Carl Niehaus against the world

Carl Niehaus. (Photograph: Gallo Photographs / Sunday Instances / Jackie Clausen)

This week, Carl Niehaus led a bunch of supporters to former president Jacob Zuma’s dwelling. However throughout the ANC, Niehaus’s days could also be numbered — as indicators are there that management is lastly dropping persistence with the occasion’s primary grifter.

Carl Niehaus was born on Christmas Day, like Jesus Christ. It’s a comparability which, most likely, he has entertained greater than as soon as in his 61 years of life. In his personal thoughts, it’s clear that Niehaus considers himself a martyr to a better trigger. To South Africa’s white lefties particularly, he is a humiliation. For journalists, he’s low-hanging fruit.

Niehaus has popped up all through South Africa’s post-apartheid historical past within the method of an more and more ethically depleted Forrest Gump. Right here he’s because the MP, right here he’s because the spokesperson, right here he’s because the ambassador, right here he’s because the businessman, right here he’s as the previous soldier. For each shift within the wind, there’s a new Carl, with a again story newly retro-fitted to his new function.

However there are indicators that even Teflon Carl could also be working out of street. ANC Secretary-Common Ace Magashule has publicly expressed unhappiness with the factionalism Niehaus foments. Niehaus has been successfully suspended from Luthuli Home. Inside the ANC, he’s dealing with a raft of disciplinary costs — together with the agonising allegation that he brings “ridicule” on to the ruling occasion. May Niehaus lastly be on the ropes?

Absolutely the final individual you need to ask about that is Niehaus himself. Asking Niehaus something is like interrogating sand. He lies about a lot that it’s more and more tough to separate the information of his life from the fabulations. One of many lies he tells most regularly is that he was imprisoned for 10 years for his anti-apartheid actions. In actuality, his interval in jail was from November 1983 to March 1991. Why would he lie about one thing really easy to examine?

“Pathological” is a phrase connected usually to him. In interviews along with his former comrades and ex-friends, the kindest description I heard of Niehaus was “sophisticated”.


Right here’s essentially the most endearing Niehaus-related anecdote I’ve encountered. It’s from his 1993 autobiography, Combating for Hope, which recounts how the younger Carl’s arrest for anti-apartheid political activism broke his conservative mother and father’ hearts.

“The day [Niehaus’s first wife] Jansie and I have been sentenced, my father took my fingers in his throughout the picket rail of the dock. Once we sat down once more, there was a sweaty little be aware in my proper hand. Throughout lunch time in my cell I rigorously opened it. With a blunt pencil he had written in his giant handwriting: ‘Braveness, previous pal. We’ll sort out this factor collectively’.”

Combating for Hope is Niehaus at his most likeable. It’s a slim, unpretentious memoir which is suffused all through with love for his mother and father, for Jansie, for the panorama of his dwelling province, North West, and even for the Afrikaner folks.

It’s a reminder that Niehaus was as soon as revered as a person of braveness and precept who broke utterly along with his working-class Afrikaans origins to take up a militant combat in opposition to the apartheid authorities, plotting to explode the Johannesburg Fuel Works.

Due to his Afrikaner identification, he was the thing of appreciable fascination to each the native and worldwide press. Self-importance Truthful described him on the time of his imprisonment by the leering lens usually reserved for movie stars as “burly, with a tense, exhausting physique, a cussed jaw, a fringe of beard”. Niehaus’s thoughts, the journal recorded, was “organised, analytical, attacking”.

However speaking to his former comrades — virtually all of whom wished to remain nameless as a result of, they mentioned, they didn’t have the power to get right into a tiff with Niehaus — it turns into clear that the younger activist was by no means actually one of many gang. White lefties working for the ANC within the early 80s tended to be English-speaking and extra ideologically cosmopolitan than Niehaus, the farm-boy theology pupil. One instructed me that Niehaus, nonetheless steeped within the teachings of the NG Kerk, was presently vehemently anti-gay. He was not, in any sense of the phrase, cool.

Niehaus was additionally not properly trusted, even by the famously paranoid requirements of the time. In a 2009 YouTube video, former South African Communist Get together activist Gavin Evans cites Niehaus as somebody suspected of being a spy. Evans additionally says, half laughing, that Niehaus “wasn’t somebody who had a lot strategic sense”.

Different comrades put it extra bluntly: Niehaus was a blowhard. That’s what acquired him arrested — bragging to housemate Robert Whitecross, an apartheid spy, about his outlandish plan to explode the fuel works.

He arrived in jail each inch the dogmatic dominee in coaching, with hardline opinions on virtually all the things — even trivia. A former comrade mentioned Niehaus would tolerate solely two sorts of music: jazz and classical music. Every thing else was an abomination. He clashed with Rivonia trialist Denis Goldberg over Goldberg’s determination to surrender violence in opposition to the apartheid state and thereby win early launch. To Niehaus, this was an unforgivable betrayal.

