Security Watch

South Africa’s ‘spooks’ are failing the country

State Security Minister, David Mahlobo

The hard-nosed response by South Africa’s security community, including the intelligence service, to student protest shows that old habits die hard.

Many a word has been spoken and views aired on the initial failure of the Zuma government to respond with compassion and empathy to students’ demands regarding high university fees.

ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, soon joined by Blade Nzimande, the Minister of Higher Education, tried to exonerate and distance the ANC and the SACP from grievances voiced by the protesting students, with some highly controversial arguments. 

They appeared oblivious to the fact that the ANC and SACP are as an alliance in government and cannot distance itself from any consequences of government policy or the lack thereof.


Without blinking an eye, Gwede Mantashe attempted to hijack the protest action by calling on ANC members to join the students in their protest – claiming that the ANC-led government was not to blame for the students’ problems. He accused universities of unilaterally increasing study fees.

As one commentator put it: “This is a classic ANC political tactic of attempting to hijack a popular movement not started by the ANC, even though its own policies have led to a given outcome.”

Minister Nzimande joined in by attributing the fees situation to the ANC being a “victim of its own success” in having brought more young people to higher education than the system could deal with.

Not once did they or any other ANC apologists considered the fact that the ANC-led government have for the last couple of years neglected to subsidise the country’s tertiary institutions properly, despite calls for intervention.

But, after experiencing and witnessing the gravity of the situation and the wrath of the students, government and the ANC radically changed their tune. They expressed “understanding” and “support” for the students’ demands. President Zuma even congratulated the students on their “courage”!

Old tricks

In the meantime, while the student protests dominated public attention, media reports that the Right2Know (R2K) movement has been accused by the State Security Agency (SSA) of spying for a foreign government, slipped by mostly unnoticed.

The timing of SSA’s claim was so conspicuous that no-one could be faulted for concluding it was a deliberate attempt to divert attention. It has become an almost standard strategy of the Zuma government when in trouble.

And it has become custom to brand the USA and the CIA as the culprit – the “Great Satan” to borrow from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.

Obvious candidate

R2K was an obvious candidate, since it has become a thorn in the flesh of the Zuma government by opposing the proposed legislation aimed at gagging the press. It also constantly campaigns to promote the constitutionally protected rights to freedom of expression and access to information.

In response R2K declared: “While we dismiss these claims as laughable we are deeply concerned that this reflects the growing unfounded paranoia amongst the country’s security agencies. R2K is further outraged by statements by the Minister of State Security which called legitimate ongoing student protests, a possible threat to national security in the upcoming local government elections in 2016.”

Future suspects    

If this trend continues, there are many future possible targets.

Still fresh in memory is the mysterious website Africa Intelligence Leaks, which suggested that the Public Protector Adv. Thuli Madonsela, Economic Freedom Fighters leader, Julius Malema, former Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko and Joseph Mathunjwa, leader of the more militant trade union AMCU, were CIA agents.

Hard on the heels of these absurd allegations the Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo, announced a SASS investigation, the findings of which are still outstanding. This is not unexpected, considering the preposterous nature of the allegations.

It is highly unlikely that any findings, if there are indeed any, will ever be revealed to the South African public, under the pretext of “national security”.

Without exonerating those falsely accused, the public’s distrust might linger, exactly what was intended when the allegations were made.  

Tarnished image

Meanwhile South Africa’s security establishment emerged from the student protests with a tarnished image.

The question should be asked: If those responsible for the safety and well-being of the state were doing their work, why was government so clearly caught off-guard by the seriousness and intensity of the anger as demonstrated by the students?

If they were in the know, was the information passed up the line of command to inform senior management and government?

If they did, government failed in its duty to attend to the matter with the circumspection and urgency it required, without the Minister of Higher Education arrogantly dismissing the students’ actions as representing “no crisis”. And joking about a “students must fall” campaign. 

Analysts and commentators often allude to the fact that the primary responsibly of an intelligence service is to inform and advise government of potential security and socio-economic threats.

In South Africa, the country’s intelligence service, the SSA, and intelligence units of the police and the military, have neglected their core function. They have gained the unflattering reputation that they have abandoned their primary and constitutional responsibility and become a rather prominent and in some instances notorious participant in the increasingly volatile political factionalism within the ruling ANC alliance.

Under the Zuma presidency the intelligence community has stumbled from one blunder to the next. How is it possible to forget the exposé of the so-called ‘spy cables’ leaked to the Al Jazeera website and the Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom, and the farce of a signal-jamming device installed in parliament during President Zuma’s State of the Nation address?

With such a dismal record, it is reasonable to expect that South Africa’s intelligence community would, as is the norm universally, back down and regroup to do their work discreetly and unobtrusively, avoiding the limelight and news headlines.   

But it appears such expectations are too high.

During the student protests State Security Minister David Mahlobo featured prominently whenever he could: at parliament, the Union Buildings and even the governing party’s headquarters at Luthuli House.

In a feeble effort to show force and authority, he and the Minister of Police accompanied the beleaguered Minister Nzimande during his woeful attempt to address the protesting students on the steps of parliament.

Realising that their presence had no effect and could rather incite the students further, the security ministers quietly called off what one commentator described as their “Laurel-and-Hardy show”.

In a repeat performance a few days later at the Union Buildings, Mahlobo launched another futile attempt to pacify protesting students and “assess the security situation”. This time he was greeted by a hail of stones and had to retreat hastily.

When people start disrespecting the authority of the state, something is seriously wrong. What has been happening in South Africa, with escalating protests across the country, and now with the students, should carry a very important message to the government.

The country’s citizens are losing faith in the government. And responding with a closed hand – a fist – will be counterproductive.

by Garth Cilliers

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