The story of Thebe Maswabi and the Workers Association Union (WAU), a “labour union” for mine workers launched on South Africa’s troubled platinum belt, must count among the most astonishing examples of Jacob Zuma’s disregard for the Constitution he supposedly helped fight for and swore his allegiance to, twice.
It may also be one of the most incredible stories to emanate from Zuma’s long-standing penchant for all things clandestine, and generally dodgy.
In early 2014, Maswabi and a few other individuals formally launched the WAU in Rustenburg, the heart of South Africa’s then-thriving platinum mining sector. Although the platinum price collapse that would sink the area’s economy lay in the not-so-distant future, the sector was already awash with problems. Tensions between large mining companies and mine workers, especially those affiliated with the anti-ANC Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), were never put to bed following August 2012 Marikana massacre, and the workers’ demands for higher wages remained unresolved.
At some point after the Marikana massacre, AMCU unseated the ANC-aligned National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as the lead labour union on the conflict-ridden platinum belt. Politically, this spelt trouble for the ANC. South Africa’s union environment is intimately linked to its political landscape. Labour unions that drift outside the fold of Cosatu and its pro-ANC member unions could easily become hotbeds for political mobilisation against the ruling party. Judging by subsequent events, beady eyes within South Africa’s spy environment were closely watching AMCU’s growing popularity.
When the WAU arrived on the scene in early 2014, there were almost immediately rumours that it had been formed specifically to neutralise AMCU by stealing its support.
At the WAU’s launch, which was covered by the now-defunct South African Press Agency (SAPA), one of the new union’s leaders dismissed such claims. The WAU leader said the union was “apolitical” and had not been established to fight AMCU.
“We are not in competition, but to serve our members,” SAPA quoted him as saying.
However, about two years later, around mid-2016, Maswabi filed papers in the Pretoria High Court that Zuma, then State Security minister David Mahlobo and the SSA would not have wanted in the public domain. Maswabi was suing Zuma, Mahlobo, the agency and other figures. His accompanying affidavit contained some jaw-dropping claims. In short, Maswabi alleged that the whole WAU was a fake labour union that he had been tasked to help form on instruction from Zuma and with the assistance of SSA agents.
In his court papers, Maswabi provided startling details on how the plot was put together. He had met Zuma on several occasions throughout 2013 to plan the WAU’s launch, Maswabi had claimed. On one occasion, he had even apparently flown to Europe to meet with Zuma. The SSA agents, meanwhile, provided Maswabi with huge bags of cash and even flashy cars to help him set up the WAU, according to the court papers. But at some point, Maswabi’s cash flow was cut off, hence his decision to sue Zuma, Mahlobo and the SSA.
Maswabi’s court filings made it very clear what Zuma had allegedly wanted to achieve by establishing the WAU – the new union had to weaken AMCU by trying to lure away some of its members. Most troublingly, Maswabi was also instructed to help “acquire sensitive information from their rival trade unions”, he claimed in his affidavit. In other words, the WAU was to help the SSA spy on AMCU.
When I reported on Maswabi and the WAU in 2016, I found evidence that this was by no means a story made up by a man who merely wanted to squeeze a few bucks out of government. The WAU’s registration papers at the department of labour contained a cellphone number that I was able to trace to Monde Gadini, a known SSA operative who also happened to be married to one of Zuma’s then legal advisers.
Although only mentioned very briefly, the story of the WAU made it into the high-level review panel’s report on the SSA, which was released over the weekend:
“The panel also heard testimony and was provided with legal papers about a union that was established with the support of the SO Unit [Special Operations Unit] of the SSA (the Workers’ Association Union) ostensibly to neutralise instability in the platinum belt,” reads the report.
The review panel, which began its work in mid-2018 and concluded its report in December, also confirmed or unearthed a slew of other examples of corruption, unlawful activities and politically-motivated projects that had been perpetuated or run by the SSA and especially its SO Unit. SSA agents infiltrated and disrupted anti-Zuma protest movements, sabotaged CR17 (Cyril Ramphosa’s campaign to become president of the ANC) and spied on the media, labour unions and civil society organisations like South Africa First, Right to Know and SAVE SA, according to the report.
