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Jacob Zuma

A president’s poison paranoia

Jacob Zuma and his wife Nompumelelo Ntuli with the Obamas in 2009. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The fear of poison has terrified Jacob Zuma for decades, says Andrew Harding in Poison, a five-part, 70-minute podcast on BBC Sounds. Earlier this year the former South African president said “People… poisoned me”, just before he walked out on an inquiry implicating him in state corruption.

Back in the 1970s, during the apartheid era, he worried that the authorities might try to bump him off by lacing his underpants with powerful pesticides. The government had form, having tried to dream up a cancer-causing poison for Nelson Mandela before his release from prison in 1990. When Zuma became president in 2009, his fears continued. In 2014 he accused one of his four wives, Nompumelelo Ntuli, of lacing his tea with poison in cahoots with foreign agents. Prosecutors later ruled that there was no evidence to support the allegation.

That year he fled to Moscow for mysterious “life-saving” anti-poison treatments courtesy of his “friend” Vladimir Putin. No details were disclosed, but two weeks later Zuma signed a deal with Russia for nuclear power plants – later overturned – that “would have bankrupted the country”. As the corruption allegations piled up, he feared poisoning ever more – by the CIA, by MI6, even by his ANC comrades. He paid a Russia-trained toxicology unit more than £85,000 a month to test everything he drank and ate. The worst thing they found was an out-of-date fizzy drink. Last month Zuma was released from prison on medical parole – precisely what ails him “remains a mystery”.

Listen to the podcast here.