South Africa

Information = Power: Jacob Zuma’s shrinking circle of trust

By Ranjeni Munusamy 2 March 2015

From his family home to the national intelligence service, there have been threats and security breaches that have exposed President Jacob Zuma and the country to indefinite dangers. Zuma, the former head of ANC intelligence, was once hyper-vigilant on issues of security and careful whom he entrusted with intelligence and security matters. However, paranoia and ANC factional battles led to a purge of experienced personnel in the security services, resulting in chaos and amateur-grade manoeuvres, some of which have recently been exposed. As Zuma skids towards lame-duck status, the pool of information he relies on is seemingly getting smaller, and the people fewer. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Since the disclosure that documents were leaked from the State Security Agency and became part of a massive dump of intelligence information to Al Jazeera, there have been mutterings amongst the ANC’s former security and intelligence heavyweights. “That’s what happens when you get rid of Gibson Njenje because of the Guptas, and put the state in the hands of amateurs nobody has heard of,” said one former high-ranking spook.

‘Njenje’ in this context is not just the individual concerned, the former chief of the National Intelligence Agency, but is parlance for about a dozen people who served in leadership positions in the state security and intelligence apparatus. Njenje’s name is used colloquially because he was amongst the best known and most respected in ANC intelligence circles. He served as deputy head of counter-intelligence in the ANC’s department of intelligence and security in the underground.

Njenje quit after a fallout with the former State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele over, amongst other things, the inappropriate influence of the Gupta family on South Africa’s political leaders and government officials. There was also a dispute over the involvement of the intelligence services in ANC factional battles, with Njenje and others reluctant to allow the agencies to stray from their legal and constitutional mandate.

Cwele was part of a group of ANC leaders in the security cluster in Cabinet who had little knowledge of the industry. They were appointed as human shields around Zuma, and ran around helter-skelter trying to protect him from, among other people, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. Zuma and his ministers also believed bad intelligence from people like former Crime Intelligence boss Richard Mdluli, and therefore saw imagined threats where there were none.

At the time, officials in the various intelligence agencies tried to warn Zuma and the ministers that they were chasing their tails unnecessarily, but this was perceived as political disloyalty and treachery. A deluge of resignations from the intelligence services ensued, taking a large pool of knowledge of the intelligence sector and contacts with foreign agencies out of the state. Many operations were stopped because the people who took over did not have the expertise or contacts to keep them going. Some foreign intelligence agencies did not even bother to re-establish contacts with their South African counterparts because the new people were perceived to be out of their depth.

The reshuffling of Cabinet after last year’s elections saw Zuma appoint new State Security and Police ministers. Both David Mahlobo and Nkosinathi Nhleko had no previous experience in the sector, and their appointments were even more curious than that of their predecessors. Security and intelligence were not portfolios Zuma would ordinarily mess with because of his own experience as head of ANC intelligence. However, his predilection for conspiracies and demand for unquestioning loyalty rather than skill seems to have informed his decision.

When Mahlobo was appointed, it appeared that he himself was confused as to what his job was. In one of his first interviews at the time, he told City Press that “all I know is that my responsibility is to analyse information and ensure everybody is safe”. Mahlobo was apparently unaware that it is the responsibility of operatives within the intelligence establishment to “analyse information” and that his job was restricted to political oversight.

From the upturn in crime to the resurgence of xenophobia and prevalence of foreign criminal networks in South Africa, it is clear that the state’s intelligence capacity and proficiency is compromised. The fallout of the jamming of the cellular network at the State of the Nation Address in Parliament has exposed that resources are being used illicitly and unnecessarily on domestic politics instead of real threats to national security.

The revelations contained in the “spy cables” showed how South Africa’s sovereignty and national interest is being compromised by foreign agents running riot in the country and how sensitive information about military equipment and nuclear facilities is being stolen. The reaction from the state has been flat-footed; Mahlobo has promised a “full investigation has been launched into the purported leakage” but it is clear they do not know where to even start looking.

It is also bizarre that Mahlobo has decided to combine the investigation into the spy cables leak with “social media reports alleging espionage activities linked to some politicians and a head of a Chapter Nine institution”. The head of the Chapter Nine institution is the Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, who was accused by Deputy Defence Minister Kebby Maphatsoe of being a CIA plant. Government, via Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, officially distanced itself from the claim last year. It is therefore inexplicable that Mahlobo would resurrect the claim now and make it part of the investigation into the spy cables leak.

But this is the diet of half-cocked, sometimes ludicrous information that feeds the political monster and nourishes the paranoia in the ANC and government. From the opposition to the media and even state agencies such as the Hawks, the National Prosecuting Authority and Public Protector’s office, wild conspiracy theories are concocted rather than the obvious fact that people are doing their jobs.

The story published recently in the Sunday Times that Zuma believes that one of his wives is trying to poison him is also as a result of the insecurity and paranoia around the president. He clearly does not know whom to trust and is suspicious of people even in his own home. A lifetime of taking risks and making flawed decisions is taking its toll.

The experience of the past few years has shown that people have used the president’s paranoia to ingratiate and make themselves indispensible through bogus intelligence documents, gossip and uncorroborated information about plots against him. These stories have, among other things, split his inner circle and now his support base in KwaZulu-Natal.

The province, despite ever-prevalent power struggles, has previously united behind Zuma during his criminal trials and rise to power. With the highest number of members, KwaZulu-Natal has been a dominant and influential at ANC conferences and in determining the balance of forces.

Now, the belief that provincial chairman Senzo Mchunu is leading a faction that is no longer loyal to Zuma has fanned a crippling battle with a faction led by the provincial secretary Sihle Zikalala. This has manifest in a tense power battle in the eThekwini region between factions aligned to the two top provincial officials. The results of the region’s elective conference have now been nullified by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe.

The factional fights will diminish the province’s lobbying power as it heads to the ANC’s National General Council later this year. While the province’s leadership would previously advise and provide support to Zuma, the pool of people he can rely on for counsel and connection to the ground is diminishing. The president’s disconnection from public perception and realities on the ground has already led him to make poor decisions, such as his response to the Nkandla scandal, and compromised his administration.

What Zuma needs to salvage his presidency, even at this late stage, is good, credible information about what is happening in the country and the ability to act decisively and effectively. But without the right people in key, strategic positions in the state, that is virtually impossible to execute. And with the sands shifting in the ANC as the succession question grows stronger, Zuma is likely to recede in relevance and his power will progressively diminish.

Many years ago, before Zuma was anywhere near the presidency, he would tell stories about his days in the ANC underground. “You never mess with intelligence,” he would say. He really should have taken his own advice. DM

Photo: South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma answers questions about his State Of The Nation Address (SONA) in parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, 19 February 2015. EPA/NIC BOTHMA

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