The Peculiar Persecution of Zabantu Ngcobo

In the wake of the Jacques Pauw media debacle, now is perhaps an opportune moment to reflect again on how the dignity afforded to different persons operates in our media. In particular, the dynamic of the benefit-of-the-doubt, and what kinds of people are deemed deserving of it, has been on my mind. In the case of my friend, Ms Zabantu Ngcobo, most recently South Africa’s Acting Ambassador in Sudan, I have been forced to ponder also to whom this benefit-of-the-doubt is denied. Beginning with an article that was initially run by the Daily Maverick, and in subsequent media reports where various allegations against her have been repeated, I have once again witnessed, in real time, how the Black woman is always guilty until proven innocent.

Given the silence around what is an ongoing abandonment of sound media ethics, I have had pause to appreciate anew how easily the Black woman can be persecuted and ostracised. I have already indicated, in the interests of full transparency, that the Acting Ambassador is someone I know personally. Indeed, the reason why I am writing this is because I have been witness, over the cause of several months, to a total disregard of ethical media practice that has completely devastated my friend’s life. The rote repetitions of spurious and utterly bizarre accusations levelled against her have only been the proverbial nails in the coffin. I am loathe to call what I have seen a trial-by-media, because it is more accurately a conviction and execution by media. No attempts are made to gather the finer details of these incredible claims, but they are repeated with the air of established fact.

From the onset, with the first article in the Daily Maverick vaguely detailing the allegations against Zabantu, not once have any of the media houses repeating this story reached out to hear her side of the story. If, as we have just seen, there are some for whom a telling of their side of the story is a mere phone call away, it seems that at the other end of this spectrum of hierarchies… there are those for whom it is a bridge too far. For example, this one-sided narrative therefore makes no mention of the fact that the Sudanese police had initially told Zabantu that, based on the first confession made to them, these murderers had planned to kill her next, after disposing of two young women. There is also no mention made of the fact that the investigating team earlier informed Zabantu how the first accused was with a third young woman when they arrested him, and confessed that he had intended to kill this young woman as well.

This bears repeating – not a single of the media outlets that have made reference to the accusations levelled against her, be it the Daily Maverick or News24, have made a single attempt to contact Zabantu. Instead, the utterly bizarre accusations, made from the inside of a Sudanese jail by self-confessed murderers who were retracting their first confession and crafting a new story, continue to be repeated by local media ad nauseam. In a recent Media24 article, her name was put in the article but later on removed, suggesting that there are at least some pangs of conscience troubling a few people in these newsrooms.

By error of omission or by design, no mention is made of the fact that her and her partner’s alleged involvement in a bizarre murder and assassination conspiracy only surfaced in a second confession (following a first confession by the accused Sudanese nationals who have actually been charged with these crimes). The details concerning what was contained in that first confession have never been outlined by the Sudanese police, who are responsible for leaking the story to media in the first place. The reasons for the disavowal of this first confession, as well as the reasons for the investigating team apparently marking this down as progress in their investigation, remain known only to those to whom both confessions were made. These Sudan police, who just recently put their country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry in the embarrassing position of having to formally apologise for the wrongful arrest of diplomats at the Brazilian Embassy, and for the theft of valuable items at that very location, are not people to be trusted without closer scrutiny.

This background is important because it raises the question: Why is a second confession implicating a senior diplomat being given so much credence by the investigating team? The allegations against Zabantu also include a vague reference to the planned assassination of a Security Officer at the South African Embassy. Indeed, this revised second confession apparently makes the claim that the two young women who were murdered… were killed only because Zabantu and her partner wanted proof of the murderers’ ability to kill. And this must be taken seriously because a young man whose life she transformed by hiring him as a driver has turned out to be a budding serial killer, and apparently thinks it might be fun to go down with a big fish… The absolutely unhinged behaviour exhibited by this young man gives me a headache each time I think about it.

So you have this spectacle, of two innocent young lives brutally cut short, and these confessed murderers fingering the Acting Ambassador as the instigator of this madness, claiming it was a training exercise for the real assassination. Perhaps because such a story would indeed be too fantastic to swallow without some kind of crazy conspiracy to back it up, the planned assassination of the Security Officer at the South African embassy comes up. Again, this allegation seems to exist in a strange kind of information vacuum.

The motive for plotting to assassinate said Security Officer is never made clear. There is only a reference to the possibility that this same Security Officer had sent damning reports (about the ambassador and her partner) to DIRCO. There is no information made available, either to or from DIRCO, about the existence and contents of these allegedly damning reports. Of course, there are no such reports. Zabantu has worked her way up in DIRCO by being nothing less than an exemplary and honest-to-the-bone employee, despite having come from the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks politically (her father was a founding member of the PAC and her mother, the writer Lauretta Ngcobo, was unshaken in her Africanist views until the very end).

Over the years one has heard of several cases where, especially in the case of returned exiles, those who are of a BC and Africanist background are treated with some tardiness in the public service, but this one certainly takes the cake. It boggles the mind that Zabantu and her partner are still holed up in a Pretoria hotel on the instruction of DIRCO, so many months later, with no progress and no updates on the spurious, utterly bizarre investigation against them.

I write this because it has proven difficult to galvanise my friend into any kind of active defence while her name is smeared so viciously and without foreseeable end. I can tell you that she is in constant mourning for the two innocent young lives that were taken, and has had a terrible time of coming to terms with the fact that a young Sudanese man she had developed friendly, even motherly affection for (during the time when he acted as her driver) has not only been involved in such a horrific crime, but has gone on to implicate her in order to dilute his own confessed culpability. None of us should ever downplay the sacrifice and attendant dangers to which may envoys are subjected, in the course of their duties. Just recently, Italy’s ambassador to the DRC has been killed in an attempted hijacking. It both saddens and enrages me that my friend is being hung out to dry in this manner. She has dedicated her whole life to being a diligent worker in our Foreign Service, and the publications that use her unproven story as a footnote to every article about alleged malfeasance in DIRCO are doing her a huge disservice. It is an extremely painful debacle to witness.

While the snooping around as she remains in seemingly infinite limbo continues, and all her cellphone lines remain bugged no matter what she tries, it is no exaggeration to say that she is living in a state of terror. I have found out that the couple were subjected to a re-enactment of the murders by the Sudanese police. These investigators took the two murderers back to the Acting Ambassador’s residence (where the murders were committed while Zabantu and her partner were away in London) and proceeded to force them to watch as the murderers re-enacted their crime. It is no wonder that they are afflicted by nightmares, paralysed by utter confusion, and seemingly unable to rouse themselves into a proactive clearing of their names. But allegations and accusations, no matter how bizarre, eventually have to be proven or withdrawn. This cannot continue in a state of limbo ad infitum. Something has to give.