ANALYSIS: How SA’s spies turned into Zuma’s goon squad
High-level review panel gives insight into dodgy spooks and rogue operations under president's henchmen
As President Cyril Ramaphosa looks to scale down the size of his cabinet, state security is one obvious ministry to slash.
Nelson Mandela’s first cabinet did not have a minister of intelligence.
Those who envisaged the new government did not deem it necessary to have a political head of the intelligence services. The work was operational, not political.
However, in 1995, the ANC’s former intelligence chief, Joe Nhlanhla, was appointed as deputy minister of intelligence under the justice ministry. In 1999, then president Thabo Mbeki changed the intelligence portfolio to a full ministry.
The high-level review panel on the State Security Agency (SSA) states in its report released at the weekend that this was prompted by the need for a policy maker to drive the transformation of civilian intelligence on the basis of the constitutional principles.
The review panel, headed by ANC veteran and former minister Sydney Mufamadi, considered the question of whether there was still a need for a minister to head the intelligence department.
While they did not pronounce on the matter categorically, the panel said the role and powers of a state security minister should be reviewed.
The constitution states that the president “must either assume political responsibility for the control and direction of [the intelligence services], or designate a member of the cabinet to assume that responsibility”.
In the course of their investigation, the panel found “there has been a serious politicisation and factionalisation of the intelligence community over the past decade or more, based on factions in the ruling party”.
This resulted in “an almost complete disregard for the constitution, policy, legislation and other prescripts, and turning our civilian intelligence community into a private resource to serve the political and personal interests of particular individuals”.
The report states that the manipulation of the SSA for factional purposes “emerged from the top – the presidency – through the ministry of state security and into the management and staff of the SSA”.
Of course, most people with a cursory knowledge of current affairs knew that the three state security ministers during the Zuma era, Siyabonga Cwele, David Mahlobo and Bongani Bongo, were up to no good.
Mahlobo, in particular, seemed to have no idea what the role of the minister was, or the functions of the intelligence agencies.
He became the presidential henchman and spook-in-chief. Under his direction, the SSA conducted rogue surveillance operations, agents became bouncers and thugs, and state resources were siphoned to buy political favour.
Mahlobo thought himself so powerful and invincible that he would brag to journalists that he had the ability to listen to their calls, and also talk quite liberally about whom the SSA had on its payroll.
So it was no surprise that the panel found that the former minister (they did not name him) “directly participated in intelligence operations in breach of constitutional and legal prescripts and the desired boundary between the executive and the department”.
The report states that a member of SSA who had previously served in the minister’s office “confirmed to the panel that he had, from time to time, been asked by a member of SO (Special Operations) to pass parcels containing cash to the minister”.
The panel also found that the minister was “susceptible” to information peddlers. Mahlobo was in Zuma’s ear (many times publicly so), and therefore, dubious, unverified information was passed to the highest office in the name of “intelligence”.
This had devastating consequences, as was evidenced by Zuma’s March 2017 midnight cabinet reshuffle in which he fired Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas from the finance ministry on the basis of hoax intelligence report. The origin of the ludicrous report is still unknown.
One of the most damning findings by the panel was this: “The activities of the SSA and attempts at social engineering, through its SO arm, and the involvement of the president and minister in these constitute a serious breach of the constitution and law for which there must be consequences”.
Among these activities were “infiltrating and influencing the media”, the establishment of a bogus trade union, and penetrating student organisations to influence the direction of the #FeesMustFall protests.
Under the banner of state security, powers were extensively abused.
For example, the report states that the SSA appeared to have gone “over the top” in terms of people who had to be vetted.
“The panel struggled to understand why members of a national broadcaster (SABC) should be security cleared outside of the standard integrity checking steps of normal recruitment processes. We were also told that the SSA was vetting public health doctors.”
There was also an unnecessary shroud of secrecy that shielded illegal operations and dubious political activity.
It appears that information was withheld from the chief financial officer under the guise of covert operations while the aim was really to flout budgetary controls.
The investigation found there had been instances of “serious criminal behaviour which had taken place under the guise of conducting covert work”. This behaviour, the report states, “may have involved theft, forgery and uttering, fraud, corruption, and even bordered on organised crime and transgressions of the Prevention of Organised Crime Act (POCA)”.
Common knowledge in the intelligence community is apparently that 90% of intelligence information comes from open sources and only 10% from secret sources. “This ‘wisdom’ is basically an injunction not to use covert and intrusive methods to collect information that is openly available,” the report states.
But it suited the political masters and crooked officials to hide behind the cover of secrecy. This allowed millions to be stolen and a lack of accountability.
The panel’s report gives valuable insight into the criminal and unethical activities at the SSA that contributed to state capture and the breakdown of the rule of law. The creation of professional, ethical and modern intelligence services is vital to the rebuilding of a credible state.
It is also crucial to eliminate all forms of political interference, purge the dodgy spooks and instil a culture that the protection of the state and the people of our country is the core purpose.