For at least a decade, probably more, the beleaguered State Security Agency (SSA) has been like a ship lost at sea, thrown ruthlessly around by torrential looting and gigantic political waves. But all is not lost for SA's spooks.There are signs, faint, and only visible if one peers long and hard enough into the fog, but signs nonetheless, that the SSA is starting to sail upright.Impeccable sources say that there is a concerted effort at The Farm, as the SSA's headquarters is informally known, to change the SSA from a looter's playground and politician's plaything, to a functional organisation.The State Security Agency headquarters in Pretoria. (City Press) But it has not been smooth sailing, and probably won't be for a while. There have been attempts to use agency resources to dig up dirt on those perceived to be loyal to President Cyril Ramaphosa to embarrass the president and his allies.There are also unconfirmed rumours that highly political people at the SSA are meeting former president Jacob Zuma's allies, raising fears that Zuma's loyalists at the agency are plotting to recapture the agency.But those in the know say this effort is peripheral and that the mood at The Farm, for the most part, is, "people want to work""The Vault is now closed," a source claimed, referring to the SSA's accounts which have allegedly been looted to the tune of hundreds of millions of rand.ScandalsA number of scandals have befallen the agency recently. The scathing High-Level Review Panel report, released in May, found that the SSA was captured by political interests. Ramaphosa appointed the panel in mid-2018 to investigate the SSA.In October, News24 reported that State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo allegedly ordered the unlawful interception of the communications of someone linked to the xenophobic violence. (Officials refused to carry out the order)News24 also reported that former head of the SSA's Special Operations Unit, Thulani Dlomo, had been AWOL from work since January, although he claims he was legitimately on sick leave. The SSA eventually dismissed Dlomo, but not after weeks of frantically trying to find him - somewhat embarrassingly for a spy agency. ProgressBut a number of key individuals considered partial to the so-called state capture project have been suspended or dismissed. There are also a number of ongoing criminal investigations into suspicions of looting within the SSA – corruption bigger than anyone realised before, insiders say. Another development which signalled to many observers that the Ramaphosa administration was serious about cleaning up the SSA was the appointment of advocate Mahlodi Muofhe as the head of the SSA's domestic branch. Muofhe had been an advisor to former minister Dipuo Letsatsi-Duba and had an extensive track record in government, including a stint as the chief governance officer at the Special Investigating Unit.The appointment of Loyiso Jafta as acting director general at the SSA in April last year, following the removal of controversial director general Arthur Fraser, was also seen as an effort to stabilise and depoliticise the agency.Mahlodi Muofhe is the chief governance officer of the SIU. (City Press, file) There are persistent rumours that Dlodlo is at odds with her intelligence chiefs, although she has denied this and pledged her own commitment to the cleanup at the SSA. She told Parliament in July that an ethics and integrity unit was being established at the SSA, and that an independent labour expert was being brought in to deal with all the ongoing disciplinary matters at the agency.Critical to the cleanup of the agency is the implementation of the recommendations of the High-Level Review Panel, headed by former intelligence minister Syndey Mufamadi.The panel's key findings were the "serious politicisation and factionalisation of the intelligence community". The panel found that this had happened "over the past decade or more, based on factions in the ruling party, resulting in "an almost complete disregard for the Constitution, policy, and other prescripts".The intelligence services, the panel found, became "a private resource to serve the political and personal interests of particular individuals".Mufamadi's panel made a number of recommendations, including that the SSA should revert to its former structure: separate domestic and foreign intelligence agencies. It also recommended criminal investigations.News24 has learnt that one of the panellists, with vast experience in the intelligence world, was effectively given a desk at the SSA as soon as the report was released to oversee and drive the implementation of the recommendations.Plans are well under way to split the SSA into separate foreign and domestic agencies, although there is pushback against this from some elements in the organisation.Multi-disciplinary task teams, comprising Hawks detectives, prosecutors from the National Prosecuting Authority and the SSA, are actively working on corruption allegations against people in the agency.These probes are reaching their "apex", according to a source who has intimate knowledge of developments.Developments These developments have added impetus to the "clean-up" operation:- The seconding of undercover agents to serve as VIP protection for people considered aligned to the factions of the ANC has stopped. (The Mufamadi panel found that this was a widespread practice, for everyone to heads of state-owned enterprises to former heads of the ANCYL.) - Previously regular phone calls from ANC headquarters, Luthuli House, to the SSA giving instructions to SSA agents, have stopped.- A high court judgment in September ruled that several parts of the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication Related Information Act (RICA) are unconstitutional. In particular, it ruled that the SSA can no longer undertake bulk interception and that the interception of communications between individuals cannot remain secret forever.- ANC MP Bongani Bongo was arrested last week in connection with allegations that he tried to derail a parliamentary inquiry into Eskom by offering a bribe to a member of the inquiry. Bongo was the state security minister at the time.- Following months of delays, Parliament's newly constituted Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence has finally begun its work. It has undertaken an inspection at The Farm and has met with officials.There have also been several suspensions and dismissals at the agency as part of a general shake-up in the organisation, although this is not to say that all of these people are implicated in corruption:- Two CFOs have been suspended on suspicion of corruption - SSA director general Arthur Fraser was removed in 2018 and moved to the Department of Correctional Services. Fraser was considered central to the politicisation of the SSA and had revoked the security clearance of the Inspector General of Intelligence at the time. (Fraser called the Mufamadi report "treasonous".)- Former ministerial advisor Bob Mhlanga was removed for allegedly earning a salary from the Department of International Relations while in the employ of the SSA. (Mhlanga's contract lapsed and was not renewed, the SSA told News24 this week.)- Former ministerial advisor Gibson Njenje was removed from his post after allegations of irregularities related to a trip to Paris surfaced- Former head of the SSA's Special Operations Unit, Thulani Dlomo was fired for allegedly being AWOL since he returned to the agency in January this year- Two staff members close to Fraser, alleged to have been involved in corruption, have been removed.Arthur Fraser. (Jaco Marais, News24) Time is tickingThere are two possibilities underpinning these developments. Either those who want the "clean-up" operation to succeed have vastly underestimated the strength of the "fight back" campaign, and are naive.Or, the "fight back" campaign really is receding, and the SSA could very well be on the way to being reformed.The challenge, insiders say, is untangling the networks – the "armies" of sources, spooks, agents and informants brought in by rogue elements to beef up their political intelligence-gathering operations. This will not be easy, and many of these people can argue that they were merely following instructions. It is also proving difficult to link high-profile individuals responsible for the looting at the SSA to the raiding of "The Vault" in criminal investigations.Time is ticking, and for those who want to see the SSA cleaned up, there isn't a moment to lose. A moment like this may not come again for a long time.