days earlier, amid calls for Zuma to step down, the KZN chairperson of the MKMVA, Themba Mavundla, had said the organisation would deploy more than 600 “combatants” to Luthuli House to defend the ANC and the “democratically-elected president”.

Mavundla said they “would not allow anyone” to undermine democracy and the ANC. MK combatants would be stationed in Luthuli House “until this Black Friday joke has turned into the joke it is”, he said.

“Our people are ready to defend our hard-won gains. In particular, these forces of darkness must stay away from Luthuli House. We will defend Luthuli House with our lives and limbs”. He went on: “Life or death, victory is certain”.

Mavundla wouldn't say whether the “combatants” would be armed, just that “we will be combat-ready”.

Whatever the MKMVA sees itself as, it is not a legal entity nor is its uniform legal.

The MKMVA is not a unit of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). The latter is an amalgamation of former homeland security forces, uMkhonto we Sizwe, the Azanian People's Liberation Army and the 'self-protection units' of the Inkatha Freedom Party.

The Military Veterans Act, 2011 (MVA) makes no provision for the establishment of a fighting military formation of veterans.

The MVA aims to assist military veterans after their service in respect of their socio-economic situation. Military veterans are no longer soldiers. They are not recognised as having any further role in the defence of the country or any parts of it.

The MKMVA is a voluntary association and undertakes “to continue to play its role as an agent for progressive change”. Being a private army may not be one of those things.

As regards their uniforms, though it isn’t easy to ascertain from media photographs, the MKMVA’s camouflage uniform is identical, or as-near-as-damn-it, to the SANDF’s official camouflage uniform.

Section 104 (5) and (6) of The Defence Act 42 of 2002 states that an unauthorised person who has or wears prescribed uniforms or paraphernalia, or performs a prohibited act while doing so, is guilty of an offence and may receive a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years.

If there is a distinction between the two, it is a distinction without difference. The SANDF must act to ensure that MKMVA members desist from wearing these uniforms and creating the false impression that it is a legitimate SANDF unit.

The Economic Freedom Front promotes a comically militaristic look with its red T-shirts and berets, but no one would confuse them with an SANDF unit!

The MKMVA may be a private security company, but odds are against it. The private security sector is also governed by legislation. There is a legislated industry regulatory body to which security companies need to belong. Although most security personnel dress in militaristic camouflage, they do not resemble SANDF kit.

Regulation 13(7) of the Private Security Industry Regulations, 2002 provides that any member who wears a uniform or other paraphernalia identical to or closely resembling the SANDF’s “as to be calculated to deceive” is guilty of an offence resulting in a fine or imprisonment for two years.

Professor Roger Southall, Professor of Sociology of the University of the Witwatersrand, says that through the threats by the MKMVA it is manifest that President Zuma’s faction would be prepared to resort to violence to entrench its domination.

For Southall, the most chilling threat was the statement that it was ‘“mobilising” its members, who would be “combat ready”’. It was backed up by the ANC Youth League which said it was ready to defend the premises with “all the weapons at its disposal”.

As Southall observes, dressed in military fatigues, the MKMVA explicitly presented itself as the ANC’s armed wing, ready to go into battle to counter the party’s enemies.

The MKMVA views itself, and is viewed by key elements in the ANC’s leadership, as a militia ready to be deployed against its political opponents.

“Armed militias aligned to a political party, or a faction within it, have no place in a constitutional democracy” says Southall.

No less than Siphiwe Nyanda, a former MK leader, chief of the SANDF and Minister of Defence, has referred to the veterans as a “private army”.

The more desperate Zuma and his supporters become, the more the risk that they will turn to the MK Vets to help them. If the Zuma faction triumphed in the leadership battle, it’s unlikely to hesitate to deploy MK vets (alongside its Youth League) against opponents during the lead up to the 2019 election.

A faltering economy with huge youth unemployment is highly combustible. The prospect of a Zimbabwean scenario would loom large.

Perhaps the people to take up the disbandment of the militia are the ANC Stalwarts, which includes MK veterans. In doing so they can take down their ridiculous National Chairperson of the MKMVA, Deputy Defence Minister and chief cook and bottle washer of the MKMVA, Kebby Maphatsoe.

Maphatsoe, a cook in the armed struggle, has faced allegations of stealing organisation funds.

Nyanda has made a damning criticism of the conduct of MKMVA under the chairmanship of Maphatsoe, condemning its use as that of a "private army”.

In a letter published in the Sunday Times in September 2016, he wrote: "The notion advanced by some leaders of the MKMVA that Jacob Zuma is a commander-chief of the MKMVA is a dangerous illusion.

"The ANC has no army. The president of the ANC does not possess a private army."

He added: "To style MKMVA as a security or enforcement arm of the ANC is wrong. It has no such mandate. No decision of any ANC structure or even its own constitution gives MKMVA such a role."

Perhaps the civil actors to deal with this matter decisively are the ANC Stalwarts and Save SA, and show us that they aren’t just a “one trick pony”.

*Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes economic and political liberty. Follow the IRR on Twitter @IRR_SouthAfrica 

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