Security Watch

Zuma’s dark shadow over new spy boss

Arthur Fraser

The appointment of Arthur Fraser as the new head of the South African State Security Agency (SSA), at a time when President Jacob Zuma is under increasing pressure, has been met with a healthy dose of scepticism.

In February 2010 the Mail & Guardian reported in an article “Zuma’s new spy purge” that “President Jacob Zuma’s purge of the security services has claimed its most strategic victim: Arthur Fraser, head of the powerful operations division of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), has left”.

The State Security Ministry told the Mail & Guardian at the time, Fraser “resigned out of his own free will to pursue personal endeavours”.

No details were given, but now it would seem quite possible that if Fraser, as was later alleged, had a hand in the leaking of so-called ‘spy tapes’ to Zuma’s legal team, that the 2010 move was a strategic one to get him out of the public eye until the dust has settled.

At stake at the time were pending corruption charges against Mr Zuma while he was aiming to replace Mr Thabo Mbeki as leader of the ANC and as president of the country. The revelation of the ‘spy tapes’ supplied the grounds to have the charges against him withdrawn.

Fraser’s ‘redeployment’ as head of the State Security Agency (SSA) suggests –  the theory among intelligence experts goes – that it was felt enough time has elapsed and, with the corruption charges back on the public agenda, his return was necessary. In short, it is a well calculated move in the battle to save the president’s skin – for a second time.

Spy tapes

In 2007, when still head of the operations division at NIA, Fraser was appointed by President Mbeki and the National Security Council to lead an investigation into the production and leaking of the Special Browse Mole report, which caused a lot of consternation.

The report, authored by the Scorpions, forerunners to the Hawks, turned out to be a hoax. It included wild and potentially extremely harmful ‘intelligence’, and seriously embarrassed the Scorpions and the South African government domestically and in Africa.

It, inter alia, alleged the Libyan and Angolan intelligence establishment planned to support Jacob Zuma covertly in his presidential bid. It also referred to a meeting of African leaders where possible military backing for Zuma was allegedly discussed, and warned of potential insurrection should he not become president.

The investigation into the Browse Mole report revealed secret recordings of private conversations between various senior role players, which later became crucial evidence to ‘convince’ the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to controversially abandon its corruption case against Zuma.

His alleged role in leaking the ‘spy tapes’ to Mr Zuma’s legal team led to the perception that Frazer played a pivotal role in getting Mr Zuma off the hook.

The Mail & Guardian wrote at the time that Fraser “… a top spy once closely linked to former president Thabo Mbeki saved ANC president Jacob Zuma’s political life”.

The paper also reported that it “was reliably told that Fraser did a ‘political flip-flop’ and handed the NIA recordings, legally obtained during his probe of the Secret Browse Mole report, to Zuma’s legal team”.

High drama

On 29 April 2016 there was high drama in the Pretoria High Court when a full bench found that the NPA made a serious mistake in withdrawing corruption charges against President Zuma. It instructed that the 783 charges of corruption, fraud, money laundering and racketeering against Zuma be reinstituted.

Then, in an attempt to keep Mr Zuma out of court, the NPA’s National Director, Shaun Abrahams, and Zuma’s legal team asked for leave to appeal, which was rejected with costs. They may still petition the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) directly and, if that fails, they may approach the Constitutional Court.

Most legal experts are of the opinion that their chances of success are slim.

Against this background the NPA is under obligation to prepare for President Zuma to “have his day in court”, as he smugly insisted on previously.


Abrahams and the NPA are under increasing pressure from many quarters, especially the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) in parliament, accusing the NPA of dragging its feet.  

Then, outgoing Public Protector Thuli Madonsela is on record that she will deliver her findings into alleged state capture, involving President Zuma, before she vacates her office during this month.

President Zuma has proven himself a political Houdini, but he needs helpers. With the High Court kicking the ‘spy tapes’ back into play, who better to rope in than the man who knows best how to put the country’s intelligence service to good use in service of the beleaguered president.    

Fraser’s capability is not questioned and it is only fair to give him some time and opportunity to prove himself. But the timing of his appointment raises questions and suspicions. As one analyst wrote: “The appointment of the man once dubbed ‘the spy who saved Zuma’ looks alarmingly like a move by the president to hobble another powerful state organ for self-preservation.”

Valid concern

The blatant deployment of incompetent cadres and surrogates in powerful positions in the country’s intelligence structures, the misapplication of its resources to advance narrow political interests instead of the national interest and subsequent unavoidable humiliating blunders, caused the loss of public trust, respect and support.

With the country reeling from student protests and the danger of unrest escalating on many fronts, the government appears unable to get a handle on the situation. There are little or no signs of plans to defuse the dangerous climate of discontent.

Probably one of the most important reasons for the government’s apparent lack of a cohesive plan to address the growing threat to stability is the lack of proper intelligence.

The scale of the unrest and violence that have recently engulfed tertiary campuses across the country has accentuated the ineptness of the intelligence community.

This ineptness was clearly illustrated when the parliament’s committee, appointed to interview the 14 candidates shortlisted for the position of Public Protector, agreed to ignore information about candidates provided by the SSA as unreliable – DA MP Breytenbach describing it as “clearly not worth the paper it’s written on”.

Sole judge

With the SSA’s credibility in question, the appointment of its new head has been met with a fair share of scepticism. Informed analysts and commentators have warned that South Africans should prepare for another period of dirty tricks and leaks as the controversy around the Zuma presidency intensifies and faction fighting within the ruling ANC deepens. 

Some years ago Lurie Nathan, an expert on intelligence matters, remarked that the Zuma administration had learned a lesson from the Mbeki experience - “ensure that your top spies are appointed above all on the basis of personal loyalty, never mind loyalty to the Constitution”.      

The assurance by State Security Minister Mahlobo that, “We believe Mr Fraser is equal to the task and will provide the necessary leadership that will ensure the Agency is able to deliver on its constitutional and legal mandate of upholding national security” is of little consolation.

It is up to the new spy boss to prove the minister correct and show that he is much more than just a willing servant out to please and protect Jacob Zuma.

The South African public will be the sole judge.

by Garth Cilliers

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