Security Watch: opinion

When state security goes funny on “funny names”

David Mahlobo, State Security Minister
David+Mahlobo.jpg

South Africa is awash with NGOs with “funny names” and other “dark forces” intent on overthrowing the status quo, if you can believe the minister of state security.

Minister David Mahlobo, when presenting his department’s budget vote in parliament, instead of convincing us that there is a real danger, only succeeded in discrediting himself, his department and the Zuma government.

When scrutinised, his speech imparted nothing sensational and there were no startling revelations. This was no surprise and, in fact, on par with the custom internationally.

Secret service culture

In protecting the state and national security, intelligence agencies or secret services, operate as far as possible in secrecy and preferably out of the public eye.

This, at least, is why secret services operate the way they do – in secrecy.

This is also the case with state security budget vote speeches, purposefully always somewhat vague and often devoid of facts and figures to “protect the integrity” of the service.

Security budget speeches always display certain distinct features and Mahlobo’s speech was no exception. 

In line with previous budget vote speeches the speech this year contained a broad overview of the threats facing the country; the intelligence service’s watchfulness and efficiency in combating these threats – to justify the budget it had been allocated.

Equally important, if not vital, is the effectiveness of the message that the threats against the country, although successfully thwarted thus far courtesy of the vigilance of the service and its officers, remain a constant danger that will probably increase.

If this message is conveyed successfully, approval of the budget, normally also a state secret, gets the nod without much fuss.

It is against this backdrop that an observation made by the minister in his speech warrants a response.   

Total onslaught  

The minister spent considerable time, during his speech and later on in a press conference, tearing into NGOs, accusing them and unnamed South Africans and other “dark forces” of “collaborating with foreign forces to destabilise the country”.

He also said: “Not everybody is our friend. The forces that are opposed to us are hard at work. Our NGOs play an important part in South Africa, but there are those who work to destabilise the state.”

Ironically, it is no secret that NGOs over the years have been a popular and convenient cover for covert collection and operations used by intelligence agencies the world over.

One could, therefore, assume that Minister Mahlobo’s department is doing the same and will also make use of NGOs for information gathering if and when the opportunity arises or presents itself.      

What was, however, striking was the aggressive tone of the minister’s attack on NGOs and the gross generalisations.

According to him, “They (NGOs) are just security agents that are being used for covert operations”.

He then went on to allege that, “Some ‘funny’ NGOs (why ‘funny’, he did not explain) had funding they could not explain and interception equipment that the State Security Agency used” while hiding behind high security fences.

Almost inevitably, the minister then continued to accuse almost everyone and everybody who has lately been critical of the Zuma government that has been on the back foot on so many issues.

According to the minister, “Agents had also infiltrated the mass media, community-based organisations, foreign multinational corporations, and religious and student organisations”.

While not refuting the minister’s claim that NGOs might be involved, wittingly or unwittingly, in matters that are of concern to him, it has to be noted that he placed the credibility of his accusations in serious doubt. He refused to name any suspects using the old, over-used and worn-out intelligence service jargon, “ We never disclose because of our tradecraft”.

But he then menacingly continued, saying they knew who they were and the government would not be shy in dealing with them.

Well, until the culprits are not brought to book the minister’s warning will carry little weight.

Doubt

It has become difficult to trust and believe the minister of state security against the backdrop of recent debacles.

His unwillingness to name and shame any NGO that is endangering the security of South Africa all but rubbishes his concern, considering his fervent promise to immediately launch an investigation into the recent ludicrous allegation by ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe.

Mantashe oddly accused the Mandela-Washington Fellowship Programme (MWF) and the Young African Leader Initiative (YALI) of fostering “regime-change” in South Africa.  

But then, as a Daily Maverick contributor wrote: “You can’t be too certain, the “Western Gevaar” is hiding under each and every bed and must be flushed out with revolutionary vigour.”

The country is also still waiting for Minister Mahlobo to inform us, as he promised, who was behind the discredited blog that accused the public protector, two opposition politicians and a trade unionist of working for the CIA.

The deafening silence has given rise to speculation that the amateurish operation at discrediting people irritating the ANC-led government, was planned and executed somewhere from within the country’s security establishment and could be yet another embarrassment should the truth be revealed.

Squandered opportunity             

The minister might actually have some “irrefutable” evidence that there are NGOs and other elements engaged in undermining the interests and well-being of South Africa and its people. But with the manner in which the “threat” was presented, he spectacularly squandered an opportunity to convince an increasingly sceptic audience.

The Cold War is long gone and minister Mahlobo would achieve more by taking the people of South Africa into his confidence rather than try and scare us with vague innuendos.  

by Garth Cilliers

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