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Democracy Down: Ramaphosa’s proposed State Security vetting of NGOs an onslaught on SA’s future

Democracy Down: Ramaphosa’s proposed State Security vetting of NGOs an onslaught on SA’s future

Dragging the NGO sector into the sphere of national security strongly echoes the authoritarian orientation seen in Russia and China.

Non-governmental organisations play a pivotal role in promoting democracy and human rights in South Africa and have routinely stepped in where government has failed.

Now, the General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill could lead to intensive, state-sanctioned surveillance of organisations, potentially undermining their operations – and democracy itself.

Persons seeking to “establish and operate” NGOs and religious institutions may soon face compulsory vetting by state security forces to determine if they pose a threat to national security. This would put South Africa in the same league as authoritarian countries such as China and Russia, where NGOs are routinely viewed as potential agents of enemy states bent on undermining national stability and prosperity.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet recently approved the 2023 General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill (Gilab), which brings several major changes to the laws governing the State Security Agency (SSA), SA’s leading government intelligence and security body.

Gilab is in part a response from Ramaphosa’s government to remedy the deeply ingrained flaws of the SSA, including political factionalism, mismanagement of millions in covert funding and a general disregard for the law and the Constitution.

These issues were exposed by Ramaphosa’s 2018 Presidential High-Level Review Panel’s investigation of the SSA, and the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture in 2020 and 2021.

Following the revelations of the Zondo Commission, the SSA was absorbed into the Presidency as part of what, on paper, are efforts to reform the security services and to bring its ethos in line with the democratic values espoused in the 1994 Intelligence White Paper

Authoritarian echoes

Now, however, the Minister in the Presidency responsible for State Security has released a bill that could be aligning South Africa with authoritarian regimes by placing non-governmental organisations under legal scrutiny that might force them to shut down.

Gilab amends the 1994 National Strategic Intelligence Act to say that state security services “must conduct a vetting investigation in the prescribed manner to determine the security competence of a person if such a person… (s)eeks to establish and operate a Non-Governmental Organization or Religious institution”.

Previously, vetting was limited to persons with access to state-classified information or national key points. Vetting aims to establish if a person is at risk of being bribed or blackmailed by a foreign state wishing to get access to sensitive government information. Also new in Gilab, is the word “must”. Previously, choosing who would be vetted was to some extent discretionary. Now it seems there will be no exceptions.

Legally dragging the NGO sector into the sphere of national security strongly echoes the authoritarian orientation seen in Russia and China. Russian legislation targets foreign-funded NGOs which the state views as engaging in “political activity”. Such organisations are obliged to register as foreign agents (a label that can legally be extended to individuals). Registration requires a tedious administrative process, and if legal requirements aren’t met, one risks imprisonment or a fine.

Similarly, according to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Chinese laws governing foreign and domestic NGOs curtail their participation in political activities, particularly those that the state sees as threatening to national security.   

As a result, NGOs promoting human rights and democratic principles in either of these countries risk being shut down or having their activities severely limited, with those receiving foreign funding being particularly vulnerable. 

The same fate could await South African NGOs, religious institutions and churches.

Leverage over civil society

Security vetting is usually a requirement for certain employees of the state (like members of the SSA), politicians (such as those serving on the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence, SA’s intelligence parliamentary watchdog), or persons who are contracted to perform sensitive work for government. Security classifications are defined in SA’s 1996 Minimum Information Security Standards and include four categories: “restricted”, “classified”, “secret” and “top secret”.

The tighter the restriction, the more dangerous the information. Whereas restricted information could “cause an inconvenience” if it got into the wrong hands,  leaks of “top secret” information could result in a war.

Vetting is a stringent and invasive process that gives the SSA access to personal information necessary to determine if one could be at risk of being blackmailed or bribed by foreign forces wishing to access state secrets. 

This means they can look at a person’s financial records, personal relationships, criminal history and, according to the National Strategic Intelligence Act, “any other information which is relevant to determine the security clearance of a person”.

Persons subject to vetting could also be forced to undergo a polygraph test and their communications – emails, phone calls and messages – can legally be intercepted. 

Thus, vetting would give the state’s security forces immense power over persons that want to start or run NGOs or religious organisations in South Africa.

It’s not unusual for a government – authoritarian or democratic – to covet such a hold over civil society; historically and globally, security services have viewed NGOs and religious organisations as potential fomenters of dissent, violence and political activism that could threaten the positions of those in power.

The African National Congress is no exception. For instance, in 2017  Gwede Mantashe (then ANC secretary-general) and David Mahlobo (then the Minister of State Security) were vocal about the threat of colour revolutions.

The “colour revolution” concept was born of an intelligence paradigm usually touted by authoritarian regimes and attributing any political dissidence to sinister foreign political interference (as opposed to people’s genuine discontent with service delivery).

To strengthen this argument of outside interference in South African governance, politicians rely on the fact that the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has a history of political interference outside US borders. For instance, in 2014, then Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Kebby Maphatsoe, reportedly claimed that the then Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, was a CIA operative.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Mr Bombastic: Kebby Maphatsoe’s top-secret guide to political relevance

If the ANC government’s security forces were to vet those involved with non-governmental organisations and churches, it could give them considerable leverage over civil society, including advocacy groups, political and religious movements and media outlets.

For one, security clearance could potentially be denied to someone wanting to start an NGO, or to someone currently operating an NGO.

Gilab 2023 does not make it clear whether those operating NGOs or churches would have to cease their activities if clearance is denied. However, usually, being denied security clearance in your job means not being able to continue.

