ANC man bids to be spy watchdog

2015-02-22 12:30

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Cecil Burgess, the senior ANC MP who championed the controversial Protection of State Information Bill in Parliament, could soon be entrusted with the crucial job of protecting South Africans from abuse by the country’s spies.

Although the process is at an early stage, City Press understands that Burgess, the former chairperson of the joint standing committee on intelligence, has thrown his hat into the ring for the job of inspector general of intelligence (IGI).

Two independent sources with knowledge of the 50-odd applications given to the joint standing committee confirmed that Burgess’ application was among them.

When contacted, Burgess refused to comment, confirm or deny his application, asking instead who had given the information to City Press.

“No information from that committee is supposed to leak out, and you want me to comment on something that shouldn’t have come to you,” said Burgess.

The office of the IGI is one of the few institutions with the power to rein in and investigate illegal espionage and abuses of power by South Africa’s intelligence networks, which operate in secrecy.

The past two weeks have seen renewed concerns about the activities of the domestic branch of the State Security Agency after a cellphone jamming device was installed in Parliament before President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address.

State Security Minister David Mahlobo said the jamming was connected with the no-fly zone established above Parliament and an operative had failed to deactivate the device.

It is precisely this kind of activity that the IGI is empowered to investigate. The term of the current IGI, Faith Radebe, has come to an end and the joint standing committee on intelligence advertised for new candidates late last year.

Although attempts to reach Connie September, the current chair of the committee, were unsuccessful, the committee announced it had received applications for the post and said it would soon meet to consider what parts of the appointment process would be open to the public.

Given his political past, Burgess’ candidacy may raise eyebrows.

As chair of the ad hoc committee on the controversial secrecy bill, Burgess was one of its staunchest defenders.

Burgess was also appointed to the ad hoc committee on Nkandla, which in effect dissolved itself ahead of last year’s elections. However, when Zuma was re-elected last year, Burgess was not returned to Parliament.

Ronnie Kasrils, the intelligence minister in former president Thabo Mbeki’s Cabinet, told City Press it was important that the IGI be a person who “is capable of approaching his or her job in a nonpolitical, nonpartisan way”.

“It’s very important that the person chosen is a person of integrity without any political affinities, irrespective of what those might have been in the past.”

David Maynier, the DA’s deputy spokesperson on intelligence, said it would be “difficult for Burgess to convince the committee that he will be able to serve impartially and independently”.

“It would be like appointing a vampire to guard a blood bank,” he said.

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