B’s Bonnet: There was a time when Carl Niehaus’ star in the ANC firmament was dazzlingly bright
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By Bongani Bingwa
Johannesburg - Carl Niehaus is hard of hearing. He says his hearing became impaired when he was tortured by the apartheid regime in solitary confinement after his treason conviction in 1983.
Betrayed by a man he had believed was a friend, his flatmate who turned out to be a police informant, Niehaus was sentenced to 15 years behind bars, and served a little under eight years, before being released in 1991.
He is plaintive when he reflects on his incarceration. Don’t believe what you read in books or see in the movies, he cautions – a man can lose his mind when left alone for months on end. You lose track of time; day becomes night and night becomes day. There was no natural light coming into his cell and he could never tell the time of day and as such the seven months he spent in solitary confinement seemed much longer. The insects and even food become your companions. You begin to talk to oranges – who knows if the word fruity comes from that context?
So what got him through? Ask Carl Niehaus any scripture and he will likely know it, chapter and verse. Not only because he was a theology student (questions about his actual qualifications based on previous claims may never disappear) but mostly, he says he knows the Bible because that is all he was allowed to read by his jailers. Alone with his fears and an uncertain future, he read the good book back to front and the other way around.
The particular copy that his parents brought to him in jail remains on his bedside table to this day. Perhaps in the months ahead, with his fate increasingly uncertain and politically isolated, he may once again find the time to read it.
I asked him how much of that part of his story is known? Not only his, but he regrets that many others’ have not been told. Take his recently fallen comrade Kebby Maphatsoe. Will he be rightly remembered as the hero he was? Despite the recent divergence of views, Niehaus says, “The loss of his (Maphatsoe) life at the far too early age leaves a deep void amongst all of us.”
But in the end were they really that close? One way to look at it was that Maphatsoe was better able to shift his allegiances even if not entirely. For better or worse, he knew not to piss inside the tent.
Their disagreement was around the disbandment of the Umkhonto We Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA). Refusing to defy ANC instructions, Maphatsoe agreed to work with the joint committee towards a united conference, Niehaus and other senior leaders disagreed strongly and there was even name-calling. As comrades and staunch supporters of former President Jacob Zuma, the two men may have been cordial at the end but perhaps not the brothers in arms they had once been.
There was a time when Niehaus’ star in the ANC firmament was dazzlingly bright. Perhaps it was credit to Nelson Mandela’s strategic nous that made this white Afrikaner his spokesperson in 1994 but whatever the reason, Niehaus took to the role like one unto the manor born. Equally adept at the game even on the international stage, he eventually rose to the role of ambassador to the Netherlands in 1996.
As spectacular as the rise was, so was the fall. By 2009 he was back in the country and was the spokesperson of Jacob Zuma’s ANC. But a string of allegations of personal financial mismanagement, including the feigning of his mother’s death to secure loans from comrades that he could not repay, forced him to step aside and back into isolation.
He re-entered the national stage as part of Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s losing team at the 2017 Nasrec conference of the ANC. This is when he became the voice of the MKMVA. Many troubles later he is facing isolation once again – firstly after his membership from the governing party was suspended in July this year. “The NEC has noted with concern your inflammatory speeches made outside the home of former president Jacob Zuma at Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal over the weekend of 2 to 4 July 2021 and which were broadcast live on national television and has come to the conclusion that such utterances brought the ANC into disrepute.” So read Jessie Duarte’s letter to Niehaus communicating the decision. The party has since dismissed his attempts to appeal.
As the ANC limps into the November 1 election, the party is not yet assured that all of its candidates will even make it on the ballot paper. Niehaus has now laid fraud and theft charges against five of its Top Six leaders; they in turn fired him as an employee as soon as he made the threat to do so last week.
How this chapter in his story will end is difficult to predict. What remains certain is that Carl Niehaus is hard of hearing.
Bongani Bingwa is the host of 702 Breakfast and a Carte Blanche presenter.