Opinionista Nel Marais & Jo Davies 4 March 2015

The Frankenstein we made: The decline and fall of SA’s civilian intelligence

Our intelligence services have been getting a whole lot of bad press lately - and they deserve a whole lot more. In the process, however, the obfuscation of their real and necessary role in national well-being has obscured the critical issues of what intelligence should be doing firmly under cover. It may be timely to recall how close it once came to living up to its potential – and how quickly we've lost that.

While the reluctant capitalists and twittering leftists among us may continue to resent the potential intrusions (and increasingly it seems extrusions) that intelligence services threaten, most South Africans accept that our government requires an intelligence capacity to give effect to its mandate to advance our safety, security and stability. By default, we trust that the state to which we submit is the entity best placed to design, engineer and give life to this resource, and that it will do so in consistent accord with constitutional imperatives and national interests. Enough said.

No one that coached South Africa through its protracted democratic labour challenged this mandate; the nascent country welcomed the opportunity to fundamentally reconsider the responsibilities and influence of its official intelligence structure. Lest we forget – in the hazy days of Apartheid and white minority rule, intelligence had a slight case of multiple personality disorder – from the near-neo-Nazi Bureau of State Security (BOSS) to the pseudo-intellectual egotism of the National Intelligence Service (NIS). Also in the wings were Military Intelligence (little more than the rent boy of South Africa Defence Force hit squads) and Bantustan ‘’departments’’, such as the Bophuthatswana Intelligence Service (BIS) that was so heavily infiltrated by all-and-sundry, including the ANC, MI6 (British foreign service) and, of course, NIS, that it became something of an accidental red herring. Elsewhere in the wings was the ANC’s Department of Intelligence and Security – known by ANC members as iMbokodo or the grindstone – the dark side as far as its new peers were concerned. Hence, in the intelligence twilight zone that birthed democracy a lot of punters were pacing, amid fears that any attempt to reproduce these disparate intelligence organs would be more Rosemary’s Baby than messianic nation building symbiosis.

But it wasn’t a horror story. Not at first, anyway.

Step into the Tardis compatriots (and comrades) and circa 1994 this faith in the intelligence mandate of the state was approaching evangelical. Good things were happening, a lot of healing was going on and new intelligence mantras permeated the ranks as charisma and conversion reinvigorated all parties and put them on a common trajectory.

The NIS leadership rode in on the high horse of facilitation – talks with Nelson Mandela while he was still in jail and ‘’secret diplomacy’’ in European capitals had indeed helped bring the ANC and the ruling white government together. These talks included Thabo Mbeki and Aziz Pahad, both by then part of the ANC’s international face, but also intelligence operators such as Jacob Zuma. This lent NIS’s leadership some credibility (albeit Trojan through many ANC eyes) that made it the “most liberal” Hobson’s choice – although its top echelon was stacked with members of the extra-secretive Broederbond.

The real game changer, however, was a visionary insistence by senior ANC intelligence personnel, especially Mo Shaik, that a new South Africa needed a completely new intelligence dispensation. It was way on trend with global thinking and local imperatives and driven by the core argument that a democratic South Africa could no longer afford to be obsessed with ‘’state security’’ and that the paradigm must shift to ‘’human security’’. Intelligence would play a completely different role with less emphasis on external threats; it would be a guardian of the then still to be finalised Constitution, warning the government of the day if and when it failed to meet the legitimate expectations of the electorate.

It would, in essence, help create a better life for all.

Enabling this collectively damascene deepening of commitment to serving the country and its people consensus was reached that this approach would require parliamentary oversight (where the opposition would also be able to play a role); a clear mandate based on legislation rather than presidential decrees; an intelligence charter that would direct the actions of all intelligence officials; and, the establishment of a world class service that would serve the constitution and the people of South Africa, rather than any specific political agenda.

It was a beautiful idea.

During the first few years, especially during the Mandela presidency, there was indeed a meaningful attempt to implement these values, especially in the case of the ‘foreign service’ (South African Secret Service – SASS). Under the guidance of Mike Louw (who came from NIS) and Billy Masetlha, the SASS quickly built an international reputation as a ‘’serious player’’, as well as an internal ethos of pride and patriotism.