The SSA’s SO unit had been turned into a “parallel intelligence structure serving a faction of the ruling party and, in particular, the personal political interests of the sitting president of the party and the country”, the panel found.
In the process, the SSA and its rogue elements trampled on the Constitution and apparently broke just about every law, rule and regulation that govern the activities of intelligence agencies in South Africa.
For instance, the creation of a bogus labour union and other politically-motivated covert projects amounted to “social engineering” that “constitute[d] a serious breach of the Constitution and law for which there must be consequences”, the panel members found.
The report also expresses the following censure:
“The attempts to influence the trade union movement and civil society organisations in South Africa, through surveillance, was an improper use of public resources and violated the constitutionally mandated role of the SSA to remain politically impartial.”
Apart from activities that clearly served to further the interests of Zuma and help ensure his political survival, the SSA was also steadily turned into a powerful functionary of the broader state capture project. The ousting from the SSA in 2011 of agency bosses Gibson Njenje, Jeff Maqetuka and Mo Shaik because of an investigation they conducted into the Gupta family is a case in point. This trio of top SSA officials tried to warn then State Security minister Siyabonga Cwele and Zuma about the dangers of being associated with the Gupta family, but their “report was suppressed and in part led to a change of leadership within the SSA”, according to the review panel’s report. In other words, Njenje, Maqetuka and Shaik were effectively pushed out of the SSA because they dared to raise some uncomfortable truths about Zuma and his besties from Saxonwold.
After the trio of SSA leaders left the agency, things got especially bad. While the SSA and especially the SO unit got up to all manner of politically-motivated mischief, the agency’s resources were plundered not only to fund dubious covert projects but also to enrich SSA officers, their friends and family and, apparently, even the minister (the report doesn’t make it clear whether this was Cwele or his successor, David Mahlobo). There was “wide-ranging resource abuse [and] the SSA became in effect a ‘cash cow’ for many of its members and external stakeholders”, according to the report.
One example highlighted by the panel underpins the impunity with which the SSA’s rogue spooks were allowed to help themselves to their agency’s resources. In December 2015, an amount of about R17 million went missing from a safe at the SSA’s headquarters near Pretoria. The entire heist was caught on camera.
“In spite of video footage of the perpetrators and the outcome of internal investigations, there appears to have been no consequence management for this incident. Of particular concern is the report the Panel received that the head of the DPCI (‘Hawks’) at the time failed to take the investigation of the burglary to its logical conclusion,” reads the report.
Former SSA DG Arthur Fraser’s Principal Agent Network (PAN) also ran amok when it came to the agency’s resources. PAN members and affiliates allegedly subverted “proper procurement processes; signed fraudulent contracts or made payments to persons without contracts having been signed; [employed] family members and close associates outside of formal processes’ and ‘abused’ assets”, according to the report.
Given the fact that the SSA was ostensibly moulded into something of a personal political goon squad for Zuma and his cronies, it should come as no surprise that the agency’s legitimate work suffered as a result. A modern intelligence agency should protect the country it serves from “terrorist groups, crime syndicates [and] corrupt networks”, among other important tasks, but it seems the SSA lost sight of these expectations. The review panel assessed a few “SSA products” (intelligence reports) and spoke to a broad range of people who had insight into the agency’s work. The panel was left with “the impression that the quality of the intelligence products of the SSA had deteriorated in recent years”.
The 10-person review panel, chaired by former safety and security minister Dr Sydney Mufamadi, was tasked not only with identifying the most prominent problems at the SSA but also with drawing the outlines for a possible rescue plan. According to the report, the panel first had to determine “what the hell happened”.
In this regard, the deterioration of the agency was very much in line with the fate suffered by other state institutions during Zuma’s years in power. Zuma first strengthened his grip on the country’s intelligence environment by orchestrating the wholesale centralisation of previously separate intelligence-gathering entities. This happened in 2009, the very first year of Zuma’s term in office, which attests to the value the then president attached to exerting control over the country’s spooks. (As a former intelligence officer himself, it should probably not surprise us that Zuma’s capture project apparently started at the country’s intelligence apparatus). In that year, Zuma oversaw the amalgamation of the South African Secret Service (tasked with foreign intelligence-gathering), the National Intelligence Agency (domestic intelligence) the National Communications Centre and other intelligence outfits to form the SSA. This involved much more than a mere rebranding exercise. The name change “marked a doctrinal shift” from national security to state security, which was “in breach of the human security philosophy of our democratic intelligence dispensation contained in the Constitution and the  White Paper [on intelligence]”, found the panel.