However for all his certainties behind bars, the Niehaus that one ANC veteran encountered on the occasion’s headquarters within the early days of unbanning was “humble, quiet, a bit misplaced”.

It’s steered that the seeds of Niehaus’s undoing have been sown when he did not be made a minister in President Nelson Mandela’s first democratic Cupboard — not like one other white Wrestle activist, Derek Hanekom, with whom Niehaus has repeatedly clashed lately.

To cite Niehaus on Twitter in September 2020: “[Hanekom] served 2 years, I served 10 years of a 15 yr sentence for prime treason”.

Niehaus needed to make do with a parliamentary committee chairmanship. Scant reward, some may say, for sacrificing “10”/seven and a bit years of freedom. 

(Photograph: Ihsaan Haffejee)

A go to to Niehaus’s Twitter account is a reminder that it isn’t simple to be Carl Niehaus today. He will get it from all sides. White racists tweet really revolting slurs at him. A supply instructed me that there’s a sizeable part of racist Afrikaners particularly who rejoice at each new Niehaus failure as a result of — she mimicked their tone — you see what occurs if you facet with the darkies.

From youthful black folks, too, Niehaus will get it within the neck. His tendency to publish militant quotes from Black Consciousness leaders is usually greeted with irritation. Niehaus resorts to repeatedly referencing his Wrestle credentials. In response to those that insist on stating his pores and skin color, he has these days developed a brand new comeback: “Ask my true comrades in the event that they solely, and easily, see me as a standard white man.”

Even below provocation on social media, his language retains an old style formality. The rudest insult I’ve ever seen him tweet was, in July 2020, the phrase “idiotic butthead”.  

On Fb, Niehaus has taken to recording common movies along with his ideas on political occasions. In them, his speech may be very exact and totally humourless. It’s clear that he has taken to relating to himself as an elder historian of the ANC: he spouts information and dates in regards to the occasion’s previous with the identical dogmatic depth with which he may need quoted Bible verses as a younger theology pupil.

Within the background of his movies, the images which might be seen in his residence are all of Nelson Mandela. One, which Niehaus posts on social media on common events, is of Madiba awarding him a medal.

Niehaus says his relationship with Mandela was one of the vital necessary of his life. Mandela’s former private assistant Zelda la Grange instructed me it wasn’t reciprocated.

“The final time we noticed [Niehaus] was within the mid-2000s when he got here to Madiba for monetary assist,” La Grange mentioned.

“Madiba mentioned no and we by no means noticed him once more.”


The mid-to-late 2000s appears to be the interval of Niehaus’s life which a Niehaus historian may establish as “the half when the wheels begin coming off”.

It’s at this level that the narrative of Carl Niehaus switches genres and turns into a cautionary story: a morality fable about weak males who succumb to the temptations of the flesh.

What precipitated it? It is dependent upon who you ask. Some say that his determination to go away his first spouse, Jansie, marks the second when Niehaus’s life started to go off target. (No person has a nasty phrase to say about Jansie, who was additionally jailed for her anti-apartheid activism and has now disappeared from public view.)

Niehaus would go on so far and marry a sequence of a lot youthful girls, and it’s steered that the stress to guide a suitably glamorous life to keep up their curiosity drove him additional and additional into debt.

Others say Niehaus merely determined, as per the now-infamous Smuts Ngonyama quote, that he had not Struggled to be poor. A comrade instructed me that Niehaus would use his substantial powers of manipulation to steer folks to offer or lend him cash, arguing that he had missed the possibility to “feather his nest” by spending all these years in jail.

“He simply grew to become a extremely shit buddy,” a former Niehaus pal remembered: the type of buddy who solely calls you up both to brag about their possessions and life-style or to hit you up for a mortgage.

This was whereas Niehaus was employed as ANC spokesperson, a job at which he was, by virtually all accounts, superb. Somebody who was impressed by him was investigative journalist Pearlie Joubert, who additionally remembers him as being “extremely good and nice” at the moment.

“Then the tales began coming thick and quick about him borrowing cash,” Joubert instructed me.

It was she who would break the bombshell story within the Mail & Guardian in 2009 that Niehaus owed lots of of hundreds of rands to politicians and businessmen, and had dedicated fraud whereas working for the Gauteng provincial authorities. Confronted together with her allegations, Niehaus burst into tears and confessed all of it.

Trying again now, Joubert feels little sense of triumph at her journalistic coup.

“Though I labored exhausting on that story, it did really feel like kicking a person when he’s down,” she displays.

“It was very exhausting to be gung-ho about it.”

She factors out that Niehaus might have been the “first and final” ANC politician to admit to stealing cash.

Carl Niehaus on the State Seize Inquiry. (Photograph: Greg Nicolson)

Niehaus was by no means criminally charged with stealing cash: a defence he advances on social media every time anybody raises the fraud difficulty. He resigned as ANC spokesperson in shame and disappeared from the highlight. It was a interval which should have been painful for a person who reportedly craves the eye of the media as validation of his personal significance.

