The South African Deputy Defence Minister, at the unveiling of a tombstone for an MK veteran, managed to blunder into a charge that the US was running Public Protector Thuli Madonsela as a CIA agent. What the…? J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a puzzled view at this new contretemps.
To hear Deputy Defence Minister and leader of the umKhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association Kebby Maphatsoe tell it, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela was some kind of super CIA agent/ Manchurian Candidate who, together with her shadowy handlers, is hell-bent on bringing down President Zuma, perverting the constitutional order, and destroying the very foundations of the republic. Or something. (This, of course, despite the fact that she was a part of the team that helped draft the very same Constitution.)
Speaking on Sunday at the unveiling of the tombstone of former umKhonto weSizwe figure, Linda Jabane, Maphatsoe latched onto a jumble of accusations about Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and the CIA. Over the next twenty-four hours, he and his staff restated the original accusations in a slightly different format, even as they presumably tried to trim the deputy minister’s initial verbal pyrotechnics with some weasel words inserted in their clarifications. Besides his obvious antagonism towards the Public Protector because of her report on that irregular spending on the president’s private home in Nkandla, Maphatsoe also seems to have been especially incensed about an earlier claim by Madonsela that she too had been an MK veteran.
To people with longish historical memories, Maphatsoe’s rants (even as his aide was trying to dial back the charges) had a really florid retro feel to them. Think, for example, of the Apartheid era’s security nomenklatura, screeching and thundering away about the treacherous rooi and swart gevaar threatening the vital fabric of the nation; or perhaps recall US Senator Joe McCarthy’s half-drunken tirades about the lists he supposedly held in his hands of all those known communist agents who had feverishly burrowed their way in the US State Department, the army, the White House – and who knows where else, back in the early 1950s.
Of course, this charge of Madonsela’s CIA agent-dom and those furious demands she reveal her handlers were probably less about any conceivable truth to the story than they were about South Africa’s domestic political circumstances. The charge also played to a sense – widely held by many people in South Africa – that unseen forces and conspiracies did (and do) control things, and that the biggest and baddest of those powerful unseen forces has probably been the long, hidden arm of America’s CIA and its associated international security apparatus and willing partners.
This kind of charge (and those associated fears and beliefs) seems to be found deep inside the DNA of some South Africans who are now in the governing party. In part, this may derive from the organization’s own culture in exile of having being seriously afraid of the very real possibilities it had been fatally penetrated by the South African government’s intelligence services; or by the model absorbed from their exemplars in the then-Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites of how intelligence penetrations should be done or happened, and thus must be combatted; and then, too, from a long tradition of distrust towards the US – owing in part to that nation’s long-time official acceptance of the old regime’s control over South Africa, and its consequent mistrust of the ANC and other liberation groups.
And, of course, there is the strong likelihood that Maphatsoe has been watching way, way too many spy thrillers late at night on the DSTV movie channels.
As the day wore on, Maphatsoe’s own special advisor, Ike Moroe, offered the media a weak backpedal away from Maphatsoe’s initial charges. Moroe said, “He [Maphatsoe] did make reference to the possibility of a CIA machination in an attempt to destabilise the country. [However] nothing is impossible… from the international intelligence community.”
Maphatsoe added his next observations, saying MK members had been trained to spot “enemy agents.” “We know how foreign intelligence works and we are not just thumb-sucking. We’ve got those [sic] expertise amongst us and we are not taking chances. We have people who were in the intelligence of the African National Congress [who are] able to identify enemy agents. They [foreign intelligence] create their own person and popularise him or her. That’s how they work, they create you… they make sure you are well accepted by the people.”
In fact, it was not so very long ago, after all, that a senior South African cabinet official, when asked about the real strategic rationale for those very expensive German-made submarines that were part of the now-notorious arms deal, had said that she believed they would come in very handy in thwarting any American amphibious assault on the beaches of the Eastern Cape.
In response to all of this nonsense, the American Ambassador, Patrick Gaspard, shot off a series of tweets throughout the morning that firmly attempted to put this charge in the dustbin where it clearly belonged. In his first comment, Gaspard had said, “How can a govt minister make such scurrilous and political comments at an official event?”
That was followed by another that put the focus on bilateral relationship where it belonged, saying, “We’re proud of our transparent partnership with SA on health, eco[nomic] dev[elopment], peace and security. These are the issues that matter.” Then he added, “These comments are unfortunate but inconsequential since they lack all credibility to average SA who see through smoke screens.” And that one was followed by, “I just came from these brilliant S Africans who are partnering with US to stop HIV. This is what we do. pic.twitter.com/wBrE3lhofn”.
The final one in the ambassadorial sequence of tweets then read, “We categorically reject the baseless and offensive accusations from the Dep Min and will lodge complaint through Dip channels.” Why say that? Because that is what diplomats do when a high official from the host government, at an official function, in public, traduces the reputation of that other nation and accuses it of trying to suborn one of the host country’s officials – and thereby subvert the country’s government. And such language is just a bit more diplomatic than saying, “You are totally full of egregious, dangerous nonsense; now apologise at once!”
What will be interesting, going forward, is how the South African government eventually manages to modulate away from Maphatsoe’s wild words, or, how, somehow, they get Maphatsoe to issue a hair-splitting non-apology to the US, even as he says very little if anything about the Public Protector in that message. And the trick for the South African government to do this without looking like they are pulling in their horns over their incandescent displeasure with the way the Public Protector has been making the Zuma administration’s life so difficult.
The other part of this story, of course, is that the US is but collateral damage in Maphatsoe’s attack. Rather, he is carrying out the South African equivalent of some early dog whistle political campaigning. (Dog whistle campaigning is called that because it is a message that speaks subliminally to the faithful (an equivalent to the ultrasonic whistle tones that only a dog, not a person, can hear) to stand up straight and firm, to be true to the sacred cause, and to line up when it counts.)
In this case, this particular dog whistle seems be that supporting president and party is what really counts now that there are attacks coming from many sides – and so anyone who doesn’t adhere to the message now is not one of us. And if such people are not one with us, they must be working with someone else whose interests are inimical to ours. From this perspective, to call someone a CIA-agent or tool not only plays to that old-style conspiratorial framework noted earlier, but also further reinforces the power of that seductive dog whistle’s message.
For its part, of course, the US will now huff and puff a bit at these remarks; it will make its diplomatic representation over this kind of rude kick in the shins; it will extract a promise that current government officials will watch their Ps and Qs rather a bit more in the future when they are slugging it out on the domestic political front on behalf of the Zuma administration, and then it will agree to move on to more important things, just as Amb. Gaspard’s tweet says. The Public Protector, meanwhile, has demanded Maphatsoe produce his evidence within three days or make an abject apology, so there’s still some trajectory left in this news story.
Of course, given all that has already transpired, it would be extremely interesting to be that proverbial fly on the wall if Kebby Maphatsoe ever needs any assistance for an official trip to the US. Or, even more so, if his department of defence duties ever include his participation in any meetings about the next joint military training exercise that is scheduled between American and South African personnel. DM
Photo: Thuli Madonsela (Greg Nicolson)
EMI records refused to allow the Beatles' Here comes the Sun to be placed on the Voyager spacecraft's record.