Analysis: Moe Shaik’s first brush with WikiLeaks, a storm in a tea cup

By Stephen Grootes 23 January 2011

City Press ran a front-page story this weekend about WikiLeaks and Moe Shaik. The most damaging claim may be that Shaik, before his appointment as head of our secret service was giving information to the Americans about goings-on in what was known at the time as the “Zuma camp”. But not much more. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

If we were to compile a list of interesting South African political characters, Moe Shaik would be pretty close to the top. He’s a man who has been integral to the big political story of the last decade, the rise of Zuma. But what makes him more interesting than the others is his curious mix of secrecy and access. He is, at the moment, a spy, a spook, an intelligence officer, our “M”. But he also gives our newspapers and our public a licence to thrill. Because his life has been lived in the public domain, through his tearful testimony at the Hefer Commission (into whether then national director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngucka had been an apartheid spy), the fact that his brother, Schabir, was the focal point of the biggest political trial we’ve had since 1994 (I sat next to Moe for most of it), and his service as an ambassador to Algeria, he has a high public profile. Whether it’s been cultivated or not, is another story. But there was a time when he was the country’s third-most-prominent pipe smoker (after Kader Asmal and someone else you should be able to work out). In short, his name in a headline sells.

The Media 24 investigative unit on Sunday published two US cables starring Moe Shaik, with a third one, from 4 June 2009, mentioning him briefly.

The one from 16 May 2008 mostly deals with the early removal of then-president Mbeki. Shaik claimed that “momentum is building in the ANC for Mbeki’s removal” and “that the business community was ‘begging’ them to do it”. He also berated the US for selling South Africa the idea of a “law-enforcement agency with no oversight”. (That would be the Scorpions, and in itself is a rather worrying affirmation of Zuma’s position on political control of the investigative unit.)

But Shaik’s conversation from 10 September 2008 is much more interesting to City Press. That if Zuma were ever properly prosecuted for corruption, other people would find themselves in the witness box. “Shaik specifically named President Mbeki, suspended national police chief Jackie Selebi, former and acting head of national director of public prosecutions Vusi Pikoli and Mokotedi Mpshe, and former speaker of Parliament, Frene Ginwala as potential witnesses”, the cable says.

And that that would be an uncomfortable place for them. Some of the people named are obvious suspects. Jackie Selebi was clearly someone with one or two things he would have liked to hide. Vusi Pikoli and Frene Gingwala seem to have been included simply as a way of putting pressure on any prosecution. The only possibility we can think of is that perhaps someone was going to try to smear her with claims about the Arms Deal. Not that Ginwala was involved at all, just that no doubt someone would have claimed she could have acted earlier to stop any wrongdoing.

It’s an old trick. Lawyers hate giving testimony under oath, if they make a decision to prosecute someone, try to get the person who made that decision into the box, and then make them squirm. It doesn’t matter if there’s any truth to it, it’s just about pressure.

What’s really striking about these names, is that this looked like last-throw-of-the-dice stuff for Zuma. Many South Africans now believe the real villain of the piece was the country’s most famous pipe smoker and single-malter. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t matter, the lesson of the entire Zuma prosecution was that the cancer that infected the Selebi case (the pressure to stop Pikoli from charging Selebi, followed by Pikoli’s suspension) was contagious enough to kill the Zuma case.

No doubt there are going to be some people who read City Press and will ask one big question. Why on earth was the man who is now running our spies, giving information to another country? And to the Americans, for goodness sake?

The reason is simple. Moe Shaik is many things, a tinker, a tailor, a soldier and a spy. But he is also a diplomat. He is a man of the world, someone who really does know how it all works. And he will know that it’s vital in almost every situation to keep information flowing. That he who controls that process, wins. That if you allow a situation to develop where people, governments, are making policy, are reacting without actually knowing that’s happening, bad things happen. And he will possibly have taken it upon himself, or just seen an opportunity, to make sure the most powerful country in the world was kept in the loop, no matter how much he disliked it.

Shaik would also have known that there was concern about Zuma, that his duty was to reassure the US about the then newly elected president of the ANC. In other words, Shaik knows that one of the duties of both spies and diplomats is to ensure stability, to make sure that no one of any importance anywhere is surprised by events. In this case, he was probably doing his duty, both to Zuma and possibly to the country at large.

However, he can’t be let off that easily. The fact is Shaik’s motivation at the time was simply to get Zuma off the hook and into the Union Buildings. That might have been because Zuma was a friend, because Shaik truly believed he had done nothing wrong, or that his chances of being chief spook were greater with Zuma in power. The point is, if Shaik had been driven by entirely moral motives, and he knew that the people threatened were corrupt, then why not expose them anyway?

But, of course, the world doesn’t work like that. And no one will know that better than Shaik himself. The wheels of justice are way too often broken by the spanners of real-politicking. And he’ll also know, that he doesn’t have too much to worry about over the latest of the WikiLeaks, no matter how damaging they may sound at first. DM

Read the Moe Shaik cables here, here and here.



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