||Last Updated: Aug 9, 2012 - 1:52:55 PM
South African intelligence agencies are making the news, but for all the wrong reasons. What lies behind factional divisions in the secret service and where might they lead?
Zuma’s security matrix Wars, intrigue and personality clashes define the close-knit security network around the President
Barely a day goes by in South Africa without a new headline broadcasting the latest twist in the politicised faction fighting within the country's not-so-secret services. One Friday it might be recently fired crime intelligence chief Richard Mdluli winning a court decision to have his sacking reversed. By Sunday, police management have won another case not to reinstate him. The next day, civic organisations win a court interdiction to prevent Mdluli returning to his job.
The infighting in the country's police and intelligence elite looks like a bizarre TV soap opera, but behind it forces are at work affecting not only South Africa but how it relates to Africa and the world. Political factionalism in the intelligence services is officially banned. Addressing an Intelligence Service Day Commemoration in April, President Jacob Zuma said: "The security services are barred from undertaking any work that may prejudice a legitimate political party, or which promotes in a partisan manner any interest of a political party."
"During the apartheid era, it was the military who were involved in politics through the State Security Council," says Laurie Nathan, a former parliamentary adviser on security and defence. "But during our new democracy it has been the intelligence services. They are involved in factional fighting within the ruling alliance."
According to security analyst David Africa, "If the intelligence agencies are unstable, then it opens a gap for those agencies to direct us in a particular way – it's easy to make an intervention."
The Cold War securocrat environment in which many former ANC intelligence operatives learned their craft has, it seems, made a significant impact on the institutional culture of these agencies. Spies have become increasingly accountable to their party-political networks, in the intelligence services' version of the ANC policy of "cadre deployment".
Covert political meddling kicked in during Thabo Mbeki's presidency. In 2001, an investigation by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) forced prominent businessman and ANC executive member Cyril Ramaphosa to publicly deny being part of a "US-engineered plot" to depose and replace Mbeki. The allegations appear to have been conjured up out of little or nothing by the NIA, most likely at Mbeki's bidding, but they put a significant dent in any hopes Ramaphosa might have had to challenge Mbeki for the presidency at the ANC's subsequent national congress.
It did not stop there, according to Nathan. "In 2007, Mbeki's cabinet mandated the NIA to investigate whether the party's succession battle constituted a threat to stability. What the hell? You have the cabinet asking domestic intelligence services to watch legitimate lawful politics – you open the door."
But if Mbeki could play that game, so could his challengers. Then-deputy president Jacob Zuma, who had been an intelligence operative during the apartheid era for the armed wing of the ANC, received a major boost from his former comrades (many of whom were then in the NIA) during his bid to wrest the presidency from Mbeki.
In April 2009, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) dropped corruption charges against Zuma following the leak of intercepted phone calls showing that Leonard McCarthy, the head of the Scorpions investigative unit, had conspired with the former national director of public prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, over the timing of the charges to be laid against Zuma, apparently to benefit Mbeki.
Amid the subsequent furore about whether Mbeki had sanctioned the conspiracy, the fact that it was most likely the NIA that intercepted and then illegally leaked the calls was glossed over.
State security minister Siyabonga Cwele told the National Assembly in May that while South Africa had "no discernable major threats" to its constitutional democracy, vague threats lurked everywhere. "Some of the threats we face derive from factors such as the global economic downturn, violent protest actions, and illegal migration. Others may arise from lack of protective security implementation in government, cybercrime, espionage and subversion, corruption and the illicit economy."
It is these vague threats that have animated the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill (GILAB), currently before the National Assembly. This is problematic, argues Nathan: "The legislation should be amended so that the mandate covers unlawful threats only, not lawful ones." When Mdluli reported to Zuma last November that cabinet minister Tokyo Sexwale was involved in a plot to oust him, the president was, in Nathan's view, carrying on where Mbeki left off during the succession battle of 2007.
South Africa's divided intelligence and police services are a godsend to other countries' spy networks, who can use the divisions to their own advantage. This reduces international confidence in South Africa's intelligence and police services, making it harder for them to do their real job of combatting crime syndicates and terrorist threats.
Cwele dramatically ousted his three most senior officials last year: Director General Jeff Maqetuka, NIA chief Gibson Njenje and Mo Shaik, a former comrade of Zuma's who ran the secret service. The intelligence ministry currently has only an acting director general, Dennis Dlomo, a key architect of the highly controversial Protection of State Information Bill, which seeks to convict whistleblowers for publishing sensitive information.
Hennie Van Vuuren, director of the Institute for Security Studies in Cape Town, is equally concerned about GILAB. "It will centralise intelligence. There will be a unified structure, but ... in our experience under apartheid of centralised intelligence structures, we saw under P. W. Botha that when you control this beast, you have a very powerful weapon."
Calling a halt to the politicisation of the police and intelligence services will not be easy, says Nathan, and it has to come from the top. The signs so far are not promising. Expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema today jokes openly that his phone is bugged and that he greets Cwele whenever he answers it.
The question is: would a potential challenger to Zuma behave any differently once installed in the Union Buildings?
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