Round 2017, nonetheless, Carl was again with a vengeance, touring the nation because the unofficial spokesperson for ANC presidential candidate Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. It was presently too that Niehaus adopted his uniform of navy fatigues because the spokesperson of the uMkhonto weSizwe Navy Veterans’ Affiliation — regardless of repeated claims by critics that Niehaus himself by no means performed a job in MK. (In historian Thula Simpson’s authoritative Umkhonto we Sizwe: The ANC’s Armed Wrestle, Niehaus doesn’t obtain a single point out.)

This was the interval during which Niehaus started to function a lone white praise-singer for former president Jacob Zuma. Amongst his former comrades, even these used to Niehaus’s shape-shifting, this transfer has been confounding: they are saying that Zuma and Niehaus had no bond, and no contact, in the course of the Wrestle.

Why Niehaus grew to become Zuma’s defender-in-chief was one of many questions I most needed to place to him, and he agreed to be interviewed below sure “parameters”. These parameters, it was tacitly understood, meant that I might not ask him about his string of fraud allegations from 2009. I might not ask him about his departure from Rhema Church owing greater than half one million rand.

I might not ask him about attempting to borrow cash by mendacity that first his mom, after which his father, had died. I might not ask him in regards to the allegation that he lived rent-free in Zimbali Lodge in the course of the NDZ marketing campaign on the understanding of fixing everybody up with authorities jobs when she received, after which skipped out on the invoice in a single day when she didn’t.

I might not ask him about his extensively disbelieved declare to have been gang-raped in jail. I might not ask him in regards to the a number of events on which he has presupposed to have terminal sicknesses, once more so as to shirk obligations.

We’d, during our telephone dialog, occupy Carl’s World: a extra nice model of actuality the place the media nonetheless handled him with respect and no person considered him as a faintly hilarious conman.


There’s an incident I haven’t talked about but which casts some gentle on the evolution of Niehaus’s political thought within the post-apartheid period.

In 1999, Niehaus co-authored a “Declaration of Dedication by White South Africans” with former TRC commissioner Mary Burton. It was a public apology by white folks for the sins of the previous, and a vow to atone each spiritually and virtually (by the fee of some type of reparations).

Niehaus had believed that white South Africans could be flocking to signal the declaration. The fact was, sadly, fairly completely different.

A Time article of the time information that the declaration was despatched to dissident Afrikaner poet Breyten Breytenbach to signal. Breytenbach, who had additionally been jailed below apartheid, responded that after studying the doc, he “went to the lavatory for a quiet, unhappy puke. Have to be one thing I ate.”     

No less than 22 years later, Niehaus continues to be pissed. It’s one of many first issues he brings up on the telephone to me: not Breytenbach’s response particularly, however the unenthusiastic response of most South African whites.

“The response to that marketing campaign actually shocked me,” Niehaus mentioned.

“We acquired subsequent to no help for it. As a substitute, we acquired rejection and lots of ridicule. That performed fairly a essential function in my thoughts about hardening my views on the problem of white racism.”

Niehaus’s rising alienation from the Afrikaner group and from his personal prolonged household has, he says, pushed him additional into the embrace of the African Nationwide Congress.

“In some ways I truly consider the ANC as my household,” he says, which worries me just a little, as a result of there may be each indication that his ANC household could also be about to forged him to the wind.

Or will the safety of former president Jacob Zuma maintain Niehaus’s place within the occasion?

Once I ask him what’s behind his timeless fealty to JZ, I get a short monologue about Radical Financial Transformation, with the declare that the bonds of Wrestle loyalty bind them collectively.

His loyalty to Zuma, Niehaus instructed me, stems from the kindness Zuma confirmed him whereas Niehaus was nonetheless being incarcerated in Pretoria Central.

“I used to be one of many final political prisoners who was launched. Zuma made it his private mission to get me out of jail. He came over me a number of occasions; he contacted my mother and father. I do really feel a robust sense of loyalty to Msholozi for the loyalty that he gave me.”

Is that true? Who is aware of. Niehaus was a grasp of different information earlier than Donald Trump made them stylish, and sources say his loyalty to Zuma is out of economic dependency.

In a 2008 interview, earlier than Niehaus’s life was turned the wrong way up, he mentioned that each one he actually needed out of life was “to be joyful”. I used to be to know the way that exact mission was going.

Niehaus paused.

“I’m fairly joyful,” he mentioned ultimately.

“I like having grown previous. I’m 61. I feel age has introduced some expertise, some knowledge, some means to take care of the flak life has thrown at me. I dwell a quite simple life. I’ve an residence in Rosebank, which I really like. I don’t like driving, I’m a horrible driver, so I take advantage of Uber largely. I’ve a smallish however very comfy residence. A few of the issues that in my youthful age I considered crucial when it comes to materials possessions, among the issues I used to be attempting to attempt in the direction of, which led to monetary issues, are usually not necessary. They don’t add something to my life. I’m feeling fairly content material.” DM



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