Carl Niehaus's "Soldier of Misfortune" campaign against the universe
Like Jesus Christ, Carl Niehaus was born on Christmas Day. In his 61 years of existence, he has probably entertained this analogy more than once. Niehaus clearly views himself as a martyr for a greater cause in his own mind. He embarrasses South Africa's white lefties in particular. He represents low-hanging fruit for journalists.
In South Africa's post-apartheid history, Niehaus has appeared and disappeared like a morally bankrupt Forrest Gump. Here he is in his roles as a member of parliament, a spokesman, an ambassador, a businessperson, and a former soldier. Every time the wind changes, a new Carl appears with a backstory modified to meet his new responsibilities.
However, there are indications that even Teflon Carl may be reaching his limits. Ace Magashule, the secretary-general of the ANC, has openly stated his displeasure with the division Niehaus fosters. In actuality, Niehaus is no longer allowed to enter Luthuli House. He is facing a number of disciplinary actions within the ANC, including the agonising charge that he "ridicules" the party in power. Niehaus may finally be in trouble.
Niehaus himself is the very last person you should speak with about this. Niehaus can only be questioned like sand. He fabricates so many things that it becomes harder and harder to distinguish the truth from the falsehoods. He regularly makes up stories, one of which is that he spent ten years in prison for his anti-apartheid activism. Actually, he was imprisoned from November 1983 to March 1991. Why would he fabricate something that was so simple to verify?
"Pathological" is a label frequently used by him. The kindest thing I could say about Niehaus in conversations with his former teammates and friends was that he was "complex".
Here's the sweetest Niehaus-related story I've ever heard. It comes from his 1993 book, Fighting for Hope, in which he describes how the young Carl's conservative parents' hearts were broken by his incarceration for political action against apartheid.
"On the day Jansie and I received our sentences, [Niehaus' first wife] held my hands in his and we walked over the dock's wooden barrier. In my right palm when we sat down once more was a damp tiny letter. I gently opened it in my cell at lunchtime. He had penned the following in his huge handwriting with a rough pencil: "Courage, old comrade. Together, let's deal with this."
Niehaus is at his most endearing in Fighting for Hope. It is a brief, unassuming book that is filled with affection for his parents, Jansie, the scenery of his native province, North West, and even the Afrikaner people.
It serves as a reminder that Niehaus was previously regarded as a man of courage and moral integrity who broke away from his Afrikaans' working-class roots to engage in a militant struggle against the apartheid regime, planning to blow up the Johannesburg Gas Works.
He attracted a lot of interest from the local and international press due to his identity as an Afrikaner. At the time of his arrest, Vanity Fair described him as "burly, with a taut, hard torso, an obstinate jaw, and a fringe of beard" through the leering perspective often reserved for film stars. The journal stated that Niehaus's thinking was "organised, analytical, and offensive."
However, after speaking with his erstwhile cohorts—almost all of whom requested anonymity because they said they lacked the stamina to argue with Niehaus—it becomes evident that the young activist was never truly a member of the gang. In contrast to Niehaus, the farm-boy theology student, white leftists working for the ANC in the early 1980s tended to be English-speaking and more intellectually cosmopolitan. One person said that Niehaus was at the time violently anti-gay and was still firmly rooted in the NG Kerk's doctrine. In no way could one describe him as cool.
Even by the notoriously paranoid norms of the day, Niehaus was not widely regarded as trustworthy. Niehaus is mentioned as a possible spy in a 2009 YouTube video by former South African Communist Party activist Gavin Evans. Niehaus "wasn't someone who had much strategic insight," Evans adds, almost chuckling.
Niehaus was a blowhard, as some comrades expressed it more forcefully. He was caught as a result of boasting to his flatmate and apartheid snitch Robert Whitecross about his crazy scheme to blow up the gas plant.
He had rigid ideas on almost everything, including inconsequential topics, and showed up in prison looking every inch the dogmatic dominee in training. Niehaus, according to a former colleague, would only listen to jazz and classical music. Every other thing was abhorrent. He disagreed with Rivonia trial defendant Denis Goldberg because Goldberg chose to forgo using violence to overthrow the apartheid regime in order to obtain an early release. This was an awful betrayal in Niehaus' eyes.
However, despite his convictions from behind bars, Niehaus came across as "humble, meek, and a little out of place" by one ANC veteran at the party's headquarters in the early days after his unbanning.
According to some, the roots of Niehaus's downfall were planted when he was denied a position as a minister in President Nelson Mandela's first democratic Cabinet, unlike Derek Hanekom, a fellow white Struggle leader who Niehaus has frequently disagreed with in subsequent years.
"[Hanekom] served 2 years, I served 10 years of a 15-year sentence for high treason," wrote Niehaus on Twitter in September 2020.
Niehaus had to make due as the chairman of a parliamentary committee. Some may consider the incentive insufficient for giving up "10" or around seven and a half years of freedom.
Niehaus' Twitter page serves as a timely reminder that being Carl Niehaus in the modern world is not simple. He receives it from every angle. Tweets directed at him by white supremacists are very repulsive. According to a source, a sizable portion of prejudiced Afrikaners in particular celebrate each successive Niehaus setback because, in their words, "you see what happens when you stand with the darkies."
Niehaus also receives pain in the neck from younger Black folks. His propensity to share militant statements from Black Consciousness figures frequently draws criticism. Niehaus uses this as an excuse to keep mentioning his achievements in the Struggle. He just learned a new line to use in reaction to people who keep on bringing up his skin tone: "Ask my loyal comrades whether they merely, and simply, perceive me as a conventional white man."
