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13 December 2017 13:11 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

Minister Cwele, what are our spies doing with their R3 billion budget?

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

The spooks at our State Security Agency are asleep at the wheel. While Minister Cwele’s job is to protect us all – to make sure terrorists, political radicals and foreign spies do not cause harm to law-abiding South Africans and our institutions of state and government – he seems to have interpreted his mandate (somewhat more narrowly) as being the head of the Presidential Protection Unit. Worse yet, Cwele oversees a budget of R3 billion per annum.

The mandate of the intelligence operatives seems to have shrunken somewhat since the president suggested eighteen months ago in a speech to his spy brigade, that “the intelligence community, as part of the security cluster, has to achieve the objective of ensuring that all South Africans feel safe and are safe.”

The year 2013 saw the rise and rise of the security sector. It seemed that the security cluster briefed the media far more than any other cluster of state, including the Social Protection and Community Development cluster, which coordinates efforts like education, health and social welfare. Yet this didn’t seem to translate into South Africans feeling and being safer.

Throughout 2013 and indeed as the year began, our spooks seemed to be more concerned with approving and justifying the security upgrades at the presidential palace than with ensuring the nation’s security.

The implications of this excessive secret service focus on the executive have been significant. Our spies seem not to have known that the Gupta plane would be landing at a National Key Point (contested though that term may be). When Thamsanqa Jantjie, the now iconic memorial signer, stood on a stage next to our president, our spies were missing in action. When slain Rwandan political exile Patrick Karegeya said that he felt safe a few months before his murder, the guys at intelligence apparently amicably agreed to let him be. Despite years of security checks and thousands of pages of approvals, the spies seemed to be in the dark about the fact that the chimney at Nkandla fell short of safety standards. It took a social worker to point it out.

There is no other way to say it. It seems that the spooks at our State Security Agency are asleep at the wheel. While Minister Cwele’s job is to protect us all – to make sure that terrorists and political crazies and foreign spies do not cause harm to law-abiding South Africans and our institutions of state and government – he seems unaware of this.

Worse yet, Cwele oversees a budget of R3 billion per annum.

The combination of the price tag of his ministry and the embarrassingly high profile blunders that Cwele has overseen should at the very least trigger a parliamentary inquiry into the happenings at what used to be the national intelligence agencies, the South African Secret Service National Communications Centre and the spy academy. The amalgamated SSA needs some scrutiny.

While it is clear that Minister Cwele should be sacked (but won’t be despite the fact that he potentially endangered the life of his boss by failing to ensure that all those present at the Mandela memorial went through basic security checks), his ministry needs to work. Although it may not seem like it, there is an important role to play for our intelligence services.

The safety and security of our state – including that of our president – is of crucial importance. A physical attack on a sitting president would do lasting damage to our democracy. We may think what we like about President Zuma, but no one wants to see an assassination attempt.

We need our spies to keep our nation safe, but they must focus their attentions on protecting the institutions that matter the most: our airports, military bases, the Reserve Bank, the Union Buildings, Parliament, and the homes of those office bearers who (at least at a symbolic level) embody our democracy. This includes the president, his cabinet, and their families.

But in carrying out this important work, the security services must understand that the individuals they are protecting only matter because they represent the state. When public officials abuse the state, then the individuals who protect them, those who administer the payment of bills, those who sign up contractors, those who physically guard them, those who drive their cars and check their perimeter fences, should blow the whistle.

As Edward Snowden has so courageously shown Americans, the loyalty of securocrats to a country should come before their service to the individuals who happen to be running the state.

Once election fever is over, and the business of meaningful politics begins again, parliamentarians – bolstered by an energised DA and new entrants like the EFF - will need to tackle Cwele and his R3 billion budget. Our new legislators can begin their investigations by asking those who work within the security structures to step forward to blow the whistle.

Our state will only be secure when the loyalty of state employees is to democratic institutions rather than to men who proclaim themselves democrats. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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