South Africa

Analysis: Under David Mahlobo, State Security plays an increasingly powerful role

By Marianne Merten 30 March 2016

State Security Minister David Mbangiseni Mahlobo pops up in some surprising places. Like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates during President Jacob Zuma’s respective recent state and working visits, the ANC Luthuli House head office when thousands of #FeesMustFall protesters marched there, the Union Buildings where he appealed for calm when the student demonstration got disorderly, and at Parliament where he flanked Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko at the latter’s briefing on the Hawks investigation of the SARS “rogue unit”. The presence of the intelligence services’ political head in contentious spaces is a telling pointer of the increasing, and public, importance given to his ministry in matters of state. By MARIANNE MERTEN.

When President Nelson Mandela announced his first Cabinet, there was no intelligence minister. Some months later Joe Nhlanhla was appointed deputy minister for intelligence services under Justice Minister Dullah Omar. Only in 1999 did intelligence become its own Cabinet portfolio under Nhlanhla. He left government after suffering a stroke in mid-2000, and Lindiwe Sisulu held the portfolio until Ronnie Kasrils was appointed after the 2004 elections. In September 2008, then president Kgalema Motlanthe chose Siyabonga Cwele as intelligence minister. When Zuma was elected president in 2009, the portfolio was renamed state security, but Cwele was retained. Mahlobo was appointed state security minister after the May 2014 elections.

His appointment raised eyebrows. Unlike ANC intelligence stalwarts Nhlanhla and Kasrils, Mahlobo was seen as even more low-key than Cwele, who had a track record as chairman of Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence (JSCI) and ANC KwaZulu-Natal executive committee since 1990, after working in the underground since 1984.

There was much speculation as to whether Mahlobo got the job to represent Mpumalanga’s pro-Zuma premier David Mabuza at national level. Talk of the premier league – Mabuza, Free State premier Ace Magashule and North West premier Supra Mahumapelo – as a reported power broker in the governing party had yet to surface. Officially the ANC says there’s no premier league as such a structure is not recognised in its constitution.

Just 34 months ago Mahlobo, a “water scientist” according to his official biography, had put his 1999 biochemistry honours degree from the University of Zululand to use working for water affairs before going on to head the Mpumalanga co-operative governance department.

The job there entailed handing over blankets and food to flood-affected farmworkers, or cars to traditional leaders. But under Mahlobo’s tenure Piet Retief, the area where he was born in 1972, and Balfour in 2009 experienced violent protests. Balfour again erupted in weeks-long protests in February 2010 over a proposed municipal merger. Also during Mahlobo’s tenure, controversy brewed in early 2013 over the appointment of a politically-connected security firm to probe community protests, reportedly without due tender processes. Mpumalanga’s 21 councils received unqualified audit reports. And Mahlobo, the public servant, also got his own blue light brigade in 2012, alongside the safety and security department head.

Mahlobo’s national ministerial appointment does not fit neatly into the popular political narrative centred on Zuma’s days as ANC intelligence supremo in exile. Nor into the narrative of the presidential preference for those from his KwaZulu-Natal home province. It marks a rupture, although the story of the premier league is yet to be written in full.

But Mahlobo’s appointment came amid an increasingly securocratic focus on national security and territorial integrity. The Protection of State Information Bill, dubbed the Secrecy Bill, was the controversial law in many ways representing this. While concessions were clinched from the draft presented by Cwele, particularly over the roles of whistle-blowers and journalists, civil society organisations and others remain deeply uncomfortable.

And yet again the state security minister unexpectedly pops up.

Mahlobo was “requested to work further on some aspects of the bill”, said Zuma, according to the SABC, talking to journalists at the October 2015 commemoration of Black Wednesday, the 1977 banning of The World and Weekend World. It is unclear what “aspects” of the bill passed by Parliament in early 2014 Mahlobo would be working on. Once Parliament passes a law, it is signed by the president – unless the head of state has reservations. Then, according to Section 79 of the Constitution, the president can return the bill to Parliament for reconsideration or the Constitutional Court for a decision of its constitutionality. Once ruled constitutional, the president has to sign the bill.

