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Ramaphosa will need to tackle the State Security Agency

Dr Nel Marais served in intelligence structures from 1984 to 2000. He is the founder and managing director of Thabiti, a specialised risk consultancy company.

Cyril Ramaphosa will inherit a number of headaches from Jacob Zuma, including extensive corruption affecting the state; an economy that is under-performing by almost every available measure; and political as well as policy divisions within the ruling party. His to-do-list will have to include the country’s intelligence service, the State Security Agency (SSA).

Not only has the SSA become highly politicised during Zuma’s reign, but it has also declined in performance and, by implication, in usefulness. Should the Ramaphosa Presidency still feel the need for such a capacity, it will have to cleanse the organisation and initiate a systematic refocusing exercise.

With Cyril Ramaphosa likely to become South Africa’s president within the next few months – maybe weeks – he will inherit the State Security Agency (SSA) and everything that goes with it. As we all know, Jacob Zuma spent most of his time in exile in ANC intelligence structures – the Department of Intelligence and Security (DIS). Within ANC circles it was known as iMbokodo (the grindstone) and Zuma was head of counter-intelligence, where he was known for his ruthless pursuit of perceived enemies and spies within the ANC.

Ramaphosa comes with none of this intelligence baggage. Ironically, as a prominent leader of the former Mass Democratic Movement, which included trade unions and the United Democratic Front (UDF), he might have been a target of ‘monitoring’ by DIS, as some exiles were worried that the UDF would be vulnerable to “counter-revolutionary” influences, including from the West, and believed it needed to be supervised and directed in order to prevent the hijacking of the first phase of the revolution, the acquisition of political power.

The point is that Ramaphosa is going to inherit a highly contentious intelligence department, with Bongani Bongo as minister (the SSA has not uploaded his profile on its website yet, which could indicate that they don’t expect him to remain there for much longer) and Arthur Fraser as director general. Both of them (and we assume the almost imperceptible Ellen Molekane, Deputy Minister of State Security, too) are known to be Zuma loyalists. Both have been mentioned within the context of state corruption, for instance by Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers. Minister Bongo represents yet another complication – he was reportedly hand picked by his predecessor, the current Minister of Energy, David Mahlobo. And Mr Nuclear, as Mahlobo was known within some ANC circles before Ramaphosa made it clear that the country can’t afford Russian Rosatom’s new nuclear energy facilities, was selected by his former provincial boss, David Mabuza, who is of course now Ramaphosa’s deputy within the ANC (and maybe the next deputy president of South Africa).

So what is Ramaphosa likely to inherit? First, a highly politicised intelligence department. This is, of course, nothing new. The former Bureau of State Security (BOSS), with General Hendrik van den Bergh in charge, was little more than a blunt instrument in the hands of the apartheid government to terrorise its opponents. Its successor, the National Intelligence Service (NIS), under Niel Barnard, was more sophisticated and almost doubled as a quasi-academic political think-tank for presidents PW Botha and FW de Klerk, but it still had one overriding goal, namely to spy on the ANC and its support structures and to disrupt “the enemy”. Cyril Ramaphosa was one of these enemies, as NIS had a dedicated unit spying on trade unionists in South Africa. Unsurprisingly, NIS was almost exclusively white and Afrikaans and its composition had a direct impact on its approach to political reform and the possibility of a future majority government.

Unfortunately, the SSA has fallen into a similar trap. It has become an unthinking instrument in the hands of the ruling party, especially Zuma and company, afraid to differ from its political masters, with many a senior member only too eager to get one of the many foreign postings on offer, where pay is excellent and work stress minimal.

