South Africa


High panel on State Security, a good step towards a real reboot

Photo: Stock photo of surveillance cameras taken in Northwest Corpus Christi, Corpus Christi, Texas by Jay Phagan. July 27, 2014

One of the most important of Ramaphosa’s efforts to rebuild the trust in South Africa is fixing the State Security Agency. It is literally one of the most important factors in whether this country will remain a democracy in the future.

In his quest to consolidate power and then rebuild the state, President Cyril Ramaphosa currently has a lot on his plate. Much of the attention at the moment is focused on replacing the corrupt cadres from Team Zuma (it’s probably time to discuss whether we should still use the word “alleged” in the case of someone like Brian Molefe) with people who will break that cycle of corruption. It is also a chance to rebuild some parts of the state, to ensure that what happened under Zuma (and started under Mbeki before him) cannot happen again.

On June 15 2018 the Presidency announced that Ramaphosa had set up a high-level panel to investigate the mandate, capacity and structure of the State Security Agency. The panel is supposed to investigate the ways the agency was misused and to make sure it can’t happen again.

There is now absolutely no doubt of the role the agency played in setting up the structure which allowed Zuma to stay in power for so long. Looking at certain events now, it was clear that he had influence in the agency long before he won the ANC’s leadership at Polokwane.

The political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi has written of conversations he had with SSA officials before that conference, in which he implored them to stay out of the domestic politics of the country. He says that his advice was ignored. Then, of course, there is the incredible book by the journalist Jacques Pauw, The President’s Keepers, which detailed just the most astonishing level of political corruption in the agency.

It was surely all of this that ensured that once Ramaphosa had attained state power, one of his first moves was to get the director-general at the agency, Arthur Fraser, out of the way so couldn’t harm the country so directly anymore. He was moved to the position of director-general of Correctional Services. While the moral case to criticise this move was strong, in that someone who is accused of corruption should not have been allowed to remain in government, the outrage that followed missed the strategic value of this step.

Having accepted the decision to move, Fraser cannot now un-accept it. In other words, there is now no prospect of him in any shape or form going to court to attempt to get his job back. This was clever strategy by Ramaphosa, as it ensures that he now has a free hand with the SSA.

It is easy to say that what Ramaphosa is doing is simply removing Zuma’s people and replacing them with his own. That alone would be enough to raise hopes for many. But in fact, looking at the stated aims of the panel, and the people he has appointed to it, it appears to be much more far-reaching than that. This suggests that what Ramaphosa is really doing is to try redefine what the role of our spies should be.

This was always complicated and contested terrain. While the intelligence apparatus of the apartheid government was involved in many evil acts aimed at upholding a racist regime, it was also one of its top spies, Neil Barnard, who first met secretly with the ANC in the 1980s and paved the way for the meetings between Nelson Mandela and PW Botha. There are some things that by their very nature, only spies can do.

At the same time, it is obvious that democratic societies grapple with how to determine what the limits of their powers should be and how to control them. The Snowden scandal in the US, in which it was revealed that their government appear to have access to an incredible array of data on almost everybody, and is able to listen to anyone’s communications, is a good example of this quandary. And despite the fact that so many people of influence in that society claimed to be appalled at what was happening, there is very little evidence that the practices of those agencies has really changed significantly.

It is also clear that here, the Office of the Inspector-General of Intelligence is simply not having enough bite. Advocate Faith Radebe’s tenure was marked by her absence, the ANC was able to actually keep the position vacant for nearly two years after she left. The new appointment, Dr Setlhomamaru Dintwe was largely silent, until Fraser tried to stop him from investigating Pauw’s claims.

It is obvious more oversight is needed.

The chair of the high-level panel, Dr Sydney Mufamadi, is probably going to be seen as a good choice. He has experience in government (he was a Safety and Security Minister under Nelson Mandela and served in Mbkei’s Cabinet), and has since become an academic with an interest in governance.

More importantly, he appears to have had very little involvement with all of the political in-fighting in this sector both before and after Polokwane.

Murray Michell, the previous head of the Financial Intelligence Centre, has played an important role in the fight against the Guptas. Also, it was his agency who was able to pinpoint the suspicious money movements by SARS second in command, Jonas Makwakwa, which played a big role in the downfall of the commissioner Tom Moyane.

Michell also has a massive Struggle history of his own, which may come in useful in this regard. Then there is Andre Pruis. Pruis was once one of the top officers in the country under police commissioner Jackie Selebi. He was entrusted with security of the 2010 World Cup.

One of the surprise appointments that will give real credibility to the panel, and is indication of how serious Ramaphosa is with this move, is that of Professor Jane Duncan (a frequent contributor to Daily Maverick – Ed). She has emerged as perhaps the nation’s foremost thinker on issues of privacy. She leads the debate in this field, and will make sure that whatever is decided is at up to date as possible.

Duncan is also unafraid to speak out, and anyone who disagrees with her on issues of privacy will have to prepare well to deal with the arguments she will present. Should this process end with her full buy-in and approval, even people who are hardwired to distrust the intelligence services (such as various NGOs, including Right 2 Know) are going to be much more likely to accept its outcome.

But the panel should be under no illusions about the difficulties of this task. There will inevitably be a call for it to hold its deliberations in public. That is certainly unlikely – that’s just not how these things work. There are also difficult trade-offs to make, in terms of how far it can go in changing practices that have become entrenched over a period of 10 years.

And then there is the problem that Zuma has shown a system can only be as strong as the people appointed to the key positions. In some cases, the officers working for Police Crime Intelligence simply placed false documents on the desk of a judge tasked with approving the tapping of phones, to get access to the conversations of journalists. Guarding against that is very difficult indeed. As with so many other things in the “New Dawn” we are supposed to be going through at the moment, this is a good start. The hard work is still to come. DM


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