South Africa


SA’s proposed National Security Strategy — more hot air or a potential democratic opening?

SA’s proposed National Security Strategy — more hot air or a potential democratic opening?
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his 2022 State of the Nation address in Cape Town, 10 February 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Nic Bothma / Pool)

The development of a National Security Strategy could provide a democratic opening to confront the mess that the country’s national security institutions have become — to rise above the mess just for a while and develop a more positive vision for the future.

During his 2022 State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the government will prioritise the development of a National Security Strategy. He called on South Africans to participate in its development and argued that Parliament should facilitate inclusive consultation on the strategy.

This announcement follows a recommendation by the Expert Panel into the July 2021 civil unrest that a strategy should be developed and reviewed every three years. As the panel argued:

“A National Security Strategy should be just that, national. For too long, we have delayed embarking on an inclusive process of defining what we regard as the threats to our common security. 

“We propose that the president initiates the drawing up of a National Security Strategy in an open manner that involves all sectors of society.” 

A National Security Strategy: So what?

A National Security Strategy is a high-level document usually developed by a country’s National Security Council. This document is meant to set out a country’s strategic vision for national security, the major threats it faces and how the government intends to deal with them. It should also set out the longer-term strategies to be used, and the resources needed to achieve that vision.

Many countries have strategies that are usually renewed when new administrations are elected. Some governments incorporate public consultation into the process, while others are written exclusively by technocrats, or worse, securocrats. Some are secret, others are public and still others have public versions and (usually longer and more detailed) classified versions.  

Conventional strategies generally spell out core national security values and objectives and assess major national security interests and threats to those interests. They also spell out the priorities for responding to those threats, and the security sector actors that should lead on its implementation. 

These strategies may also outline oversight over the actors, and the resources and partnerships needed to achieve their objectives. This planning process is meant to ensure that governments avoid “adhocracy”, where they take national security decisions on an ad hoc basis without any forward planning.  

However, all too often, national security strategies are hot air that have little of substance to say about either national security or strategy. They are usually conservative, nationalistic, status quo documents that typically justify massive increases in national security powers and budgets. 

Successive US administrations have used these strategies as power projects to justify militaristic foreign policy. The US government has also used them ultimately to justify indefinite detention, targeted killing, trial by military commissions, warrantless surveillance and racial, religious and other forms of profiling. 

The UK’s strategy has failed to address its own role in creating insecurity globally through disastrous foreign interventions in support of the war on terror. Some countries have conflated terrorism and domestic dissent mainly by expanding their focus to include the direct action of activists into “domestic extremism”. 

South Africans have become cynical about state intelligence agencies, and rightly so. After all, they have done little to deal with the real threats to national security when the country has needed them the most

There is evidence suggesting that they have, at times, even become national security threats themselves. The spy agencies have even become cash machines for political elites. 

Furthermore, as the Expert Panel on the July 2021 unrest found, the National Security Council was largely missing in action in the build-up to the unrest — so why would anyone trust it with this process? 

As tempting as it may be, it is important not to dismiss the idea of a national security strategy, or the commitment to developing one. In fact, it could be highly consequential, not only for the final product, but for the process that will need to be followed to develop the document. 

The National Security Strategy, public consultation and oversight: Not a nice-to-have

The last time the public was included in policy formulation around intelligence was in 1994, and the last time they were consulted about a national security strategy was in 2007. This strategy included a proposal for a National Security Advisory Council, including the public and private sectors and civil society.

When the strategy was reviewed by the Jacob Zuma administration in 2013, it was classified Top Secret, and was not developed in a form that lent itself to consultation. A public process for the new strategy is a step forward from the Zuma years, as it implies that the final document will be made public. 

However, it is ironic that there is suddenly a rush to include the long-forgotten public in the process: ironic because public oversight has been the most effective form of oversight over the spy agencies in the past decade. Yet, repeatedly, politicians and technocrats have shut the public out of intelligence debates on the pretext of secrecy. 

The hugely successful mass campaign against the Secrecy Bill (or the Protection of State Information Bill) stopped the bill in its tracks. What made this campaign so successful was that it took what could have been an obscure issue — potentially of interest to a few specialist NGOs only — and turned it into a popular campaign. 

Activists did this by taking the campaign to the streets. They used tactics such as mass meetings, marches and night vigils, in addition to the more conventional advocacy involving media publicity and parliamentary lobbying. They related information rights to broader community struggles and reframed them as popular issues. 

