South Africa


Secrecy is not Security: Long-delayed national strategy must focus on SA people’s needs

Secrecy is not Security: Long-delayed national strategy must focus on SA people’s needs
Illustrative image | Sources: Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Leila Dougan | Coat of arms of South Africa. (Image: Wikimedia) | pngwing

South Africa’s revised national security strategy promised for public engagement is about nine months behind schedule. And while existential threats to electricity and water supply, as well as transport logistics and a rising murder rate, require a comprehensive strategic approach, the government and the police remain comfortable with secrecy, and skop, skiet and donner.

A new national security strategy, after being approved in July 2022 by the National Security Council (NSC), was to go to Parliament for public comments and consultation, according to the then Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele’s State Security Budget Vote speech in May 2022. 

It hasn’t, and neither did the draft legislation to separate the State Security Agency (SSA) into foreign and domestic units reach Parliament — as promised — by September 2022.  

Calls for a publicly consulted national security strategy date back more than four years, to the 2018 High-Level Panel into the SSA, published in March 2019, which also recommended separating the agency into domestic and foreign structures. 

In November 2021, the Sandy Africa panel into the July 2021 KwaZulu-Natal civil unrest called for an “open” process across society and for Parliament to debate and agree on a national security strategy that “is urgently developed for the country, inviting input from as wide a variety of stakeholders as reasonable. We need a national security strategy that binds us to consciously act together irrespective of our political affiliation or social standing.” 

Such significant, yearslong delays on urgent matters are not unusual in government. That’s regardless of the requirements of modern statecraft, particularly in a complex and problem-riven country like South Africa, or the constitutional imperatives for transparency, accountability, openness and responsiveness. 

A revised national security strategy — a draft is understood to have been in the presidential in-tray since mid-2021 — is finally in the executive approval pipeline, according to the Presidency. 

“It has already been tabled in the Cabinet and will now be finalised by the National Security Council [NSC] before a public comment process. Notwithstanding the strategy being in process, the NSC remains seized with its mandate,” said Presidency spokesperson Vincent Magwenya in a text message on Thursday. 

It remains unclear exactly how the National Security Council does its job in the absence of a national security strategy, or simply put, the means by which the government deals with identified risks, as updated periodically. 

After all, approving such a strategy was identified as a key NSC function, alongside coordinating security services and others for national security, when the NSC was reconstituted by President Cyril Ramaphosa on 27 February 2020. 

Only when this national security strategy is in the public domain for consultation — the 2013 version has been classified top secret — will it emerge whether it’s again based on the securocrat predilection for secrecy. Or if it’s a comprehensive document to address energy, water, transport logistics, food security, health and more in a meaningful, participatory manner in line with the Constitution’s foundational values of accountability, responsiveness and openness. 

Cracks in state security establishment

But recent weeks have seen offences against any national security strategy. These include a national police commissioner without current security clearance, the continued centrality in governance decision-making of NatJoints, a structure not established in law or regulation and not accounting publicly, and, as illustrated by Thabo Bester’s prison escape, cracks of corruption, greed and malicious compliance inside the state’s security establishment.  

That the SAPS national commissioner, Lieutenant-General Fannie Masemola’s security clearance remains a work in progress was confirmed again on Wednesday. 

“Any director-general or senior official appointed in government, if not already in possession of security clearance, [is] allowed to take up their post and apply for clearance, which is the case with the national commissioner. The process to obtain a security clearance is thus underway,” said SAPS national spokesperson Brigadier Athlenda Mathe in a text message. 

When official Cabinet statements announce appointments, it’s always accompanied by the rider: “All appointments are subject to the verification of qualifications and the relevant clearance.” 

Masemola was appointed by Ramaphosa as SAPS boss on 31 March 2022. 

When Magwenya, speaking for the President, was asked whether Ramaphosa was considering taking steps against Masemola pending the finalisation of his security clearance, this was referred to the police ministry, where spokesperson Lirandzu Themba, in a text message on Tuesday, referred the matter to the SAPS. 

SSA spokesperson Mava Scott declined to comment on Police Minister Bheki Cele’s public claims that the agency was stalling the process. 

“Unfortunately, the law prohibits us from discussing vetting issues (which are operational matters) of individuals with third parties,” he said in a text message on Tuesday. “Vetting is confidential between the agency and the individuals concerned.” 

Masemola’s lack of current security clearance may not be too much of an issue at the National Security Council; he’s not part of the council’s support structure, the South African National Secretariat, unlike his South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and State Security counterpart, the directors-general of home affairs, international relations, justice, cooperative governance, National Treasury and the secretary of defence and presidential security adviser. 

It is an issue for the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NatJoints), where operational matters dominate, such as the State of the Nation Address, or the EFF’s failed “shutdown”. 

Potentially serious repercussions could emerge from someone without current security clearance participating at this level in operational matters, never mind that the appointment was made at odds with Cabinet rules. 

‘Stamping the authority of the state’

The fixation on security vetting — it’s at best an indicator regarding a person’s conduct, never a guarantee of ethical behaviour — comes in the context of a language shift from the Constitution’s safety and security of South Africa’s people to the SAPS “stamping the authority of the state” and the government’s general emphasis on the security of the state. 

A range of security and intelligence considerations are by their nature behind closed doors. But much is not, like sexual harassment claims within the security establishment. And they should not be, given South Africa’s constitutional imperatives of transparency, accountability and openness.  

The UK, the US, Germany, and for that matter, Kenya and Nigeria, have a nuanced approach, including briefings on threats. 

A case in point is the April 2022 call between South Africa’s presidential security adviser, Sydney Mufamadi, and the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, on issues like bilateral cooperation, supply lines, food security in Africa and the KwaZulu-Natal floods. The White House, as is practice, released a readout of how the two “highlighted the need for an immediate end to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine”.

Mufamadi, and South Africa, given its so-called neutral stance on the invasion, were put on the back foot.  

The bottom line of a comprehensive national security strategy?  

Secrecy is not security. Public accountability by political leadership goes beyond saying, “Ag, sorry, but we acknowledge our mistakes.” Governance with agility, responsiveness, capacity and — crucially — with a focus not on officials and politicians, but on people, in line with the constitutional foundational values of accountability, responsiveness and openness.  

Or as the Sandy Africa panel put it as far back as November 2021: “For too long, we have delayed embarking on an inclusive process of defining what we regard as the threats to our common security. 

“There necessarily would be aspects of national security that cannot be debated and disclosed publicly, but these should not be used to create a secretive society, under the pretext that discussing national security should be the preserve of a few.” 

The costs of not having a comprehensive national security strategy are plenty across just about every sector of society and industry. From the police’s broad inability to rise above shows of force like roadblocks to ensure people are safe and secure wherever they are, collapsing water infrastructure and transport logistics, to rolling blackouts squashing individual livelihoods and South Africa’s stalled political economy. DM


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