Mondli Makhanya: When spooks fall apart

WHISPERS Then state security minister David Mahlobo in conversation with then president Jacob Zuma at the final session of the ANC’s National Policy Conference, which was held at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg in December 2017. Picture: Ihsaan Haffejee
WHISPERS Then state security minister David Mahlobo in conversation with then president Jacob Zuma at the final session of the ANC’s National Policy Conference, which was held at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg in December 2017. Picture: Ihsaan Haffejee

The ANC must act on the security panel’s recommendations and return to being a political party, not a spy agency, writes Mondli Makhanya

In Zimbabwe, there has been for the past few decades this belief that in every bar and eatery there lurk members of the Central Intelligence Organisation.

That they are to be found in shebeens, at weddings and at ritual slaughters.

Locals believe that when you board a bus or a taxi, the person seated next to you could be a spy.

These spies apparently loaf aimlessly at hotel foyers and banking queues, waiting to eavesdrop on the conversations of citizens.

Whether exaggerated or not, this sense of the ubiquitous presence of the intelligence services had the desired effect.

It had a chilling effect on Zimbabweans, who increasingly feared having open conversations about the state of the country and the conduct of their leaders.

This culture of terror, which was also accompanied by physical harassment and the torture of activists, has been blamed for Zimbabweans’ timidity when it came to taking on the regime of Robert Mugabe.

This is the way autocratic governments operate. The government of the German Democratic Republic was the most effective at this, and even went as far as recruiting spouses to spy on each other and children to spy on their parents.

South Africa’s apartheid government – which purported to hate communism – borrowed from this model and planted secret informers in communities, organisations and even recreational clubs.

It was a system based on betrayal that turned friends and loyal comrades into Judases.

In 1994, the ugly edifice of the apartheid regime was demolished and the innards were also recalibrated to match the human face of the democratic republic.

At least, that is what most of us believed.

Judging by the report of the high-level review panel that interrogated the workings of the State Security Agency (SSA), South Africa was being dragged right back there over the past decade or so.

The 10-member multidisciplinary panel – headed by top academic, former minister and struggle veteran Sydney Mufamadi – was appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa last year.

Its task was to probe the functioning of the SSA and recommend ways to transform the intelligence capability into one “that will respect and uphold the Constitution and the relevant legislative prescripts”.

Without going into all the detail that has been widely canvassed this week, one of the most damning findings was that the intelligence community became so heavily politicised in the past 10 to 13 years (the period spanning the rise and reign of former president Jacob Zuma) that “it has become extensively embroiled in the politics and factionalism of the ruling party”.

The report tells us that the SSA, particularly its Special Operations (SO) unit, went into areas of South African life that were way beyond its mandate.

From running personal protection for individuals such as Dudu Myeni and ANC Youth League president Collen Maine to setting up a bogus union to infiltrate the #FeesMustFall movement with the intent of politically hijacking it, the SSA was a law unto itself.

This unit also infiltrated civil society organisations and played an active role in undermining Ramaphosa’s campaign to become president of the ANC.

“It is clear ... that the SO unit had become a parallel intelligence structure serving a faction of the ruling party and, in particular, the personal political interests of the sitting president of the party and the country,” states the panel’s report.

This, it notes, was in violation of the Constitution, legislation and good governance.

A hugely critical observation of the panel about what went wrong was that the amalgamation of the domestic National Intelligence Agency and the foreign SA Secret Service into one SSA was also guided by “a doctrinal shift” in the interpretation and execution of its mandate.

This doctrinal shift, says the report, “was most publicly reflected in the change of name from ‘national intelligence’ to ‘state security’”.

This was then followed by the creation of covert structures and operations to effect this so-called state security.

The panel made wide-ranging recommendations which will go a long way towards curbing the rogue tendencies of the intelligence services, including improved oversight, more transparency, better training and curbing political control.

But, as with many broken and rotten areas of our society, an effective cure can only come with the curtailment of the ANC’s influence in the institution.

The reason the SABC is unable to emerge from its many crises and state-owned entities are difficult to repair, is that there are too many interests linked to ANC interests – political and commercial – in the picture.

In the case of the spooks, the panel found that the politicisation is “partly aggravated by the fact that many of the leadership and management of the intelligence services have come from an ANC and liberation struggle background and have, seemingly, in some cases, not been able to separate their professional responsibilities from their political inclinations”.

The fact is that 25 years after the establishment of South Africa’s democracy, ANC members still speak of the existence of the department of intelligence and security (DIS).

It appears the DIS may have continued to exist in an informal form after 1994 and operated as a security arm rather than an intelligence-gathering arm.

But, it appears, it is known to do factional intelligence work within the ANC.

Many within the upper ranks of the country’s intelligence service identify with the DIS – defunct or not – and see their work as an extension of the role they played in the struggle underground.

Those close to ANC security boast that they control “the farm”, the nickname for the sprawling SSA headquarters in Tshwane.

How easy, then, for an ANC president who is obsessed with security and cares more about preserving an endangered political life to abuse the security services, particularly intelligence services, for his own ends.

With the connivance of Siyabonga Cwele and David Mahlobo as his successive intelligence ministers, Zuma made the farm his playground.

And, with the defence force highly professionalised, despite many of its leaders coming from the same Umkhonto weSizwe background as the spy bosses and the police service deliberately weakened by him, the SSA was to be his private army.

By the time Zuma became embattled, the two ministers and those they had placed at the leadership helm of the SSA had ensured that it was largely working for the man from Nkandla in his personal capacity rather than for the republic.

In the wake of the shocking report, there will be an implementation plan to push through the recommendations.

While those who are tasked with implementation are at it, the ANC will be preparing for a National General Council (NGC) where some of the pre-2017 battles will play out.

The hand of the “defunct” DIS and its foot soldiers at the farm will be felt in this replay of the Nasrec conference.

After the NGC, the road to the 2022 conference will begin. And it is no hard guess what one of the most powerful weapons will be.

In setting out to do its work, the panel gave itself the task of answering the question: What went wrong?

It has answered this question and told the government how to fix things. The leadership of the ANC now also needs to ask itself the same question and come up with an honest answer.

And then have the courage to extricate itself from this sector and just be a political party.


What do you think should be done to restore the credibility of our intelligence services? Should the organisation’s name be changed to reflect its mandate?

SMS us on 35697 using the keyword INTEL and tell us what you think. Please include your name and province. SMSes cost R1.50. By participating, you agree to receive occasional marketing material

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