Newsmaker: The man who fears hard hats

2015-02-22 16:00

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State Security Minister David Mahlobo has spent the past eight months hovering below the radar, but he’s out in the open now.

As the minister in charge of the country’s primary intelligence service, the cloak and dagger nature of the business normally shields Mahlobo from the rigorous public accounting demanded of his fellow ministers.

That was true until last week Thursday evening, when Mahlobo’s spooks decided to illegally interrupt the flow of information in the National Assembly and scramble the cellphone signal.

Since then, the former Mpumalanga head of cooperative governance and traditional affairs has found himself having to publicly account for his role in the matter and why his operatives jammed the signal.

On Friday, Mahlobo (43), told City Press from his ministerial residence in Cape Town that he still believed there was nothing excessive about the security arrangements for the state of the nation address on February 12.

There was a clear threat from the Economic Freedom Fighters to disrupt President Jacob Zuma’s speech, and security had to be extra tight.

“You plan around these things. You had a situation where some opposition members made it clear they were going to disrupt [proceedings]. They don’t tell you the methodology they are going to [use], and you must plan for the extreme,” he said.

But what is so dangerous about asking the president a question? How does that put him or other MPs at risk?

“Personally and from a security point of view, just to bring a helmet inside the house?…?a helmet is an instrument; a very hard instrument. It can be used to harm people.

“During the course of that particular fracas where people were being removed, I could see from where I was sitting?...?I could see them using this instrument?… that thing is dangerous. If you have a firm grip, you can hit a person.” Mahlobo wants hard hats to be banned from the House entirely.

He insists that, as a member of the executive, he does not get involved in operational matters and was not briefed on the kind of countersurveillance equipment his operatives would use that night.

The jamming of the signal was regrettable, he said, but the use of such equipment was necessary at state events, given the external and internal threats posed.

“People want us to get into real operational details from a security point of view. We don’t do those explanations. A no-fly zone means you secure everything – there should be no objects that can be controlled by any mechanism.

“You can’t disclose, from a security point of view, how many gadgets you use.”

Mahlobo is obviously embarrassed that the attempt by his spooks to jam the signal and block communication was exposed by journalists, who shouted “bring back the signal” in the House.

“If you have one of our devices actually being seen, that’s the subject of an investigation. There are other gadgets in the precinct, including in the House, but because certain operatives know how to do their job, you will never know where they are,” he said.

Who authorised the use of the jamming device?

“There was not authorisation to say ‘jam people’. There was authorisation to say ‘secure this particular space; deploy your devices to do that particular thing’.”

Politicians, he added, were not the ones who issued the instructions.

“As the executive, we don’t get involved in operations. The insinuation other parties want to make that politicians gave instructions – they are undermining our own people. Those guys are professionals.

“To say there was an authorisation [from politicians] to jam people?...?it’s a big no. There was no authorisation to jam people.”

Mahlobo vehemently denies he played a role in the return of the signal. He admits to receiving a note from Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa that night – but won’t disclose its contents and denies Ramaphosa, echoing the cries from journalists, instructed him to bring back the signal.

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