The amalgamation showcased the Zuma administration’s arrogance and single-mindedness when it came to effecting far-reaching changes to the architecture of key state institutions without the necessary consultation with “Parliament and with the public”, and without adhering to the proper legal requirements. Most tellingly, Zuma bulldozed over his own party’s policies when he merged the various intelligence structures. After all, it was the ANC that, in the early 1990s, campaigned for “separate internal and external services based on benchmarking with other democracies and the necessary specialised focus”, according to the review panel report.
The centralised intelligence environment resulted in an “excessive concentration of power”. A “super DG” (director-general) oversaw all of the SSA’s day-to-day operations, while the State Security ministers aligned to Zuma directly involved themselves in the agency’s activities and consequently fuelled “the extremely serious politicisation and factionalisation of the civilian intelligence community”, according to the report.
The centralised (read: captured) intelligence environment laid the basis of a spy agency that would carry out “manifestly illegal orders” to the benefit of Zuma and his cohorts. The Constitution and related laws and regulations contain bulwarks against these sorts of abuses. However, during Zuma’s terms in office, these theoretical constraints remained nothing more than mere words written on pieces of paper.
The Inspector General of Intelligence (IGI), technically the most important watcher of the watchers, did raise serious concerns over the SSA’s conduct during this time, but “no action or consequence management took place in response to the IGI’s reports”, the review panel determined. Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence (JSCI), which is dominated by ANC MPs, received an even less favourable assessment. The panel stated that “the JSCI played little role in recent years in curbing the infractions of the SSA and that no effective oversight on its part was carried out”.
On the financial front, SSA bosses and officials avoided scrutiny, accountability and control measures by insisting that its financial affairs needed to be protected by the same cloak of secrecy that was draped over its operational activities. The SSA’s own Chief Financial Officer (CFO) couldn’t properly audit the agency’s finances because this person was “restricted in terms of information he or she [could] obtain from covert structures”, the panel members found. Naturally, the Auditor General (AG) was also kept in the dark. The AG was “not provided with access to information to allow him to verify the finances and assets of the SSA” and therefore had to routinely slap the SSA with a qualified audit.
The review panel recommended an overhaul of the oversight and control mechanisms that were supposed to have kept the country’s spooks in check. It also recommended further probes and possible criminal prosecution in cases where SSA agents and bosses, along with their political principals, allegedly stole money and ran illegal, politically-motivated covert operations.
The report, in its own words, does go a long way in detailing “what the hell went wrong” with the SSA. But it cannot be the final say in this regard. If rogue SSA operatives had indeed “infiltrated” and “influenced” the media, as suggested by the panel, South Africans deserve much more detail and transparency in this regard. For instance, we need to know if there were journalists at supposedly reputable media outlets who furthered the Zuma-led state capture project through dubious reportage on instruction from the SSA. Similarly, if the SSA had spied on civil society bodies and NGOs like Right to Know and Greenpeace, as mentioned in the report, these entities deserve to be taken into the review panel’s confidence with regards to how and by whom these illicit projects were carried out.
Finally, the panel’s most far-reaching recommendations, if adhered to, will inevitably heighten tensions between Ramaphosa and the ANC faction aligned to, and still loyal, to Zuma. The panel wants the SSA to be unbundled to again form independent intelligence outfits, as originally envisaged by the policy-makers who tried to align the activities and focus of our spooks to the prescripts of the Constitution. The report also calls for a leaner intelligence community. This decentralisation and scaling-down of the SSA, along with better financial controls and possible criminal prosecutions, will disempower spooks aligned to the Zuma camp, cut off their access to covert funds and potentially land some of them in jail.
Only time will tell if Ramaphosa truly possesses the grit and steadfastness to let the law run its course and carry out vital reforms that may bring him yet another step nearer to a final showdown with the Zuma lot and their shady allies in espionage. The clock is indeed ticking. DM