Your get out of jail free card from the thought police.
21 October 2017 12:20 (South Africa)
Opinionista Stephen Grootes

Cock-up and conspiracy: The unravelling of our (un)intelligence services

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

At this stage it doesn’t bear asking whether intelligence services play a role in our politics, but rather how big a role that may be. Considering the powers technology gives them to engage in covert surveillance and be of general use to any aspirant politician, it seems inevitable that they would be dragged in to the political fray. In our context, the fact that many of the people running those services also played a role in the struggle, and have relationships with current politicians, that dynamic may be amplified. But what role is being played by whom in the current dispute over the Public Protector and the bizarre spying for CIA claims? On balance, it’s hard to say. What is clear is that whoever is playing the game here, they are playing it badly, perhaps even intentionally.

First things first. When writing and talking about spies, one usually has little information. Official inquiries tend to run into large brick walls. Some may even smile and mutter something about telling you and having to kill you afterwards.

But that also means it is very easy for many claims to be made about our spies, without any concern for the denials that will follow, or whether these will be believed. Intelligence agencies and politics create a recipe for mischief makers – both inside and outside the service.

As a result, when our State Security Agency releases a statement, as it did in its investigation into Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and others, we have to interrogate what is going on very carefully. Especially because you could count the number of investigations conducted by the agency – that are the subject of statements, that is – on one hand.

Two weeks after the release of that statement, it is difficult to believe that the agency has concluded it must examine claims made in a blog that, apart from being just words on the screen, does not give any evidence to back them up. (Surely not every claim made in public about public officials is investigated – if so, just investigating the myriad of claims made against Number One would keep the entire agency busy for decades?)

It is a challenge to find anyone in this area to deliver a meaningful commentary. The politicisation of our intelligence services goes back, at least, to the Billy Masetlha affair in the mid-2000s. There, Thabo Mbeki lost faith in Masetlha as head of the agency, mainly because, it now appears, he was in the Zuma camp. In other words, Mbeki felt Masetlha’s allegiance was not to him as president, but with the future Number One. This also means that people in the service from that time may well owe allegiance to one of the parties involved here.

Now that Zuma has a firm grip on government, one might infer that he has ordered this investigation as a political hit on Madonsela. She herself seems to believe it. But could there be a different scenario playing out? While it’s tempting to blame Zuma for everything, it is not necessarily the accurate conclusion. And often in politics, it is better to believe cock-up rather than conspiracy - John le Carre rather than Ian Fleming.

One of the issues raised here is a lack of subtlety. The agency makes a claim that four people (Madonsela, Julius Malema, Joseph Mathunjwa and Lindiwe Mazibuko) have to be investigated. The only thing they have in common is a certain hostility to the ANC in general and Zuma in particular, which seems to suggest a political motive. And while Zuma may not consume media in the way many people in urban areas do, surely someone like Mac Maharaj, who most certainly does, would realise that this is all bad news for his principal. With a certain understanding of intelligence matters himself, it may have been savvy for him to suggest to Mahlobo, in no uncertain terms, to call the whole thing off, make a public apology, and move on. Alternatively, the bad news is likely to continue.

The fact that that hasn’t happened suggests that either people like him are staying silent, or don’t believe it is bad for Zuma, or have no influence over this. Or that they don’t really care and are busy trying to ensure the next election is won.

That last prospect is probably unlikely, and even if someone were to try, it would probably fail.

There is of course another, wonderfully conspiratorial option; that someone is trying to discredit Zuma by using the services in this way. In other words, the investigation itself, and the release of the statement, are a bid to paint Zuma as dictator. Again, probably unlikely.

While the politicisation of our intelligence services has been a feature of their post-94 history, ineptitude has been another. The Masetlha issue was sparked by the bungled surveillance on Saki Macozoma (he noticed a certain car was always following him and at his house), there was no warning about the xenophobic attacks of 2008, and in-fighting among the various groups of the “intelligence community” has seen people like Moe Shaik, Gibson Njenje and others leaving the service, when they still have had plenty to offer. Of course, those running the services may say that while their failures are usually public, their successes are usually secret.

It’s probably fair to say that the people running our services now may have less experience than those who use to run them, say, five years ago - while at the same time being loyal to Number One.

This may point, then, to a toxic mix of cock-up and conspiracy. In other words, someone who doesn’t really understand how to do these things is pulling the strings, with a serious political motive, and is doing it really badly. Thus the lack of subtlety around these claims, the amazing public statement, and the refusal to understand why our commentariat just laughs at them. If you’d really wanted to nobble Madonsela or the others (although why someone like Mazibuko, who is now just your average Harvard student, would be a target is hard to understand, except to create a pre-emptive collateral damage) there are plenty of other ways to do it. If you’re playing for keeps, a loose wheelnut or two would do it; if you want embarrassment, booze and hookers is the usual course, or even a doctored picture featuring a goat.

This is just amateur stuff.

And, of course, this play has had completely the opposite effect. The only people embarrassed are our spy agencies (who Malema referred to as a bunch of clowns). The position of Madonsela has just been strengthened in the public mind.

There is a serious, and sobering, aspect to this show of incompetence: One day something may happen that is going to require our State Security Agency, or its minister, to ask us all as citizens stop and listen. Imagine David Mahlobo now asking us all not to go shopping one weekend, because he has a credible information that terrorists are planning an attack on a major mall.

Would we believe him? DM

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

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