Thu, 21 Nov 2019

The fantastical Carl Niehaus rises again

News24
14 Jun 2019, 17:44 GMT+10

It's tempting to describe the latest addition to the ANC secretary general's office as a phoenix rising from the ashes. Nothing - not fraud, public meltdowns, or political irrelevancy - can keep Carl Niehaus down.

He is back, having started work at Luthuli House in January.

The problem with the phoenix description, however, is that he hasn't really risen very far at all. And he hasn't really risen on his own, either: it is the ANC that has come to his rescue every time, like the over-indulgent parents of an errant child.

The other problem is that, according to Niehaus, he never left at all.

"I've always been there. I've been very active... The ANC is not for me like a political party. It's like my family. I can't suddenly put distance between myself and my family," he told News24.

Things came to a head last week when, according to the Sunday Times, Niehaus allegedly helped doctor the ANC's statement in which it said that the party's recent lekgotla had resolved to expand the mandate of the South African Reserve Bank.

Niehaus denied he had any part in it, saying he was not responsible for ANC communications. His actual job description is not exactly specific, and his work is largely administrative and political, he says.

For the past eight-and-a-half years, Niehaus says he has lived in KwaZulu-Natal, "keeping the pot boiling", doing bits of consulting work and writing.

He dismissed the idea that his return to national politics was a comeback.

"Correctly, I went through a period where there were some issues that I had to deal with... But I have always been an active member of the ANC and I've always been fully involved with the ANC," he said.

Rumours abound that he has been living the high life recently, renting an apartment at the luxurious Zimbali Estate in Ballito. His Facebook profile bears testament of a beaming Niehaus spending time with his children or attending political events, wearing party regalia. And then there are the lunches, the suits, the selfies with the likes of businessman Vusi Zwane and various politically important people.

A dinner at the Michelangelo in Sandton: "My dear comrade", former Cuban ambassador and GuptaLeaks cameo-appearance-maker, Justice Piitso.

Various selfies with Zuma: Attending Zuma's court appearance in MKMVA uniform, "weekend special" finance minister Des Van Rooyen at his side.

And Ace. Many, many pictures of Ace.

Perhaps the revolution will not be televised, as Gill Scott-Herron predicted in 1970. But it will be shared on Facebook.

Niehaus rejects the insinuation, and says he lives in a modest apartment in Ballito, and only rented a place at the luxurious Zimbali Estate for a short time.

The Zimbali Estate spot was "affordable", Niehaus says. (At the very cheap end of the spectrum, renting an apartment at Zimbali will set you back a cool R2 000 per night.)

Besides writing and "consulting", Niehaus has been a de facto spokesperson for elements aligned to Zuma in his capacity as uMkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) spokesperson.

He has been referred to as Magashule's media hit man - saying the things the secretary general wants to say but will not. He also has a couple of hobbies that keep him busy. He is an amateur photographer, and won a merit award for a still life picture at an iphonography exhibition.

The image that earned Niehaus a merit award at an iphonography exhibition.

He has also spent much of his time vociferously defending Zuma.

Niehaus told News24 this week that he was one of the last comrades to be released from prison - almost a year after Mandela.

"The one person who kept on visiting me and fighting for my release was former president Zuma," he says. "It was a really frustrating and difficult time... I saw other comrades going (out of prison) and I wasn't being released... And he (Zuma) really supported me and pushed for my release."

Niehaus has returned the favour for all of these years.

"It's not a factional decision to be there (for Zuma), it's an expression of that support. It's not a counter-position to [President Cyril] Ramaphosa."

Golden boy of Afrikaans speakers rejecting apartheid

After his release from prison in 1991, where he served eight years for treason, Niehaus showed promise at the ANC's communications department. He became an MP, and was featured prominently on the opinion pages of national titles. He was the golden boy of white Afrikaans-speaking people who rejected apartheid.

He styled himself as terribly radical, almost Stalinist, and was dogmatic about everything from politics to music.

Nevertheless, his communication talents were recognised by senior party members. No-one foresaw the drama to come. A former comrade says Niehaus' problems became apparent around the time he said he needed money to get treatment for bone cancer. It was a lie.

His subsequent very public fall from grace is probably more accurately described as a nosedive at full speed from a medium-height pedestal. He famously, and tearfully, confessed to a range of financial transgressions to the Mail & Guardian in 2009. This included being indebted to various members of the ANC, forging signatures while at the Gauteng Economic Development Agency, and receiving money from the likes of Brett Kebble because of his financial problems.

The floodgates were opened. At least nine follow-up articles appeared in the media in that week with more allegations of financial impropriety. He resigned as ANC spokesperson, having been in the position for just a few months.

That appeared to be the end of Niehaus. His critics seemed satisfied that he had gone off quietly to lick his wounds in the backwaters of KZN, never to be heard from again. His decision to resign was reason enough to leave him alone and not demand accountability from him in any formal capacity.

But then in around 2017, Niehaus surfaced in full MKMVA camouflage fatigues. (Former comrades say he has never had a day's military training.)

He appeared on stages and at campaign events for former ANC presidential contender Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, dancing, singing, marching, and beating the "Radical Economic Transformation" drum with about as much rhythm as a spastic colon.

Niehaus says he approached Dlamini-Zuma when he heard she wanted to make a run for the Presidency, and asked if he could join the team. He knew her to be efficient and a good administrator, and thought she'd make a good president.

Reports in the Sunday Times at the time that Niehaus pretended that his mother was dead to get out of paying a R4.3m debt, did not deter him. His mother was very much alive and well, as can be attested to by the dear comrade and friend who, News24 was told, drove around for hours looking for Niehaus' mother's funeral on the day it was supposed to have taken place.

If Magashule goes, so does Niehaus

The campaign did not succeed, but many of its proponents remain at Luthuli House. Niehaus says any reports of "factionalism" are "really driven by the media".

"Our experience is that we're working pretty well," he says.

But there are rumours in the corridors that Magashule will have to face disciplinary action at some point. And if he goes, so does Carl. A senior ANC member said that the party will not step in to save Niehaus again.

"He's overstepped the line. We will seriously oppose it."

His alignment with a faction in the ANC seen to be partial to the state capture project will probably be the death-knell for him, says the source.

"When the only forgiveness you get is from the gangsters, well, there's not much road beyond that."

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