These activists skilfully broadened the issues beyond the bill to focus on the ways in which the Zuma administration misused intelligence and security powers to clamp down on their critics. They also challenged how national security was being misdefined and misused to target Zuma’s critics and the neoliberal kleptocracy he strengthened under his watch. Not even he dared sign the bill into law, which continues to gather dust on the current president’s desk.

Journalists have also played an extremely important role in holding the spies to account. 

As far back as 2014, journalists put State Security Agency (SSA) counter-intelligence abuses into the public domain. The advocacy journalism of the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism took the government’s abuses of spying powers head on, leading to a massive win in the Constitutional Court against the country’s main surveillance law, Rica. 

These efforts by civil society, social movements and journalists have done far more to limit state spying than the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence (JSCI) or the Inspector-General for Intelligence. While the current committee appears to be more serious about its work, the previous committee was moribund. 

The Inspector-General lacks independence and resources. This has led to a situation where, on the JSCI’s own account, the intelligence services ignore recommendations by the Inspector-General because — unlike the Public Protector — the office lacks remedial powers. 

More recently, civil society and social movements have lost capacity to hold the spies to account, which means that debates on national security may become dominated by specialist NGOs once again. 

However, the popular muscle memory built by these campaigns is still there. Potentially, it can be used to push back against any national security strategy that becomes an elite megaphone or a technocrat’s wet dream, or that reduces collective security to regime security, or worse, ruling party faction security. 

Pushing for a National Security Advisory Council is also tactical, as it will force the body to be more public-facing than it is. This is important as its powers and functions, as set out in a presidential proclamation, are threadbare

Rather than statist solutions, South Africa needs democratic solutions to its spy crisis. Efforts that move the country towards the former need to be supported. 

Whose national security? 

A public process around a national security strategy can become a democratic moment for more genuine debates and contestations about national security. 

When it is debated in public meetings and through the media, the country will be forced to think deeply about these issues and ask questions about how national security is defined, who it truly serves, and whether state agencies that claim to defend it, merit even a cent of taxpayer’s money. 

There are very real threats to national security, yet there is insufficient evidence of them actually being prioritised as threats. 

However, and significantly, there is a growing body of opinion, reflected in the Expert Panel’s report, about what the biggest threats are. These interrelated threats are the ANC’s inability to resolve its own internal contradictions — which appear to have become violent and which risk tearing South Africa apart — and the country’s unsustainably high levels of inequality. 

This emerging consensus provides a good basis to start developing a more meaningful strategy, and to place the larger issues around South Africa’s social instability and the failures of capitalism more generally on the national agenda. 

Years of government austerity have created conditions ripe for such instability. The political class have perfected the art of cooking up conspiracy theories and blaming unrest on instigators and third forces, rather than dealing with their own policy failures. This blame game has led to the harassment and criminalisation of legitimate protest movements.

At the same time, genuine instigators of violence — possibly with links to factions of the ruling party — remain at large. Under pressure to show results, the police engage in trophy arrests of the lowest of the low-hanging fruit, in policing and prosecutorial terms. 

The security cluster has been at its weakest in solving the political assassinations and political violence and stopping the creeping criminalisation of the state. At the same time, they have also paid insufficient attention to xenophobia, leading to repeated failures to stop violent outbreaks. 

The cluster has embraced a more securitised response to the immigration question, leading to the scapegoating of foreigners as national security threats. 

The development of the national security strategy could provide a political moment to shine a light on these deep-seated but poorly understood blind spots, and create pressure for them to be dealt with. 

A democratic opening 

Liberal-minded technocrats have argued for the need for a more inclusive national security strategy: most likely an unrealistic expectation in a society with such huge social contradictions. 

Many state institutions, including state intelligence, have become delegitimised as they don’t speak to popular frustrations. Policing has collapsed in many areas, leading to more communities self-policing

Nevertheless, the development of a national security strategy could provide a democratic opening to confront the mess that the country’s national security institutions have become — to rise above the mess just for a while, and develop a more positive vision for the future. 

The resulting debates may not lead to agreement, but they could create space for breakthroughs that begin to grapple with the real causes of insecurity in a more open, honest and thoughtful way. DM

Jane Duncan is a professor in the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Johannesburg. She was a member of the Right2Know Campaign and the 2018 High-Level Review Panel on the State Security Agency. She writes in her personal capacity.


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