South Africa, Politics

Op-Ed: You are insulting our intelligence, Minister Mahlobo

By Stephen Grootes 27 April 2016

As the Constitutional Court’s Nkandla decision fades into the scandal-ridden continuum that is Zuma’s presidency, and the municipal elections loom, it is becoming clear that elements within the ANC are preparing to fight dirty to protect themselves and their hold on power. While Luthuli House could well argue against this statement, when we look at the conduct of the Ministers in charge of State Security and Police, it is becoming much more difficult to argue against it. David Mahlobo and Nkosinathi Nhleko have now crossed an already crossed line, this time from dangerous to laughable. And Mahlobo is now not just being incompetent, he is insulting our intelligence too. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

On Tuesday David Mahlobo presented the budget for what is now called the Ministry of State Security, which used to be called the Intelligence Ministry. What has not changed is that this is the body that runs our spy services. This is the ministry that quite literally controls whose phone is tapped and whose is not, and who is marked an enemy of the state, and who is not.

The department itself does not come out of our history very well. It was divided during the Mbeki years as it was allegedly used to spy on people supporting President Jacob Zuma. When President Jacob Zuma took over, he staffed it with his supporters, who then left en masse when he refused to listen to their warnings about the Gupta family.

Last year, over Christmas, the State Security Agency suffered a break-in, when millions of rand were stolen from a safe at its headquarters. It was, surprise surprise, an inside job. This is just one example of the kind of person we’re dealing with. Not only is it people employed by our spy agencies who were involved, not only are they the people in charge of vetting senior officials and deciding whether they get “top secret” clearance, but they were also so incompetent, they got caught.

During his budget speech on Tuesday, and in the press conference that followed, Mahlobo claimed that NGOs and some South Africans are working with “foreign forces” to destabilise the country. He says, “Our NGOs play an important part in South Africa, but there are those who work to destabilise the state.”

If you’re not giggling yet, then just know that he thinks some of these NGOs have “very funny names”. You see, in today’s world, when you work in the spy business in South Africa, having a funny name is cause enough to have you investigated.

What’s so utterly amazing about all of these claims is that Mahlobo is too scared to name a single NGO. Not one, not even a hint. And why is that? Because it simply is not true. If he were to mention any names they would be able to walk up to the nearest High Court and take more money off him than your average under-remunerated Vodacom employee.

And why would he worry, anyway, when the weapon he chose happens to be so powerful? His job in this case is to tarnish every NGO with the same brush, to paint everyone the same colour, to say that everyone in this space is dangerous, and do that by not putting out a single verifiable fact that could be a subject of an informed discussion. That is not the space Mahlobo would venture into.

So, Mr Mahlobo, which NGOs are you talking about? Treatment Action Campaign (TAC)? It has probably done more to save the lives of black South Africans than any other organisation save for government in the last 20 years. Its campaign for antiretroviral drugs save and prolonged the lives of millions. Are they now an evil organisation that is working against democracy?

And how about Section 27? Are they an enemy of the state, even as thousands of schoolchildren in Limpopo have textbooks after their campaign? OSF? Ford Foundation? (Disclosure: Daily Maverick is a grantee of OSF – Ed)

How about the Khulumani Support Group, which campaigns for the victims of apartheid to be compensated, sometimes with government backing? Sonke Gender Justice? Southern Africa Litigation Centre? There are thousands of them in South Africa, would you mind pointing out which ones are the enemies, Mr Mahlobo?

What has probably got the minister’s back up is that NGOs are using the court system, as is their legal right, to challenge decisions made by government. So, for example, when the Helen Suzman Foundation challenges the appointment of a man to lead the Hawks after he is found to be a liar by a judge, then it can expect not only to be raided and robbed, but also to be labelled an enemy of the state.

One wonders what is next? Could the Ahmad Kathrada Foundation find itself on this list, after it called on Zuma to step down? What about its Chairman, Derek Hanekom, Minister of Tourism? Isn’t he a danger to the state, if Mahlobo is to be believed? After all, Hanekom worked with “foreign interests” to ease the draconian visa rules, brought to us courtesy of another minister, Malusi Gigaba. And if he worked with foreigners, isn’t it a clear sign Hanekom’s in league with international capital? You can’t be too certain, the “Western Gevaar” is hiding under each and every bed and must be flushed out with revolutionary vigour.

If there is one thing that all of this tells us, apart from the fact that Mahlobo is man who is insulting our intelligence, it’s that he is not a democrat. On what planet does a State Security Minister make a speech in Parliament talking about the right to freedom of expression? Is he a constitutional scholar? A judge? A person who is able to make thoughtful decisions about this issue? Or is he a politician with no principle, defending his principal?

So we end up with the man who jammed the cellphone signal at the State of the Nation lecturing South Africa on freedom of expression.

If he were a democrat, if he actually believed in democracy, then he would be concentrating not on Julius Malema, or dangerous NGOs, but on doing what the United Nations has said he should do, and make it harder, not easier, for our communications to be spied upon. The UN has said it’s not happy with the current legislation that seems to have several ways of allowing bent officials to tap phones.

It’s easy to think this threat is exaggerated. But before he turned coward and ran back from Malema to Zuma at Mangaung, Fikile Mbalula appeared to confirm that his phone had been tapped by police officers working for Zuma. Which surely comes very close to proving that this sort of thing is going on. And Mahlobo is the man in charge, the person who allows it to happen.

This is not the first time Mahlobo has insulted us. At one point he really really really thought there was just cause to investigate whether Thuli Madonsela was a spy for the CIA. Really. That Amcu was somehow a foreign-sponsored organisation.

That was insulting enough. But this is worse.

Minister Mahlobo: We see you. DM

Photo: Minister of State Security David Mahlobo during Pre-Budget Vote Media Briefing, 5 May 2015. (SIYABULELA DUDA/GCIS)



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