After numerous technical glitches during an initial virtual hearing, Mahlobo was finally personally chauffeured by the commission to the venue, where he continued to obfuscate, argue, evade questions and paint the broadest of strokes.
As the former minister of state security in the Zuma administration and as a key Cabinet member implicated by several witnesses as a strategic enabler of State Capture, Mahlobo brought with him to proceedings the requisite air of paranoia and moments of a mental knit one, slip one.
At various junctures, Mahlobo seemed at pains to ram home that the “eyes of the world” were watching the commission.
He also offered “Bab’ Zondo” – as he consistently referred Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo – the sage advice that “I can have a spy in my bedroom or my home. It is everyone. It is about the security of the state. In intelligence it is very simple: you must just know someone is listening and watching.”
That the hearings have been freely broadcast live across multiple channels to millions since the start of the commission in 2018 seems to have escaped the former minister. Perhaps he is not accustomed to operating in a transparent manner.
While refusing to answer many straightforward questions by evidence leader Paul Pretorius, Mahhlobo maintained consistently that he was at the commission “to support and help”.
When an issue arose with regard to his microphone Mahlobo cautioned Zondo that, “I can do profiling. How you speak, how you read… this is not on a closed session, someone is taking notes somewhere”.
Indeed, a multitude of journalists as well as South African citizens.
Later, justifying the direction that foreign counterintelligence measures took under his watch, Mahlobo was at pains to point out that South Africa was a strategic target for foreign intelligence agencies (unnamed) intent on “pursuing their objectives” (undeclared).
People, he warned, could be recruited by foreign agencies “knowingly or unknowingly, wittingly or unwittingly”.
No one was immune to these powers determined to pursue their own objectives including economic and political dominance (undefined).
“I repeat, no one is immune from recruitment. They can recruit a minister, they can even recruit a president. They can recruit a judge, they can recruit a parliamentarian. You can recruit as long as you know what kind of information and influence you need,” Mahlobo told Justice Zondo, balling his right hand into a fist.
Throughout his testimony on Friday, Mahlobo proved to be an evasive and hostile witness who sought to cul-de-sac almost every question put to him by evidence leader Paul Pretorius.
Pretorius attempted to unpack the level and nature of Mahlobo’s oversight as minister of the State Security Agency which wielded enormous unaccountable power and which has been accused of establishing a parallel intelligence network at the service of former president Jacob Zuma.
These were findings not only by the High Level Panel review into the State Security Agency but also in testimony under oath to the commission by panel chair, Sydney Mufamadi and also then SSA acting DG, Loyiso Jafta.
Mahlobo presented various arguments as to why he could not respond to questions, including that he had not had sight of various documents which form the basis of the commission’s evidence against the SSA and Mahlobo.
It was a claim of which Pretorius soon made short shrift, reminding Mahlobo of various communications between commision investigators and his legal team.
Nonetheless, Mahlobo held fast, denying he ever involved himself in the operational matters of the SSA, as has been alleged, and reminding the commission that “there is no law that says that a minister or the president must be involved or not”.
Mahlobo took the opportunity to introduce other global agencies to his evidence and how they went about their work including “the Russians, the Chinese, the British and the CIA”.
“In other countries, they actually get presidents to interfere in another country,” said Mahlobo without providing any specific examples.
To which Pretorius responded that surely South Africa should apply and adhere to “our own policies and institutions” and not those of other countries.
“Let me assist you,” Mahlobo offered Pretorius, “that is an opinion”.
With regard to allegations that domestic “counterintelligence” operations by the SSA had been illegal, Mahlobo replied these should be dismissed with the “contempt it deserves”.
It was the governing party’s strategic goals, as well as other intelligence legislation, that had resulted in a “risk assessment” that had in turn warranted these “counterintelligence” activities, he said.
While Mahlobo said that the ANC’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was not a public document, he would “take the liberty” of setting out some of its strategic aims. These included “threats to the authority of the state, violent community protest, violent industrial action, violence in the education protests, cyber security and the private security industry”.
The adjective “violent” was to be noted, said Mahobo as this “borders on matters of the law”.
Other areas of concern were “border security, illegal migration and anti-foreigner sentiment”. And then there were the existential threats of “want”, including hunger and poverty.
The biggest threat to the economy, Mahlobo said, had been identified as corruption in various areas as well as “negative” foreign forces seeking to influence the country’s politics.
“Corruption is our enemy, not only here but in the whole world and it must be fought and it takes different forms. The creation of the commission itself is to deal with this issue, your excellency,” said Mahlobo.
Asked to identify these specific “foreign threats” Mahlobo responded, “let it be on record: Not everybody is a friend to South Africa. We do have enemies”.
Even countries that South Africa might regard as “friends” and with whom it shared “certain things” would not hesitate in “pursuing their own national interests even to their dominance economically”.
“Some, they live here, they are declared here. This country has these people but in the covert world, there are people you will never see and you must never see them,” Mahlobo offered.
No one was immune to recruitment by these foreign forces, Mahlobo warned, “not even presidents, judges or parliamentarians”.
When asked by Pretorius which domestic forces the foreign intelligence bodies had targeted, Mahlobo shot wide, saying all sectors, and that everyone was at risk of being recruited.
“I can’t say who is a spy or not a spy whether my wife or kids are a spy or not,” he replied enigmatically.
Asked to elaborate on “violent industrial action” and whether this included trade unions, Mahlobo replied that his reference to “labour” was about “all workers” and not specifically trade unions.
Mahlobo said the only time he had intervened in the operations of the agency was when the budgets appeared to be out of control.
He said official records of the secret service account did not reflect the true nature of the operations. The true nature of these were only known to the project manager and the team of assets as all projects occured on a “need-to-know basis”.
Pretorius asked if there were any documents that reflected “true operations”. Mahlobo kicked the can on to the SSA’s then accounting officer, who would have been Arthur Fraser, to perhaps deal with later.
“You are not saying they have been falsified, you are saying the full detail would not be reflected in the official records?”
Mahlobo denied that he had personally authorised projects or collected money.
“There is no evidence, no paper trail,” he said.
Mahlobo’s testimony continued on Friday evening. DM
"You at this time can only be destroyed by yourselves from within and not from without. You have reached the point where the victory is to be won from within and can only be lost from within." ~ Marcus Garvey
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