But, just when it was getting legs, a series of restraints lent it a more ominous gait. Under Thabo Mbeki, political agendas began to overshadow intelligence priorities. Power struggles within the ANC not only redirected intelligence resources, but caused an almost continuous exit of senior management. Over two decades of democracy, the leadership of our intelligence structures has changed hands at least six times – a hostile in loco parentis almost certain to produce problematic progeny. Indeed, every new DG and his team has reviewed priorities, plans and people entrenching uncertainty on every level. One of the worst culprits may have been Hilton Anthony Dennis (aka Tim) who brought with him a Stasi-embedded paranoia, and an unfortunate return to blatant racialism – just about when everyone was learning to at least pretend they were getting on. But Dennis could not come to grips with the role of modern technology in the intelligence space and he was dispatched to South Korea as ambassador.

Meanwhile, policy debates slunk into shallow waters, with even the impressive Barry Gilder, who served as DDG and DG for both the internal and external branches respectively during his career, telling his subordinates that neighbouring countries such as Lesotho should no longer be priorities, as the end of Apartheid meant the end of hostilities with them. In September 1998, the SANDF lost eight soldiers during a chaotic military operation in Lesotho. Their deaths were partly due to inaccurate intelligence. In 2015, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is still trying to facilitate an inclusive political deal in Lesotho. Other ideologically driven individuals, such as Jenny Schreiner, tried to force their own views on assessments, for instance by declaring that the civil war in the DRC was to be interpreted as the consequence of ‘’neo-imperialism and colonialism by the West’’, rather than regional real politics. That this was a factor is not at issue, but the reversion to charges of colonialist denialism was worrying mainly because it symptomised a growing ideological dissonance. The vision of human security, of a better life, for all in this country and for our neighbours, was being eroded and eclipsed and the emergent monstrosity of a now very confused intelligence service risked floundering without a clear set of values.

The adolescent civilian intelligence structures predictably lost their idealism and bled out to barefaced party loyalty (and disloyalty) that remains the sub-text of organisational culture in both the domestic and foreign branches to this day, making human security and constitutionalism largely irrelevant. It has almost come full circle as state security has become synonymous with party and presidential safekeeping operations, all in full public glare. It’s a near limitless fall with the ANC continuing to run its own ‘’internal intelligence’’ structure, with shady individuals reportedly involved. In this morass it is no surprise that spy cables lend credibility to intelligence views that the domestic branch of the SSA is politically factionalised and “totally penetrated” by foreign agencies with “Everyone is working for someone else.”

The second cousin of politicisation, aka privatisation, is keen to have a go as well and several bastardised versions, with varying relationships with the incumbent regime (and probably also with foreign governments), are working away and taking with them much of the talent and insight that sought to give life to earlier visions.

So, we exit the Tardis and stumble into the impressive pile of leaked intelligence documents obtained by Al Jazeera and the associated preoccupation with counter-espionage that cloaks and daggers over the spiralling service delivery protests, xenophobia and organised crime that remain a shamefully obvious indicator of our human insecurity.

Minister David Mahlobo has come out of the shadows to tell us that the State Security Agency (SSA) used its jamming privileges to set up a no-fly zone (but only inside the House) and to assure us that the “purported” leak will be looked at (and that we should not be too surprised if the sieve yields revelations of spying on the head of a Chapter 9 institution). And that is more or less the full extent of the SSA’s interpretation of its responsibility towards the nation as it simpers to defend and protect the President and the party, with all the predictable short-termism of the sycophantic idiot savant it has become.

As the securitisation pogrom continues to be implemented by armed parliamentary removal men and excommunication agendas, the list of rights and freedoms under pressure will grow. Foreigners have gone under cover in the townships; the poor have to set fires to attract government’s attention; a massive new nuclear scandal is being actively promoted; the national budget is about to be dangled over a cliff by public service wage negotiations ? Right to Know (R2K) is right to ask questions about whether there is a national intelligence estimate on xenophobia and to infer “a systemic and sustained failure” by the SSA.

The real question, however, while there is still time, is, to paraphrase Milton Friedman, how can we keep the intelligence construct we create “from becoming a Frankenstein that will destroy the very freedom we establish it to protect?” DM

Ed’s note: In the interests of absolute accuracy, we should clarify that it’s actually Dr Frankenstein’s monster, and not the good doctor himself, that we refer to in the headline. However, journalists are a wordy bunch, and in the interests of poetic licence we referred here to Frankenstein – as the monster is commonly spoken of in popular culture. 


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