As revelations unfold about the two-year rule of Gengezi Mgidlana as Secretary to Parliament, and we learn about misappropriation of funds, disregard for Parliament’s legally binding procurement procedures, and a leadership style that seemed to assume it was beyond accountability, I am left wondering if he will be asked during his disciplinary hearing why he called in the State Security Agency to vet all staff and what right he had to subject myself and others to deeply personal questions and in some cases a lie detector test.
Under secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana’s watch, and acting on his direct instructions, the highly secretive State Security Agency (SSA) was, for a while, installed at the People’s Parliament. A comfortable wing had been set aside on the first floor of a Parliamentary office block.
Staff were told the SSA had been called from Pretoria and told to drop other matters to concentrate on this priority task, “however long it took”. We were told, by SAA operatives themselves, to expect to “be seeing a lot of us” in the months ahead.
I know because I was employed at Parliament at the time, and, like every single other staff member, I was called to compulsory SSA presentations, where we were first told to remove the batteries from our cell phones – simply switching them off was apparently not secure enough – and then it was explained that all staff would be required to undergo top-level security vetting. This applied to even lowly functionaries in the most mundane jobs.
It all seemed well over the top, and the obvious question that staff asked was why this was deemed necessary. The answer we were given was of the kind that leads to even more questions. We were told that this was to be done because Secretary Mgidlana had issued instructions to do so.
SSA’s mandate is to provide the government with intelligence on domestic and foreign threats or potential threats to national stability, the constitutional order, and the safety and wellbeing of our people.
Whatever could have been going on at Parliament at that time to pose a threat that required such urgent and drastic action? That was in 2015. The fifth democratic Parliament was safely in place. True, Parliament was experiencing its first real taste of opposition politics, with a vocal group dressed up as domestic workers and construction labourers, regularly disrupting the House. But their conduct was so obviously – and very effectively – designed to grab public attention, that surely no self-respecting security operative could have mistaken their political stunts as covert threats to state security.
Nevertheless, this task assumed such priority that all other work of our State Security Agency, we were told, would be put on hold until this was completed.
To my knowledge, this task never was completed. Perhaps other more pressing priorities emerged. Or maybe it was just more of the usual Kafka-esque parliamentary bureaucracy that effectively ensures that work is rarely completed, but the last time I went to look, the SSA offices had been vacated. The only sign that they had once been there were the hand-written notes stuck with Prestik on a few doors of now empty offices requesting quiet as lie detector tests were underway.
Where had everyone gone? On an earlier occasion, when I had knocked politely and entered what looked like the main office, I had been met with bustling activity by several staff. They all looked at me as I explained that I was there to find out whether I had passed my security test. I was told to leave. I suppose I will never know.
Elsewhere I have written about my failed attempts to refuse to comply with the SSA, on the apparently paltry grounds that I didn’t believe the security agency had any place in a democratic Parliament, and that it brought back bad memories of the apartheid days. But for my efforts I was slapped with a final written warning after a protracted disciplinary hearing, and I finally understood that if it wanted to Parliament could eat me for breakfast.
So when I received a confidential memo advising me to complete my security vetting or give reasons why I should not be disciplined (under the circumstances, this meant fired) I took to heart advice once given to me by a parliamentary colleague. “You must be seen to be compliant,” she had patiently explained to me.
A date was duly set. “So, is this your first polygragh?” was the opening question from the woman who was going to conduct my lie detector test. I had promised myself that I was not going to say anything I may later regret, and refrain from any supercilious remarks. I nodded, wondering how many polygraph tests the average citizen undergoes in a life time.
She explained that she was going to go through all the questions first, so that I wouldn’t be caught unprepared when I was actually hooked up. This seemed self-defeating. Isn’t the aim of a lie detector test to catch one out in a lie?
By the end all was clear, and I had learned how the SSA worked.
“Have you ever been treated by a psychiatrist or psychologist?” That was the first question, and it came as such a surprise that had I been attached to the monitor on her desk the reading would have gone through the roof. To myself: “What the f**k has that got to do with you? Parliament? State security?”
The answer was yes, but I wanted to say “no”, except I dared not. We were still practising, but I feared that a lie would be exposed later.
“Why?” she wanted to know. Who, apart from my husband of 30 years, have I shared this with? But I could see from her face that we were going to have a heart to heart, whether I wanted to or not. I spilled it all out.
