SAPS vetting raises more questions than answers as one in 10 top brass dodges the procedure

By Marianne Merten 14 March 2019

National Police Commissioner General Khehla Sitole during a media briefing to announce SAPS’ new anti-crime initiative on June 04, 2018 in Pretoria, South Africa. In their efforts to combat crime and curb aggravated robberies, Sitole and Police Minister Bheki Cele revealed an operation to boast the number of ground forces and introduce 24-hour blue light patrols. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Thulani Mbele)

One in 10 senior SAPS managers does not have the required security clearance vetting. This emerged on Wednesday before Parliament’s police committee, where no one remembered to ask why security clearance is linked to rank, rather than job competence and decision-making authority.

MPs on the police committee wanted reassurance from SAPS national commissioner Lieutenant-General Khehla Sitole that police crime intelligence did not suffer from the ailments and deficiencies the High-Level Panel Review Report on the State Security Agency (SSA) had found: Politicisation, wide-ranging claims of abuse of funds, corruption and lack of consequences for a host of transgressions as operatives fought political battles in contravention of the constitutional imperative of impartiality.

A redacted version of the December 2018 report was released on 9 March 2019, amid official undertakings there would be action against transgressors.

Some panel recommendations, such as the splitting of the SSA into domestic and foreign branches, were already announced as being implemented in February when President Cyril Ramaphosa replied to the parliamentary debate on his State of the Nation Address.

On Tuesday, police committee chairperson Francois Beukman, in reference to the High-level panel review report, asked whether there was evidence that “members of crime intelligence are acting on their own impulse… unauthorised surveillance of individuals” and whether there was consequence management.

Or as EFF MP Phillip Mhlongo put it:

Is our crime intelligence also part of State Capture?”

No, said national SAPS commissioner Sitole, crime intelligence was not captured: “I think we are affected, but we are not infected.”

Because both crime intelligence and SSA are part of the South African intelligence community, “if SSA is functioning not normally, it will impact on crime intelligence”, Sitole told MPs, adding: “Some findings of that (High-level review panel report) affect how intelligence should operate in the police.”

But he insisted how police crime intelligence is working now, a year after a permanent boss was appointed and “an intense review” that led to refocusing on intelligence collection and threat identification from kidnapping to cash in transit heists, meant it was aligned to the High-level review panel report’s findings.

MPs did not question this, nor raise concerns, when Sitole told them that in future police would provide “maximum information”, but only if committee meetings were closed sessions in the interest of what he called “national security”.

ANC MP Jerome Maake had raised the secrecy stakes, arguing there was no need for “direct questions… There are too many cameras”.

Such attitudes from Sitole and the ANC MP reflect directly on to what the High-Level Review Panel Report on the SSA described as excessive secrecy that stifled effective accountability.

The South African intelligence community has erred on the side of excessive secrecy and this can largely explain the various forms of malfeasance that this report (and others before it) have identified.”

The report, in a call clearly aimed beyond state security also to police and defence — the security services established in Section 199 of the Constitution — urges the development of a policy on “an appropriate balance between secrecy and transparency for the intelligence services”, and with the finance ministry also review the operations of the secret account that funds intelligence operations.

Coincidentally, an illustration of the invocation of secrecy stretched to almost absurd levels came from former state security minister David Mahlobo, who in his 2017 budget vote briefing declined to say how much his department was getting, although the number was publicly available in the Estimates of National Expenditure, one of the Budget documents.

Effective intelligence, while requiring among others the essential component of secrecy, needs to be sensitive to the interests and values of a democratic society,” said the high-level review panel report.

The development of a more open intelligence community will go a long way towards demystifying and building trust in the national intelligence communities. Where legal limits of secrecy, including criteria and time frames for classification, are clearly understood and accepted by society, the dangers of the intelligence system becoming self-serving are averted.”

Like secrecy, vetting has gone over the top in many cases. The high level review panel report, again, is insightful, showing the bizarre SSA vetting of SABC staff and also doctors working in the public health sector.

The report recommended an urgent policy review regarding the scope and reach of the agency’s vetting mandate and “to clearly identify the division between the normal probity checks of existing and prospective state employees to be undertaken by the employing departments and the more focused security competency vetting to be undertaken by the SSA”.

Many in the security world acknowledge a security clearance is no guarantee of good conduct in line with legislation, prescripts and the Constitution. And a strong argument is made that vetting and security clearance levels — from confidential to top secret — should be linked to job competency and function, not rank.

In many policing and security circles, lifestyle audits are deemed as more effective in flagging potentially risky behaviour and conduct because they track conduct over time.

To illustrate:

Under the current SAPS norms, an HQ-based brigadier in police car fleet management would need top-secret security clearance because of his rank, although he may never come across a classified document requiring such clearance as part of his job or decision-making. But the security clearance is no obstacle to this brigadier dipping fingers into the potentially lucrative pie of kickbacks related to tenders a police officer in this post may issue.

And only a lifestyle audit tracking the acquisition of, for example, a car whose payments are beyond a brigadier’s income, or a luxury home or a series of overseas trips, is an effective stop to police corruption and dodgy conduct.

But the SAPS treats lifestyle audits as an add-on — a three-year project driven by crime intelligence. The first 9,972 lifestyle audits have been completed, with all but 0.85% passing with flying colours. Crime intelligence boss, Major-General Peter Jacobs, on Tuesday declined to provide details of the 0.85% of police officers who were red-flagged, saying further investigations would have to be done.

This first batch of lifestyle audits included top management ranks, the 17 bid committee members dealing with tenders, the 8,267 crime intelligence members and the 865 police officials based at the OR Tambo International Airport.

The next batch of lifestyle audits — 9,604 SAPS members — includes the 2,421 members of the Hawks, the 1,369 police officials working in the national supply chain and the 305 in the national technology management section, alongside the 213 Western Cape anti-gang unit members, 171 police officials working at Cape Town Harbour and the 961 working at Durban Harbour.

According to the SAPS briefing to MPs, the third phase would include station commissioners, the detective service, including provincial detective units, branch commanders, other gang units and the firearms, liquor and second-hand goods police officers.

But Tuesday’s focus was on vetting — the numbers, not the policy or reason.

Statistics presented to MPs on Tuesday show that it’s all about the rank. Of the 896 senior police management from lieutenants-general to brigadiers, 417 have top-secret valid clearance, four secret and five confidential, while 374 vetting processes are still underway.

Forty-six senior police managers — five major-generals and 41 brigadiers — simply have not applied for the required security clearance, while security clearance applications from five major-generals and 13 brigadiers have been denied. And 32 senior SAPS managers — six lieutenant-generals, seven major-generals and 19 brigadiers — have allowed their security clearances to expire, according to the SAPS briefing to the police committee.

When MPs asked what action had been taken against those who failed to obtain their security clearance or failed, the response was that failure to comply would trigger disciplinary processes. But there were appeals and applications for condonation first.

Crime intelligence is going to give us a full report regarding the implication of continued deployment… Can we keep the person (in this post) without clearance?” said Sitole.

When ANC MP Martha Mmola reminded Sitole he told them in May 2018 and again in November that year, how security clearance would be linked to the employment contract and those without a security clearance would lose their jobs, the national police commissioner responded that human resources processes were still underway. But linking security clearance and employment would be in place “in the near future”.

Important questions must be asked of the SAPS’s focus on rank-linked security clearance certificates more likely to foster tendencies of secrecy rather than prevent malfeasance or corruption, particularly in the absence of the more qualitative scrutiny of lifestyle audits. DM


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