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What a National Security Council means for SA’s international relations trajectory


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

While the public debate has been preoccupied with the break-up of electricity utility Eskom following the State of the Nation (SONA) address, I want to concentrate on a different aspect — national security and the proposed re-introduction of a National Security Council, headed by the president.

A National Security Council is not a new concept. Both PW Botha and Thabo Mbeki had a National Security Council at their disposal. President Jacob Zuma had other plans. He did not make use of such a council and was responsible for amalgamating the intelligence services under one umbrella named the State Security Agency.

It is precisely this configuration that President Cyril Ramaphosa is now unbundling into two distinct arms of intelligence, one domestic and one foreign. In order for these to operate effectively, he proposes the re-introduction of the National Security Council (NSC) to facilitate better co-ordination and oversight.

When looking at our foreign policy trajectory both in the region and continent, as well as further afield, it is imperative that such a council develops the necessary national intelligence estimates in line with our national security strategy and national security policy. In other words, national security concerns itself with both domestic and global threats. On the domestic front and in no small measure taking from the State of the Nation Address last month, some of the intelligence estimates will have to be around:

  • The “fiscal cliff” the South African economy is facing — and practical measures to avoid it;

  • The real impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the economy and labour — there have been exponential changes in this arena;

  • The impending threat from the lumpenproletariat (18-55-year-olds) who cannot find jobs and sit idle, as well as the ever-increasing school drop-outs;

  • The pending unbundling of Eskom and what this means for our economy and our future energy security;

  • What the capacity of the security forces (army, navy, intelligence and police) is to combat impending threats in defence of the country.

All these should be looked at in the context of the overarching triple challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty.

Having said that, we must turn our attention to global intelligence estimates:

In our immediate region:

  • The situation in Zimbabwe and the escalating violence and unrest is of grave concern — what are the economic implications and what impact from an immigration point of view will it have on SA?

  • An analysis of the deteriorating situation in Mozambique;

  • The DRC must be monitored post-elections, and unrest in Malawi also requires attention; and

  • The country requires an intelligence estimate on the African Union and our hegemony within the organisation, which has been eroded in recent years;

Outside the African continent:

  • The pivot to Asia and how SA views its partnership in BRICS;

  • China as a competitor in Africa, which also relates to food security, climate and environmental concerns, arable land security and water resource scarcity;

  • An assessment of the impact of Exit on SA’s Trade Development Co-operation Agreement with the European Union;

  • How SA deals with a declining super power such as the US; and

  • Strategic engagements with multilateral organisations such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the International Labour Organisation.

These are some of the many elements the NSC will need to concern itself with. Which then begs the question, what should be the leadership structure of such a council be and what additional capacity will be required? What operational support is needed for the NSC?

First, the council will require a permanent secretariat in order to not only manage day-to-day administrative matters, but more importantly, the co-ordination the president so desperately needs.

Co-ordination between the various arms of safety and security, meaning the National Intelligence Co-ordinating Committee, the National Intelligence Agency domestic branch, the Secret Service Agency foreign branch, Military Intelligence, Crime Intelligence, the office of the Inspector-General for Intelligence, the Parliamentary Standing Portfolio Committee on Intelligence and the National Security Adviser to the President.

Second, the council will require a research and analysis capacity. The interplay between policy formulation and strategy cannot be overstated. Academic and other professional research and analysis will from time to time be required in order to constantly check whether policy imperatives are still at the centre of the national security agenda. Analysis capacity is needed in order to check and double check whether indeed the consumer-producer relationship remains intact and that excellent intelligence products are being delivered.

When analysing some global powers and what they are preoccupied with in relation to national security issues, they talk of “from the sea floor to space”.

Where is South Africa in this equation? All its submarines are in the dry docks, its frigates are ageing and there is no money to keep them in the water. Our air force pilots yearn for flying time, but there is no jet fuel for training purposes. The army is bloated and needs a radical reduction in numbers to be effective and financially sustainable. In an age of rapid growth in information technology, are we ready and capable to engage in non-linear hybrid warfare? What is the quality of data and intelligence that the NSC will receive?

There is an urgent plan needed to fix the system. I’m not sure what the Review Panel on Intelligence is proposing, but the entire Intelligence service should be scrapped and we should engage in a process of meticulously restarting our entire intelligence services from scratch.

Each incoming member should take a polygraph test and recruit graduates in needed fields of operations. Transform the entire Intelligence Academy and its focus; it cannot only be about statecraft and practical skills. It must also have a healthy dose of philosophy, humanities and the arts. We require an all-round intelligence officer.

This all speaks to readiness and our deterrence capability. Out of choice, we no longer possess a nuclear deterrence. I think it was a bad one, but hey, water under the bridge. Do we possess any chem-bio deterrence? I do hope so, Mr President. Do we have a cyber deterrence against a massive cyber-attack? I think not.

Our national key points are exposed — OR Tambo International Airport, the Johannesburg Securities Exchange, the Reserve Bank and databases of government departments such as Home Affairs, SAPS and many more.

Space deterrence — do we possess the ability to see who is spying on us via satellite or who is intercepting our telecommunications bandwidth? And finally, our conventional deterrence. Meldene is unproductive and our flagship Rooivalk helicopter is not selling.

A tailored approach is what is needed, Mr President. What is your order of battle? The re-introduction of the NSC is a good idea, no doubt, but let’s be clear on what the intelligence estimates should be over the next 10 to 15 years. DM


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