Governance Watch

SA intelligence community caught in political conundrum


As the absolute dominance of the South African political and governance environment by the ANC is coming to an end, the country’s intelligence community is caught in a political conundrum.

As we report in the Intelligence Report, there can be little doubt that South Africa has already entered a second political transition post-1994.

One should not make over-simplistic deductions from municipal by-elections. However, an analysis of eight such elections last week seems to point towards such a transition.

So does mounting evidence of how student protests, started under the #Fees must fall banner, are evolving into ever-widening issues.  

Last week also brought fresh evidence of fracturing in the ANC-led “governing alliance,” when a Young Communist League statement attacked its ANC counterpart and  a statement by the SACP in Mpumalanga also reflected factional infighting in that province.   

Intelligence community mandate

Given the collective mandate of branches of South African intelligence community to, among other things, help ensure the stability of the state, this state of affairs confronts them with some dilemmas.

How should they react to and advise government’s executive branch in the face of widespread perceptions that protests result from government policy, or the lack thereof?

It’s a challenge demanding discretion, sensitivity, skill, transparency and impartiality of the highest order to determine when the line of legitimate and proper protests is overstepped. When does criticism become a threat to the state and the well-being of the populace?

The challenges are immense when opposition political parties and civil society organisations push the envelope in reaction to government policies.

It becomes worse when factional battles within government and its party political foundations become part of the socio-political ‘battle ground’.

There remains the danger that the intelligence community might get sucked into these factional and wider political battles.

Danger signs

There is no independent confirmation of the South African intelligence community being involved in any domestic political ‘dirty tricks’.

However, in more recent years there were ample reasons for some suspicions and speculations.

In December 2013 there were reports of suspicions that the dramatic leaking of a purportedly provisional report of the Public Protector (PP) on the Nkandla affair, was a so-called ‘false flag’ operation by elements in the intelligence community.

In March this year the Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo, announced a State Security Agency (SSA) investigation into allegations that the Head of the Office of the PP and some opposition and trade union leaders are agents of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The investigation was triggered by unsubstantiated and most unlikely allegations on a blog, Africa Intelligence Leaks, suggesting that the PP, Advocate Thuli Madonsela, Economic Freedom Fighters’ leader, Julius Malema, former Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, and Joseph Mathunjwa, leader of the trade union AMCU, are CIA agents.

And, since then, there have been a number of suspicious events, including:

  • South African ‘spy cables’ leaked to the Al Jazeera website and The Guardian newspaper, claiming that the South African authorities have been spying on the organisation Greenpeace, and sharing information with foreign governments;
  • It was reported that security cluster ministers had launched ‘informal probes’ into five NGOs, including the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC), the organisation that approached the courts to prevent the government allowing Omar al-Bashir to leave; and
  • Campaign group Right2Know reported the existence of strong evidence that state security structures are monitoring the work of at least some activists and civic organisations.

The almost knee-jerk way in which government has reacted to recent student protests also created the impression that it either did not get timeous and balanced information/intelligence or if it did, ignored it.

Another possibility is that it received conflicting intelligence from different branches of the intelligence community or that internal factional and/or ideological divisions paralysed it.

Broader perspective

For a balanced perspective it should be noted that intelligence guidance to governments is not an exact discipline or science.

This is well-illustrated by Martin Plaut’s assessment in 2007 of three declassified CIA documents on South Africa. History proved all three to have been considerably off the mark.

He concludes:

  • On a 1989 review – “It would seem from this report that American intelligence network had failed to penetrate either the ANC or the National Party. Nor were their analysts capable of reading the runes. In this they were, of course, in good company, since very few analysts really understood what was going on. But the CIA, with its huge resources, might have been expected to do better”.
  • On a 1992 review – “…the only really interesting elements of this short document are the beliefs that ‘…a final constitution may still be years away…’ and an assessment that although the ANC’s alliance with the SACP would survive in the short term it might come under stress in the years ahead”;
  • On the eve of the 1994 elections – “In summary, the CIA believed South Africa was, for better or worse, on its own. In this, at least, they were correct”; and
  • Overall judgement – “All one can say is that it might have been expected that they would have been better informed than they were in practice. Perhaps we overestimate the abilities of governments and their intelligence services to know what is taking place.”

It is also important to note that, globally, intelligence agency branches, however organised, (home security, international intelligence, military intelligence, crime intelligence, ect.) are notorious for keen inter-agency competition for influence in government circles and that each jealously protects its turf.

Three years after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, a congressional national commission reported: “The intelligence community struggled throughout the 1990s and up to 9/11 to collect intelligence on and analyze (sic) the phenomenon of transnational terrorism. The combination of an overwhelming number of priorities, flat budgets, an outmoded structure, and bureaucratic rivalries resulted in an insufficient response to this new challenge.” (Our emphasis.)

However, in a deeply divided society like South Africa, especially in view of the present fracturing in the political and ideological environment, there might be value in having competing intelligence branches.  

It could give government the advantage of a variety of perspectives. The challenge is to integrate the differing views into comprehensive responses to potential threats and opportunities.

History repeated

During the early 1980s the Botha administration, under the Total Onslaught doctrine, attempted to address this need by creating the National Intelligence Service (NIS).

Improvements in the quality of intelligence input to government did result, helping to path the way for negotiations/talks towards the late 1980s. However, intelligence operatives from the time say it did very little to reduce inter-agency rivalries.

Although the content differs, the Zuma administration displayed the same thought pattern – this time under the doctrine “the party comes first as only instrument for transformation” – in early 2009. 

When announcing his cabinet in May 2009, President Jacob Zuma tasked the Ministers of State Security, Police, Defence, Home Affairs, Justice and Correctional Services to review the structures of the civilian intelligence community with the aim of developing a more effective and efficient intelligence architecture.

According to the website of the SSA, it was created “as part of this review process.  The SSA is being developed through a phased approach with the ultimate aim of improving efficiency and effectiveness.”      

And, according to the site, the final organisational structure will see some six existing structures collapsed into the SSA, as branches.

At this point there is nothing to suggest that this approach will deliver better results for Zuma than it did for Botha.

by Piet Coetzer

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