Mahlobo faces further legislative controversy over the Cyber Crimes and Cyber Security Bill. Earlier this year, Daily Maverick reliably learnt it was decided to move the bill to state security from justice, which had published a draft bill including extensive powers for the state security and telecommunications ministers for public comment ending in November 2015. The state security version is expected in Parliament around September.

Photo: President Jacob Zuma with State Security Minister David Mahlobo and MEC Willies Mchunu walk about at Mega City Shopping centre in Umlazi in Durban, the walk was aimed at speaking to locals following attacks on foreign nationals in Durban and other areas, 18 April 2015. (Photo: GCIS)

Under Mahlobo, alongside Nhleko and other ministers in the justice, crime prevention and security Cabinet cluster – it now includes home affairs, which was moved from the governance in February 2016 – the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (Natjoints) has played an increasing role. Described in government statements as “co-ordinating all security and law enforcement operations throughout the country”, it brings together the SAPS, state security and defence, and may draft in any other departments as required. Not based on any law, unlike the national intelligence co-ordinating committee (NICOC), top SAPS officials have privately indicated that Natjoints is based on a longstanding Cabinet memorandum.

Aside from elections dating back to 2011, Natjoints’ involvement includes the return of the South Africans killed in the 2014 Lagos church building collapse, anti-rhino poaching efforts, State of the Nation Addresses (SONAs) and dealing with “persons creating disturbances” at Parliament and the nine provincial legislatures under Instruction 35 of 2014. Natjoints was also “activated”, as government jargon goes, as Operation Fiela after last year’s xenophobic violence, and for the 2015 #FeesMustFall protests.

Given that the SAPS has its own crime intelligence division, the involvement of state security in such issues raises troubling questions, particularly in the wake of the bruising embroilment of intelligence services in the run-up to the 2007 ANC Polokwane national conference. For defence to be involved boots-on-the-ground, the president has to sign off a deployment order.

In the guiding principles for the security services, including intelligence, the Constitution in Section 198 states that national security must “reflect the resolve of South Africans, as individuals and as a nation, to live as equals, to live in peace and harmony, to be free from fear and want and to seek a better life”. Security services members also may not be partisan or prejudice a political party, while civilian oversight is stipulated.

Yet in late April 2015 the Right2Know Campaign published a booklet of accounts by activists and community leaders being harassed by intelligence services, or agents claiming to represent them. And while state security apologised for a junior operative “forgetting” to switch off a signal jammer at SONA 2015, it’s unknown what, if any, action was taken. While state security publicly said it is investigating not only the leaking of its documents in the February 2015 “Spy Cable” saga, but also allegations (by a discredited blog) that the public protector, two opposition politicians and a trade unionist were working for the CIA, there’s been no word on the outcomes of these probes.

Civilian oversight by Parliament’s joint standing committee on intelligence (JSCI), the only committee to be established in law, and the inspector-general of intelligence has been patchy to say the least. There has been no intelligence inspector-general for a year. The JSCI sits behind closed doors and has for years released its annual report – a rare public glimpse into the intelligence sector – after the legislated deadline of May.

The latest JSCI annual report tabled in Parliament in late January again raised serious concerns about inadequate vetting, and leaks; there is no national vetting policy and work on an intelligence white paper continues.

So it’s not as if Mahlobo hasn’t got enough work on his plate. Yet his goals stated at last year’s budget vote debate were for state security to “expand the traditional notions of security to address the nontraditional security threats”, with priorities in energy, environmental degradation, forced immigration, international terrorism and “insurgency and ascendary (sic) of nonstate actors” in drug trafficking, arms and ammunition, money laundering, financial crime and the illicit economy.

So everything is up for grabs by state security. And Mahlobo, the smiling and polite securocrat, can be expected to continue popping up in some interesting spaces. DM

Photo: Minister of State Security David Mahlobo addresses the pre-Budget Vote media briefing at Imbizo Media Centre in Cape Town, 5 May 2015. (Photo: GCIS)

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