Similar questions followed. “Have you ever taken illegal drugs?” I looked at the equipment in front of me on her desk, a mixture of what looked like an innocuous GP’s blood pressure monitor alongside metal strips with what could have been small grappling irons on each end.
“Polygraghs are very sensitive,” she explained. “They can pick up the slightest tension, a change in your breathing, even tensing a muscle you don’t even know you have.”
I tried to look a mixture of impressed and nonchalant. I didn’t want her to know that I have done my googling and had decided to take a hefty tranquiliser half an hour before our appointment, just to be sure that not a single muscle flickered out of turn.
“What do I spend my monthly income on?” Maybe I shouldn’t have taken that tranquilliser. I blank out. It’s a question I often ask myself. Where indeed does it all go? My answer sounded lame, even to me. Kids, rates, electricity, groceries. She had to know what Parliament pays its staff. Where does the rest go? She looked sceptical. It did sound a bit suspicious. My maths has always been a weak point. I think I failed that question.
We practised for a bit longer. Some questions were easy. “Are you sitting down on a chair?” She explained that such questions were going to be tossed in, maybe just for variety, along with “Would you ever do anything to harm the Republic of South Africa?” I realised the test would require deep concentration.
Another question proved something of a challenge – “Have you ever had any contact with an illegal organisation?” I am quite a bit older than her so have to explain that lots of people at some point had contact with the then banned ANC. She needed to rephrase that question. I helped out and together we come up with, “Since democracy, have you ever been in touch with an illegal organisation?”
She also wanted to know if I have had any contact with state security organisations. I was momentarily flustered. At that very moment I was being quizzed by a state security organisation. “No, don’t worry,” she laughed. “It’s only the foreign ones we are interested in.” Silly me.
“Have I lied to her at any point during our interview?” This is a question she returned to when we start the test for real. My thumbs are squeezed into holders that look like they are designed to crush thumbs, but she explained they were to measure sweating.
I was seated on an innocuous-looking flat cushion, but she warned me that it is especially sensitive and would detect the slightest movement of a buttock muscle. I sincerely hoped I wouldn’t have to suppress a fart. The blood pressure armband was pumped tight around my upper arm, a metal strap pinned to the top of my blouse, another below it.
“Don’t look at me,” she told me. I looked at her, in surprise. “At all,” she added sternly. Not even to answer her questions? No. I am reminded that we are not having a conversation. Try it, it doesn’t come naturally to speak to a blank wall.
I am told the answers can only be yes or no, and am warned not to move at all. Or we would have to start the test all over again.
“Have I lied to her at any point during our interview?” I couldn’t stop myself. “You do realise that this is completely ridiculous,” I blurted out. She was annoyed, and showed it. We started again.
This was the for-real test. “Have you ever been in contact with an illegal organisation SINCE DEMOCRACY?” She repeated most of the same questions randomly. “Have you had dealings with a (foreign) state security agency?” I had this by then.
“No” I answered confidently.
“Are you sitting in a chair?”
“Yes.” My breathing was steady.
“Other than what you have already told me, have you ever taken illegal drugs?”
“No.” This was easy. Or the tranquilliser had well and truly kicked in.
“Would you ever do anything to harm the Republic of South Africa?”
“No.” I was quite sure of myself by that point.
Then it was over, and it dawned on me that she had well and truly tricked me. The test itself was formulaic but she had none of the personal questions. She didn’t need to. She already had all the information she wanted from me. These guys are well trained, I realised, and probably quite dangerous.
She had one more question. While packing up her equipment, she tossed it out. “What were you thinking when I asked ‘Would you ever do anything to harm the Republic of South Africa’?”
What was I thinking that must have alerted her? Clearly even the tranqu didn’t disguise that that had hurt. I have always, in my tiny way, served our beloved country. I realised that was what I had been thinking. And “How can you question my loyalty to South Africa SINCE DEMOCRACY?” Also, “How very, very sad that 22 years into our democracy I am being questioned, in our People’s Parliament, by the security forces.”
Now it was my turn to ask a question. I threw it right at her. “Why ever would I want to harm my country? I love it.” I said. Truthfully. She didn’t reply, didn’t even look at me. I wondered if maybe this time one of her buttock muscles may have twitched. DM
Moira Levy is a former staff member of Parliament’s communications service. She is now founding publisher/editor of Notes from the House
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