The rot in the state security and intelligence sector is no secret. It has been manifest from before the Zuma era, but particularly since. As with other sectors of the state, but perhaps even more so, politicisation, corruption and demoralisation have been rife.
The appointment of inept security ministers by President Zuma was shocking; the resignation in disgust of senior staff sensational; the abuse of power and resources disastrous, the centralisation of power for manipulation and access to funds scandalous.
There has been no unqualified, clean audit of the books since inception – with investigations into the misuse of funds getting nowhere. The auditor general (AG) has no oversight into secret operational funds which become slush funds for corrupt practices and illegal operations. For all the cry of foreign agents being behind so many of the country’s troubles, there has never been a case of espionage uncovered.
While the intelligence agencies have focused on internal political intrigues, from presidential succession issues to the surveillance of public figures and interference into legitimate political protests, they have failed to detect the biggest threats to the country’s security – State Capture concerning the Gupta and Watson syndicates operating under their very noses. Whether they are organised enough to catch a spy is quite another question. It is not that there are no dedicated personnel who in the past have proved their worth. The fish rots from the head and it is patently clear that is where the source of the problem has originated and spread.
President Cyril Ramaphosa appears to have been taking significant though cautious steps to address what is clearly a national crisis. Can he clean up the stinking rot in the Augean stables of state security and intelligence? This can be no easy task and he needs all the will and support he can muster.
He prioritised the issue in his State of the Nation Address on 7 February by raising the matter almost from the start of his speech, which must show how serious he is.
It was a short statement which deserves unpacking because it was filled with intent and substance.
Saying he was acting to restore the credibility of institutions like the National Prosecuting Authority, the South African Revenue Service, and the State Security Agency (SSA), he continued: [my italics]
“On the basis of the report and recommendations of the High Level Review Panel on the State Security Agency, which was chaired by former Minister Sydney Mufamadi, I will soon be announcing a number of urgent steps to enable the reconstitution of a professional national intelligence capability for South Africa – whose task must be to defend and protect the people of South Africa and not any party political official.
“Among the steps we will take to reconstitute a professional national intelligence capability will be the re-establishment of the National Security Council chaired by the President in order to ensure better coordination of the intelligence and security-related functions of the State as well as the re-establishment of two arms of our intelligence service, one focusing on domestic and the other on foreign intelligence.”
What Ramaphosa is doing is reversing the damage wrought by his predecessor, Zuma. Note his emphasis on reconstituting “a professional intelligence capability”. [my italics]
This is a turnaround from what had degenerated into a self-serving institution where professionalism and capability were destroyed by a personal agenda aimed at protecting a party political official rather than defending the people of our country.
Re-establishing the National Security Council clearly enhances the intelligence and security functions of the state, but also prevents the monopoly of secretive power in the hands of a single person.
Re-establishing two branches of intelligence – domestic and foreign – provides a better division of labour, which was lost (to the detriment of foreign intelligence), and prevents control residing in one superstructure under a single director-general. Zuma had collapsed the previous division of two arms of intelligence, NIA and SASS, reinforcing control within the hands of a single person.
So far so good, as far as the presidential announcement goes; however, re-establishing structures that were in place in the past, before Zuma’s presidency, cannot possibly on their own provide the magic cure to the problems.
We keenly await the announcement of the steps Ramaphosa promised he would soon be making.
If we are to protect our people’s rights, then interference into the legal activity of organisations or individuals in keeping with constitutional rights must be respected. Perverse political agenda and intrigue, illegal methods and abuse of resources, surveillance and interception of communications, as in the bad old days of the apartheid police state, must be a thing of the past.
To achieve this, the broad political mandate of domestic intelligence must be more narrowly defined than at present, mainly to counter espionage and insurrection. The broad legal activities of political parties, trade unions, leadership succession, political protest, civil advocacy groups, and investigative journalists should not be targets of the whole array of secret surveillance.
As the President addressed the issue of professionalism, his body language and knowing smile spoke volumes, as he himself has been the target of unwarranted surveillance and the false allegation by NIA in the past.
There are many areas that require correcting. From increasing the power of the AG to the capacity of the office of the IG; from a strengthened Parliamentary Committee to internal regulations and controls within the services.
Until we know more about the Panel’s Report and recommendations, which should be open to public scrutiny and full parliamentary debate, we could take a leaf out of the Matthew Commission Report of 2008 with all its recommendations. This was placed in the public domain but ignored by the Zuma administration.
Just one recommendation was that personnel should undergo a civic education programme, including understanding the constitution.
Also hammered home are principles of professionalism, such as owing allegiance to the Constitution; not being above the law; accepting the principle of political non-partisanship, and being subordinate and accountable to the elected civilian authority.
Clearing out the Augean stables is a Herculean task. DM
Ronnie Kasrils was Minister of Intelligence Services 2004-2008.
Japan had a monster-collecting card game as far back as the Edo period (1603-1868).