South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: The walls have ears: The new abnormal normal abnormal

Op-Ed: The walls have ears: The new abnormal normal abnormal

For years now, those of us in the media who find ourselves, by nature of our work, intersecting with those on all sides of the political spectrum, have assumed that state intelligence agencies are either eavesdropping or illegally monitoring conversations and communication. Cellphone batteries are today removed as a matter of routine when sensitive political issues are discussed – even in the absence of media. We have become accustomed to the new normal abnormal. By MARIANNE THAMM.

“As I left, my fellow warders showed me the operations room full of tape recorders and switches for various bugs. There was sophisticated sound equipment everywhere, more technology than in Pollsmoor – even the furniture was bugged. The chair legs were hollow and fitted with recording devices operating from batteries. The trees in the garden and all the flower beds were bugged.” – Christo Brand – Mandela’s former prison guard in Doing Life with Mandela, My Prisoner, My Friend.

In October last year, the Deputy Minister of State Security, Ellen Molekane, delivered an address on the role of the State Security Agency at a University of Johannesburg career seminar.

In her speech, titled “The role of the State Security Agency and why it should be a first career choice for graduates”, the Deputy Minister set out how the Apartheid government had used and abused state intelligence agencies to prop up a violent, corrupt and paranoid minority government and to terrorise South African citizens, violating basic human rights. She provided this context, she told the students gathered, to avoid “creating an impression of a present-day intelligence dispensation that is a-historical and a-social.”

In explaining the role of the State Security Agency in free, democratic South Africa, the Deputy Minister said “the primary role of the State Security Agency and the rest of the national intelligence structures is to uphold the constitutional order and the rule of law in order for all of us to exercise our rights as enshrined in the Bill of Rights and to preserve our collective way of life as South Africans.”

Quoting section 198 of Chapter 11 of the Constitution, the Deputy Minister set out which principles governed the maintenance of national security, one of these being that “national security is subject to the authority of Parliament and the national executive”.

“What this section of the Constitution does is to clarify that unlike in the old days of Apartheid, the national intelligence structures shall foster the peaceful coexistence of all South Africans, and that it shall be subject to the rule of law and the oversight of Parliament as the democratically elected representative institution of the people of South Africa.”

It took almost a week as well as a High Court application by the South African National Editor’s Forum (SANEF) to prevent any future illegal interference of the free flow of information from Parliament, before the Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo, yesterday finally broke his silence on a signal jammer that had been “deployed” in the House of Assembly at President Jacob Zuma’s SONA last week.

It was all a mistake, the minister suggested, the fault of some inefficient minion who had simply forgotten to turn off the signal, which had been required in the first place to create a “no fly zone” over Parliament due to the “magnitude” of the event.

Perhaps the agency anticipated an unexpected flyover by President Zuma’s friends, the Gupta family, who seemed to have experienced absolutely no trouble breaching the country’s national security regulations in May 2013, landing a huge civilian jumbo jet of wedding guests at the Waterkloof Military Base. But that was then.

There are loads of codes in spook speak. One of them is that civilian intelligence services are meant to protect or secure a “referent” object, which in the past happened to be the white minority government in its entirety.

The “referent” object in democratic South Africa – which cannot, let it be said, be compared to Apartheid South Africa in any way – should be the democratic state so many fought and died for. But we would be fools in paradise if we believed that this were indeed the case at present. It is difficult not to conclude that the “referent object” in South Africa in 2015 is the current Presidential incumbent, Jacob Zuma, and those who enjoy political real estate close to his fulcrum of power.

Here is a head of state facing increasing political pressure not only with regard to millions in unauthorised expenditure on his private home, but also in relation to attempts at overturning a 2009 decision not to charge him with corruption.

Zuma, who was the head of ANC intelligence in exile, is well versed in the dark arts of this realm. Bear in mind also that one of Apartheid’s most notorious intelligence operatives, Neil Barnard, still does business with the state.

But it is not as if the abuse of state intelligence resources began with President Zuma’s occupancy of the highest office of the land. Prior to his election, the ruling party found itself riven with factionalism as former President Thabo Mbeki attempted to stand for a third term as the party’s leader. State intelligence agencies were certainly playing with or for or against both sides during this bruising battle. Some of it continues today to play itself out in the Criminal Intelligence Agency, the NPA and other realms.

In his book The Zuma Years – South Africa’s Changing Face of Power, constitutional lawyer and political analyst Richard Calland explains that while researching the work he met with a source with a long history in the intelligence service and who confirmed the disarray that the State Security Agency is in. Most troubling, wrote Calland, is a lack of clarity around the national strategic purpose of the agency.

“The failure to articulate and communicate a national strategic purpose must lie at the very top of government, with the president – ironically given that Zuma is a professional spy and ran the ANC’s intelligence arm for many years in exile, it is his failure in leadership that is the root cause of the current weakness in the intelligence service.”

The consequences, wrote Calland, are grave, both for accountable governance – with loads of inadequately skilled and poorly managed operatives running around – and for ensuring government is properly prepared to understand, as well as respond to, internal threats to stability.

In 2008, prior to becoming Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille contacted the then intelligence minister, Ronnie Kasrils, to complain that her private home telephone had been bugged. Zille had told Kasrils that her husband had answered the phone in her study while she was on a plane to Johannesburg only to hear the sound of tapes rewinding and clicking.

“He then heard a tape recording of conversations that I had had in the room. He made notes of the conversation that was played back on this recording,” Zille said.

Kasrils had undertaken to investigate and found that the surveillance had not been authorised but could not guarantee that “rogue” elements had done so unilaterally.

Later the then ANC premier of the Western Cape, Ebrahim Rasool, had established a commission of inquiry to investigate alleged irregularities in the City of Cape Town while Zille was the Mayor. During the investigation it became clear that police had obtained Zille’s cell phone records “on order”, but from whom exactly was never revealed. Rasool’s commission of inquiry was later declared “unlawful” as it was “politically motivated.”

While some may suggest that we in the media might be paranoid or believe we are far more important that we actually are, it has become routine for some of the subjects of our research – particularly around sensitive political issues – to remove cell phone batteries from cell phones or to request meetings in public places and where cell phones are left elsewhere.

New surveillance technology is much more sophisticated than the old whirring and clicking tapes we grew accustomed to in the Apartheid era.

But what has not changed is the sickening feeling that one’s private conversations or emails, as a law-abiding citizen, might be intercepted. We have grown accustomed to the new normal abnormal normal.

A government with nothing to hide and with the interests of society at large at heart does not need to spy or eavesdrop illegally on its citizens, fellow politicians EVEN in the same party or in opposition. These are actions that do not belong in a constitutional democracy – they are the stuff of paranoid, defensive and repressive states.

There is nothing like the rule of law to shine a bright light on the murky corners where illegal intelligence gathering – or jamming – occurs at the behest of whomever.

For now we shall give the Minister of State Security the benefit of the doubt, just. What is important is that the minister has been called to account, and account he has. That is what a constitutional democracy is all about. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options