Even after being provoked on social media, his language still has an archaic formality. He used the slur "idiotic butthead" in a tweet in July 2020, which is the rudest term I've ever seen him use.
Niehaus has started posting frequent videos on Facebook with his commentary on current political developments. His discourse in them is extremely exact and completely without humour. He cites facts and dates concerning the ANC's past with the same fanatical fervour with which he may have repeated Bible passages as a young theology student, indicating that he has adopted the position of an older historian of the party.
His apartment photographs, which can be seen in the backdrop of his movies, all feature Nelson Mandela. One of them, which Niehaus frequently shares on social media, is of Madiba giving him a medal. According to Niehaus, his friendship with Mandela was among the most significant of his life. It wasn't returned, according to Zelda la Grange, a former personal assistant to Mandela.
The last time we saw Niehaus was when he went to Madiba for financial assistance in the middle of the 2000s, according to La Grange.
Madiba responded with a "no," and we never saw him again.
A Niehaus historian would refer to the mid-to-late 2000s as "the point when the wheels start falling off" in Niehaus's life. At this point, Carl Niehaus' story shifts genres and turns into a cautionary tale—a morality parable about frail men who give in to their fleshly desires.
What led to it? Depending on who you talk to. Some claim that Niehaus's choice to divorce his first wife, Jansie, was the turning point in his life. (No one has anything terrible to say about Jansie, who was also imprisoned for her anti-apartheid activities and is currently out of sight.)
Niehaus would go on to romance and wed a string of considerably younger women, and it's been said that the need to keep their attention by leading a sufficiently glamorous life drove him deeper and deeper into debt.
Others contend that Niehaus merely concluded he had not struggled to be poor, in accordance with the now-famous Smuts Ngonyama remark. Niehaus, according to a buddy, would use his considerable cunning to convince others to lend or give him money, claiming that by serving all those years in jail, he missed the opportunity to "feather his nest."
A former Niehaus buddy said, "He simply became a pretty lousy friend," the type of friend that only contacts you to gloat about their things and lifestyle or to ask you for a loan.
At the time, Niehaus was working as the ANC's spokesperson, a position for which he was reportedly excellent. Investigative reporter Pearlie Joubert, who also remembers him as being "very kind and charming" at that time, was one person who was impressed by him.
Then, according to Joubert, "the tales about his borrowing money started arriving thick and fast."
She was the one who broke the shocking news in 2009 that Niehaus had defrauded the Gauteng provincial government while employed there and owed hundreds of thousands of rands to businesspeople and politicians. When Niehaus was confronted with her claims, she sobbed and admitted everything.
Joubert doesn't now feel very elated about her journalistic success. Even though I put a lot of effort into that narrative, she admits, "it did feel like kicking a man when he's down."
It was difficult to feel enthusiastic about it.
The unmentioned occurrence sheds some light on Niehaus' political philosophy as it developed in the post-apartheid period.
Together with Mary Burton, a former TRC commissioner, Niehaus co-authored a "Declaration of Commitment by White South Africans" in 1999. White people made a public confession of their past transgressions and vowed to make amends in both a spiritual and material sense (through the payment of some form of reparations).
Niehaus had anticipated a stampede of white South Africans signing the document. Unfortunately, the truth was very different.
According to a Time story from the era, rebel Afrikaner poet Breyten Breytenbach received the proclamation to sign. After reading the paper, Breytenbach, who had also served time in prison during apartheid, said he "went to the bathroom for a quiet, melancholy puke." I must have eaten something,
Niehaus is still irate at least 22 years later. He mentions it to me over the phone right away—not Breytenbach's attitude specifically, but the generally unenthusiastic response of South African whites.
Niehaus stated, "The reception to the advertising truly stunned me.
"We had virtually little support for it. Instead, we encountered hostility and widespread mockery. That really influenced how strongly I felt about the problem of white racism.
Niehaus claims that his increasing estrangement from the Afrikaner community and his own extended family is what has led him to gravitate toward the African National Congress.
He claims, "In many respects, I truly think of the ANC as my family," which bothers me a bit because all signs point to his ANC family may be preparing to dump him.
Or will Niehaus's standing within the party be maintained under the protection of former president Jacob Zuma?
When I inquire as to the reason for his steadfast dedication to JZ, he responds with a quick monologue about radical economic transformation and the assertion that their relationship is bound by their shared commitment to the struggle.
Niehaus said to me that the reason he is devoted to Zuma is because of the consideration Zuma gave to him when he was still a prisoner in Pretoria Central.
I was among the final political prisoners to be freed. To free me from prison was Zuma's personal goal. He made multiple visits to see me and got in touch with my parents. As a result of Msholozi's dedication to me, I do feel a deep feeling of loyalty.
Is that so? The unknown. Niehaus was a master of alternative facts before Donald Trump made them popular, and according to insiders, he is only loyal to Zuma because he depends on him for money.
Before his life was completely flipped upside down, Niehaus stated in an interview from 2008 that all he really wanted in life was "to be happy." I was curious about the progress of that specific endeavour.
Niehaus held still. Finally, he responded, "I am pretty delighted."
"I enjoy becoming older. I’m 61. Age, in my opinion, has given me some experience, wisdom, and the capacity to handle the blows life has dealt me. I have a pretty basic lifestyle. I enjoy my Rosebank flat, which I have. I mostly use Uber since I dislike driving and am a bad driver. I live in a rather modest but extremely cosy apartment. Some of the things I strived for and considered to be extremely significant when I was younger in terms of worldly possessions—things that caused me financial difficulties—are not important. They don't improve my life in any way. I'm content right now. DM