A second problem is the quality and stability of the SSA leadership. Its director generals have been a varied bunch over the years. Some were world class, including Mo Shaik (who, notwithstanding his historic links with Jacob Zuma, was the first, together with Gibson Njenje, to raise the issue of the Gupta family’s cancerous influence on the state) and Barry Gilder. Others were Stasi-like in their approach, for instance Hilton Dennis (aka Tim) and Manala Manzini; while a few were simply expendable political tools, for instance Simon Ntombela. The main problem, however, has been the revolving door approach. Neither president Thabo Mbeki nor Zuma kept ministers responsible for intelligence in place for long and this has had a disruptive impact on the structure of the SSA (and its predecessors, the South African Secret Service – foreign intelligence – and the National Intelligence Agency – domestic intelligence). The net result is seven ministers and more than 10 director generals since 1994. No intelligence service can afford such volatility and it has had a cascading effect on other appointments (not to mention motivation) within the SSA.

The consequence has been a decline in performance and professionalism. Other intelligence services, including some of the top services in Africa, complain bitterly about the lack and poor quality of intelligence being liaised by the SSA. As a result, foreign services have become less willing to provide intelligence to the SSA, thereby depriving South Africa’s intelligence structures of one of the basic “sources” of information. Another sign of the decline of the SSA has been the minister’s annual report to Parliament. These statements have become nothing more than poorly executed cut-and-paste jobs – leaving the country with an unintelligible and unsystematic account of what threats it is facing and what is being done to counter them. Some of the blame must, however, go back to the ANC’s policy document on peace and stability, where faceless “foreign agents”, “agents of change”, and “counter-revolutionaries” have received the blame for many of government’s problems – with the implication to be deducted by the reader: as ruling party and government we face an onslaught by the West, aimed at regime change.

In short, the Ramaphosa presidency will have to decide whether it still requires a national intelligence capacity. It is highly unlikely that the SSA would be disbanded, but a continuation will demand a number of short to medium-term steps. Most importantly, the current leadership will have to be replaced in toto. Such an action will have to be more extensive than simply getting rid of Minister Bongo and Arthur Fraser – the rot goes much deeper and it might well be necessary to instigate a far-reaching investigation into the performance of the current management, as well as, possibly, financial irregularities. In addition, the SSA’s budget will have to be cut. For example, it has representatives – some of them quite senior – in almost all countries where South Africa has diplomatic representation. This is an extraordinarily expensive approach and one the country cannot afford. Meanwhile, the SSA’s HQ – the massive Musanda complex – is reportedly struggling to keep its large number of employees busy. (The SSA’s annual budget is not published, but open sources indicate that it exceeded R4-billion in 2015/2016.)

Parliamentary and preferably civil society oversight will need to be expanded and improved. The current system is ineffective and has contributed to the blatant politicisation of the SSA and intelligence in general, including crime intelligence, which is part of the SAPS mandate. (It should be noted that all indications are that the Police’s crime intelligence structures are in an even worse state than that of the SSA.) Well-respected intelligence services, for instance Australian and Canadian, are much more transparent about their priorities and performance, but under Zuma’s Presidency, and especially during the time of Minister Mahlobo, intelligence interaction with Russia’s Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti (FSB) became prevalent. Lastly, the SSA’s new leadership will have to do a systematic reassessment of the state’s intelligence priorities. Presently the SSA gets away with generalisations, like declaring its focus on terrorism, sabotage, subversion, espionage and organised crime (yes, really!), while the minister also refers to the cyber-threat faced by the country in his annual reports to parliament. The reality is a much more complicated world, with political, economic, social, technological and security aspects interacting in a dynamic and often difficult way to predict. As a result, intelligence has to be focused on both the short (real-time, tactical threats) and the long term (trend changes and even futuristic predictions).

Some of our contacts warn that the Zuma faction is trying its best to retain control over the SSA, for instance by insisting that David Mahlobo should be moved back to this ministry. They add that “knowledge” about former apartheid spies might be used by pro-Zuma elements to try and ‘’rule from the grave’’. It is therefore clear that a Ramaphosa presidency – focused on modernising South Africa and restoring the country’s international economic competiveness, as well as its attractiveness as an investment destination – will need a new intelligence leadership and architecture that is small as well as smart; one that is apolitical, fearless to convey unpopular messages and respected by its international peers. DM


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