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As xenophobia spreads and crime spirals, where are the South African intelligence agencies?

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Ompha Tshikhudo Malima is a student, social commentator and former youth leader. His interests are political philosophy, decolonisation, society and culture. He has a passion for collecting recipes and a keen eye for architecture and design. Twitter: @MrOmpha Facebook: OT Malima WordPress: omphilosophical.wordpress.com

If the justice, crime prevention and security cluster is serious about curbing illegal acts, our intelligence agencies need to up their game. We have a security problem that needs to be solved in order to avoid deep-rooted xenophobia.

The South African state is currently going through a tough time, leading some to call us a “failed state”. Of course, we’re not quite there yet. And these problems are more complex than meets the eye, but it is safe to say that we are faced with disturbing security threats.

From xenophobia, poverty and trafficking of people and drugs, to organised crime and border management, much of our ability to resolve these issues lies with our intelligence agencies. Their job is to protect the country, internally and externally.

In a country like ours, we need to feel that the intelligence services are on top of things. That they know what they are doing. During apartheid, the intelligence agencies were overly secretive. And they still are. Not always for security reasons. There are political motives, too. Too often they end up serving the needs of politicians instead of citizens.

Current protests under the openly xenophobic #PutSouthAfricansFirst remind us that we need to avoid xenophobia while protecting citizens from crimes like human and drug trafficking. We can protest all we want, but if the intelligence agencies are quiet, we should be worried. A study needs to be made on the capacity of our agencies and their commitment to protect the Republic. To quote Simon Nhlapo, writing in Daily Maverick, “… what is going to happen is violence. Violence is coming; we cannot run away from it.”

Information on drug and human trafficking needs to be interrogated. Evidence must be questioned, since research shows that the problem does not entirely lie with so-called foreigners (I use the word reluctantly because it has a xenophobic connotation). The major problem lies in social ills such as poverty, lack of service delivery and access to resources such as healthcare and education.

Kristi Ueda from Human Rights Watch believes that xenophobic attacks are carried out to get “the attention of government authorities who perpetrators claim have failed to deliver on the promises of delivering basic services and social infrastructure”.

We should not make the mistake of regarding xenophobic attacks solely as acts of “criminality”, because they are also rooted in xenophobia itself. South Africa is structurally racist, tribalistic and xenophobic, and these are hard truths that we need to confront.

We must also never shy away from condemning foreign nationals who commit inhumane acts such as human trafficking: there is nothing xenophobic about that.

If the justice, crime prevention and security cluster is serious about curbing illegal acts, our intelligence agencies need to up their game. We have a security problem which needs to be solved in order to avoid deep-rooted xenophobia

Community issues point to the state’s failure to serve the public. This is the cause of violence – of course, there are also instances of xenophobia at play.

The fact remains, we have a security problem. 

Effective border control is urgently needed, but is not prioritised by the government. The Beit Bridge border fence is a good example of a lack of political will to protect the country’s people. 

There are other threats, including home-grown terrorist cells and gangs in the country, which operate freely because of a lack of proper intelligence gathering and analysis. The reports that these cells are involved in terrorism is something we cannot ignore. In cases like these, prevention is better than reaction.

If we had proper capabilities, perhaps we could have prevented the Melville shooting on New Year’s Eve. The silence of the authorities after the Verulam mosque attack and bomb scares at Durban malls is also telling. 

If this was the United States, or any other country that takes its security seriously, we would see arrests and successful prosecutions. Normal states inform their citizens about security threats and measures being taken, but in South Africa everything is buried in deep secrecy. Perhaps secrecy could be justified if our intelligence agencies had a track record of dealing with threats.

The concern which the High-Level Review Panel on the State Security Agency raised about the name change from National Intelligence to State Security, implies a shift of loyalty in transferring it to the state and its arms. At the advent of State Capture, loyalty shifted towards the government and the elite establishment. The SSA and other agencies were no longer protecting citizens, but kleptocrats in government and business.

In addition, the lack of action over misinformation and disinformation is concerning, given the threat it poses to national security. With their capabilities through legislation, methods and technologies, one wonders why our agencies do not act on fake newswhich is punishable by law.  Those behind Twitter accounts that fuel xenophobia have not been arrested. Instead, journalists have had to step in to expose these accounts that are fuelling violence and even a potential civil war.

The disinformation around xenophobia is being driven by politicians who welcome the deflection from societal issues such as poverty, lack of service delivery and crime. Perhaps the goal is to distract us. Voila! The problem becomes “foreigners” rather than the government’s incompetence. It is no secret that our intelligence agencies have always been used for political purposes, even in this post-apartheid era.

The panel which reviewed the SSA was a step towards transforming national intelligence, but whether any changes are effective remains to be seen. It is important to note that transforming intelligence agencies is a difficult task which might take more time than we think – but it has to happen.

The assassination of Anti-Gang Unit commander, Lt Col Charl Kinnear, is proof that there are rogue elements within the police. They are known but not dealt with, for whatever reason. We can agree with Daily Maverick’s Marianne Thamm that “no one, neither the Minister, nor the National Commissioner, can plead ignorance. Kinnear has left behind enough to arrest, charge and try in court a lengthy list of implicated thugs and rotten cops.”

Public trust in the police and intelligence agencies is almost non-existent.  There needs to be transparency in the aftermath of operations. It’s only through communicating openly with the public that we can get a sense they are doing what they should be doing. DM

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