‘Threat to national security’

Even if persons establishing and operating non-governmental organisations are granted security clearance, the vetting process would leave intelligence services with a detailed profile of individuals at the core of the organisation. This could lay the foundation for future surveillance, or possible infiltration of the organisation by security operatives (to destabilise or even destroy such an organisation from within).

This wouldn’t be unheard of. According to the Zondo Commission’s final report on the SSA, the agency’s so-called “Boast Report” detailed its infiltration of the #ZumaMustFall Campaign, trade unions, and “generally… of groups considered hostile”, as well as the “active monitoring” of prominent non-governmental organisations (including advocacy groups, Right2Know Campaign and Greenpeace).

Read more in Daily Maverick: Civil society organisations release Boast Report, demand accountability for ‘rogue’ spying

Zondo heard the testimony of a wide variety of civil society organisations being targeted by security forces, and Gilab’s vetting requirements could apply to many different kinds of entities. While South African law does define a non-profit organisation (NPO) and provides for formal NPO registration, Gilab’s nebulous terminology could be referring to a student protest movement,  a media house or even a babysitters’ club – with or without formal registration status. No definition of “religious institution” is provided either.

Similarly, Gilab also presents a broad definition of what constitutes a “threat to national security”. It includes, for instance, “Foreign hostile acts directed at undermining the constitutional order of the Republic” and “subversion and undue influence by hostile interests on Government processes, policies and the sovereignty of the State and its organs”.

To its credit, Gilab excludes “political activity, advocacy, protest or dissent” from the list of threats,  as long as those activities are “lawful”.

Such broad legal terminology suits securocrats since they can subjectively define which organisations and persons fit into categories that could pose a threat to the powers that be.

For instance, “political activity” is very broadly defined in Russia’s Federal Law on Non-Commercial Organisations. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law provides a long list of examples of such activities. They include, to name just a few, participating in public debates and protest marches, attempting to amend or abolish legislation, shaping public opinion and tweeting your views on state policies.

Chinese laws dealing with NGOs’ participation in political activism are similarly vague, with activities that threaten “national security”, “societal public interests” and “social mores” being prohibited.

NGOs have always played a pivotal role in promoting democracy and human rights in South Africa, and have routinely stepped in where government has failed. Gilab 2023, however, could result in intensive, state-sanctioned surveillance of organisations that could severely undermine their operations – and democracy itself. DM

Heidi Swart is a senior investigative journalist specialising in intelligence and security, and the research and journalism coordinator for Intelwatch, a non-profit organisation based in South Africa and dedicated to strengthening public oversight of state and private intelligence actors in Africa and around the world.

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  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    NGO state security vetting, revoked accreditations for outspoken media, consorting with belligerent war criminals, long convoluted rhetoric demonizing “the West”, political figures and their friends shielded from legal consequences, framing the judiciary as a stumbling block for progress, enforcing populist policies no matter the objections of society, politically influential people physically attacking civilians via their bodyguards just for getting in their way: It’s hard to not see where the ANC is heading. I think it is safe to say that the ANC is on a trajectory to abandon democracy and start an authoritarian regime. We may still have way to go, but it is clear that these events are increasing and their frequency is speeding up. Are ANC voters aware of this? Do they really support this behavior? Are ANC supporters South Africa’s weird left wing version of Trump supporters, à la Make Africa Great Again even if it costs us our democracy?

    • Andrew Johnson says:

      You are so correct about this. I think that Ramaphosa has been put up to this by the WEF and Putin, there is no way he has the nous to think of this himself.

    • Jane Crankshaw says:

      Touche! Remember too that supporting NGOs means less tax revenue for SARS – it seems like the ANC will do just about anything to get its hands on taxpayers money!
      Perhaps the ANC don’t like the competition from and the comparison made by the Gift of the Givers!

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Yeah, remember the Nats tried this under apartheid and certain NGOs got banned? Even SACC for a while found it hard to get international funding. I guess SA still has to learn that best way to promote your work is to make martyrs of leadership. It’s a concerning trend though.

  • Ann Bown says:

    A terrible piece of legislation but no surprise! Civil society/nonprofit sector will fight this in parliament ! Get ready for a bruising.

  • Change is good sa says:

    To retain the Democracy that 1994 brought us, we have to vote the differently in the 2024. BRICS is clearly having an influence on the ANC. Authoritarian rule to support corruption. Remember South Africa, the ANC is not South Africa and South Africa is not the ANC. We can change the status quo. Our Constitution is the best thing that we have, it represents every freedom that we have today, let’s keep it that way.

  • Jacques Wessels says:

    If you in the wrong (ANC) attack the innocent NGO sector deflection at best or state control ?

  • Brian Doyle says:

    This shows the influence Russia has, and it also has echoes of Nazi Germany. Ramaphosa is definitely heading down the wrong path as the next step can be vetting everybody, especially persons or firms opposed to the ANC

  • Johan Buys says:

    I doubt anything in current legislation prevents the SSA from investigating anybody they or the Party or Government suggest they should, NGO or otherwise. So why the need for this new law?

  • Andrew Denton says:

    The ANC is unable to lead democratically, its DNA is in liberation ideology. So an automatic response to a challenge is that rather than publicly debate, they seek to suppress (much like the old Nats did). Society needs to challenge this

  • Libby De Villiers says:

    In stead of being grateful that other people are doing their work for them. If they could take care of the country this would not be necessary! Ramaphosa is losing his marbles and becoming more of a despot by the day! Scary stuff!
    We cannot keep on taking these things lying down.

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