Mondli Makhanya

Mondli Makhanya: Spooks failed the nation

2018-02-25 06:05

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The unfolding and enthralling story about investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 US elections has shown some stark differences in how the Americans and South Africans reacted to attacks on their sovereignty.

In the US, security agencies acted without fear or favour in defence of their country. When they learnt of the alleged interference, they acted quickly to establish the veracity of the claims and see whether they warranted the deployment of resources. To them it mattered not who the Russian cyber incursion was favouring. What mattered was that the nation was protected.

Even when Donald Trump, the beneficiary of the interference, assumed office, they did not flinch. They resisted attempts by the new president to stifle or suppress the investigation. This resistance resulted in some senior figures in the security establishment becoming casualties of a president who behaved more like a Fijian village chief than the head of a democratic state. The standoff has seen Trump stop just short of declaring the security agencies his personal enemies. This week, he went as far as blaming the Florida school massacre on the FBI’s focus on the Russian investigation.

Now swim across the Atlantic and go to the Republic of South Africa, a country that has faced a concerted and systematic onslaught on its sovereignty. In that country you will find a security establishment that spent a decade trying its best not to see the crime that was being committed against the South African state and the people of the country.

The two cases may look dissimilar in that the US was under attack from a foreign power and South Africa from a corrupt mafia, but the effect was the same: the subversion of the will of the people. In the US, the Russians wanted to place a pliable individual in the White House. In South Africa, the constellation of forces around the Guptas wanted to control the state and suck the fiscus dry. Yet our intelligence community failed to see this as a security threat. No, not failed. They decided not to see the threat.

Over the past eight years or so the Gupta empire rapidly gained control of Eskom, arguably the country’s most strategic utility. In their heyday they owned the minister responsible for the utility, most of the board, the chief executive officer and most of the corporation’s key executives. They – and not the South African government – oversaw the entity and were in charge of our energy security.

This alternative government took control of state arms manufacturer Denel. Denel is not just another manufacturer. It is the custodian of some of the country’s most unique technology. Some of the intellectual property that resides in the company is second to none and has always attracted the attention of international competitors and foreign powers. Yet, just like Eskom, it fell into the hands of people who owed allegiance to the Gupta dons rather than the state to which they formally reported. Schemes were devised to set up offshore entities linked to Denel, a very clear ploy to create a foreign base from which to export and exploit the company’s intellectual property. If ever there was a clear case of attempted espionage, this was it.

At some point, the Guptas got their hands on Transnet, the country’s logistics giant and backbone of its rail transport network. With the connivance of some mercenaries they had planted there, they siphoned billions through clever schemes. They attempted the same at the Passenger Rail Agency of SA, which transports millions of South Africans daily. Other parastatals fell into the grip of this family, during what was a determined effort to totally control the state.

The brazen act by which the Guptas will forever be remembered – one that should have had the intelligence services get off their behinds – was the landing of their wedding guests at Air Force Base Waterkloof. That incident, which was characterised by all and sundry as a violation of South Africa’s sovereignty, showed just how much in charge of the country they were. It was brushed off as just one of those things and the country moved on.

A frightening element of the Guptas’ control was how they sowed distrust among Cabinet ministers, who were not sure who of their colleagues was serving the republic and who was serving the family. So adept were they at appointing ministers who would serve them rather than honour the oath they took.

One cannot blame the Guptas for taking advantage of greedy politicians, officials and executives. The brothers were at the helm of a criminal enterprise and wanted to extract maximum value for themselves. If that meant owning the country, then so be it. They found willing enablers and proceeded with their ambitious project. They were on their way to achieving total success were it not for the vigilance of the South African people and their jealous defence of their democracy.

Throughout this time the State Security Agency was turning a blind eye, obviously treating state capture as a myth. The agency says its mission is to “provide critical and unique intelligence on threats and opportunities for the government to advance South Africa’s national security interests in a changing global environment”. It has failed the nation dismally. Willingly.

In their defence though, when one rows back to 2011, South Africa’s top three intelligence chiefs – aware of the impending threat – tried to launch a probe into the Guptas’ then nascent influence over the state. They were on the streets before they could finish saying the name Atul. They, and not the Guptas, were the enemy.

How differently things could have turned out.

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