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Intelligence failures carry the largest blame for the recent violence and destruction in South Africa


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Most of the first generation of intelligence operatives have now retired. However, they left behind an organisational culture and a cadre of spies who were trained in methods that may have worked in a guerrilla campaign — during the Cold War — but do not quite work in the machinery of state security and intelligence.

The destruction that followed the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma may turn out to be epochal in the life and times of South Africa, and more specifically of the ruling alliance, as no less an authority than Siphiwe Nyanda has suggested.

A lot has been written about the events of the past week or two, and a lot more will be written. And, as suggested above, the events of the past couple of weeks may well be a turning point. Let’s leave that for now, or let the seers, prophets and fortune-tellers tell us what will happen next. However, digging through the rubble and the smouldering ruins, what stands out is a massive failure on the part of the state intelligence community. 

There are at least two easy explanations for the failure and a third for which they may (almost) be forgiven. The first two are easy. I should, on good advice, write the next couple of points with heavy caveats; the main one of which is that what I am about to say is speculative. The intelligence community is staffed, for the most part, by incompetent people who got their jobs not because they have studied war, strategy and intelligence (the actual name of a course I once taught at Aberystwyth), but because they are not white (and therefore automatically assumed to be apartheid’s old spies), and because their primary loyalty is to the ruling alliance. 

You’re no longer fighting an authoritarian state

At the start of the democratic turn in South Africa, and to quote a very reliable and knowledgeable source, many people in the intelligence community came directly from the bush where they “fought” the state (Pretoria) and were shoe-horned into the intelligence machinery of the post-apartheid state. This is not to say there were no smart people among them. What they seem to have missed is that they were, now, the state. 

What they have missed is that there are significant differences between state intelligence and guerrilla intelligence. The latter defies fixed definitions in the sense that there is no “typical” or standardised form of guerrilla tactics or insurgency. The “intelligence” of guerrilla movements is differentiated by geography, demographics, leadership, training, politics, local conditions and history, objectives and revolution — Maoist, Castroite or even organisation along tribal, urban or rural influences. In this respect, intelligence has to be adaptable. 

And so, the first generation of intelligence operatives faced the ideational problem many new public servants faced. Many of these new public servants who were drawn from the liberation movement had to (almost overnight) move from lobbying states to disinvest from South Africa (as part of the sanctions campaign), to lobbying them to invest in South Africa. That has been a long night. 

Presumably, most of the first generation of intelligence operatives have now retired. However, they left behind an organisational culture and a cadre of spies who were trained in methods that may have worked in a guerrilla campaign — during the Cold War — but do not quite work in the machinery of state security and intelligence.

While intelligence gathering remains basically the same — analysing reports from businessmen, diplomats or military attachés accredited as part of diplomatic missions, and covert sources of intelligence such as signals and Humint — the means and methods have changed significantly. I will address this below. My information is that the current intelligence community is left wanting. If we had a functional and professional intelligence service, much of the damage of the past two weeks could have been prevented.

Whether they like it or not, South Africa’s intelligence community, as a state actor, now necessarily has to incorporate “counterinsurgency” means and methods, in the sense that they have to protect the state and society from actual or imagined insurgencies and from destabilising uprisings. On a lighter note, there was a time when you raised your fist when singing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, now you place your hand on your heart….

Parasite communities can provide (bacterial) immunity

I am taking a long shot, here; like so much else my knowledge of biochemistry and bacteriology is very limited. What I can say with some confidence is that there are germs or bacteria in human systems that can and do protect themselves. The use of the structure and function of the human body is not always applicable to the social world, but I think I can get away with it by only using it analogously. The Zuma presidency (imagine it as a germ or bacteria) effectively established a cordon of safety that worked specifically to prevent anything or any investigations getting close to the president. 

The details and granular process of these moves are enormously complex and truly astounding. People were moved around, placed into positions for which they were unqualified, left isolated and used mainly to “strengthen” or at least protect Zuma (first and foremost). In the meantime, the South African National Defence Force was denuded. So you had a strong intelligence community to protect the president and a weak defence force that could not stage a coup. I would rather read about string theory than try to unravel or explain all of this with any accuracy in less than 2,000 words.

Anyway, close to the centre of it all is the unconstitutionality of Zuma creating the Department of State Security (in violation of sections 209 and 210 of the Constitution) and turning the state security apparatus into an outfit almost completely concerned with factional battles inside the ANC. All the while Zuma created a parallel intelligence network to midwife, nurture and promote his personal political ambitions — and (alleged) pecuniary perversities. 

I have to insert a moerse caveat here. The intelligence aspect of the transition — starting in the mid-1980s, to the Zuma presidency — was one of the most difficult to deal with because not only were people of the previous regime physically embedded, they were also deep reservoirs of knowledge and intelligence. You can move people out or move them around, but you can’t “download” what they know or exercise some kind of memory wipe.

Instead of pointing fingers to who did what to whom, I remain with the failure of intelligence which, I would argue, ought to carry the largest blame for the violence and destruction of the past couple of weeks. In other words, if you had a security community that had the requisite epistemic capacity, much of what happened over the past week could have been prevented.

Intelligence failures and their political origins

For the sake of fairness, it should be pointed out that there have been some serious intelligence failures over the past several decades. The most prominent among these have been the US Central Intelligence Agency caught offside with the Iranian revolution of 1979, the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991, and the attacks on New York City and Washington, DC, on 9 September 2001. 

One of the more insightful analysts in the US, Andrew Bacevich, by no means a leftie, is usually quite trenchant in his work on Washington’s military adventures. About the attacks on New York and Washington, DC, he explained that the subsequent war on terror produced massive intelligence failures and operational ineptitude. He was clear that political interference was at the base of intelligence failures. “During the months leading up to the Iraq war [Donald] Rumsfeld and his aides waged a bureaucratic battle royal to marginalise the State Department and to wrest control of intelligence analysis away from the CIA,” Bacevich explained

With reference to what he described as “America’s Mesopotamian misadventure”, policymakers and the public “will remain oblivious to the record of US support for the Iraqi tyrant during the [Ronald] Reagan era. They will be reminded of the many intelligence failures attributable to the CIA.”

This is hardly an excuse for South African intelligence failure to read the social and political landscape — from Julius Malema’s sometimes blood-curdling rhetoric to the violence of Andile Lungisa, the obstinacy of Ace Magashule and Jacob Zuma, and general disaffection among the poor, the unemployed and people who have cried out for a share of the peace that 1994 promised — which, if it were analysed professionally would have prepared us for the destruction of the past couple of weeks, and what nightmares may come. 

What is clear from most intelligence failures is that they stem from political manoeuvres and machinations. What is also clear from evidence around the world, and across the decades, is that there are unambiguous causal links between political mismanagement and maladministration and intelligence failures.

In the case of South Africa, it is clear that the country’s intelligence community is composed of old-school Soviet-trained miscreants who have been controlled by and are in the service of their political masters, and not by the priorities of national security devoid of pendular politics. In other words, they should serve as the intelligence community for the state and society regardless of who is in office. 

If then, they took into account Malema’s sometimes blood-curdling exhortations and rhetoric, the violence of Lungisa, the obstinance of Magashule and Zuma, and general disaffection among the poor, they ought to have produced apolitical security briefings to the president, who we may assume would have put certain processes in place to prevent, or at least mitigate some of the violence and large-scale looting of the past two weeks. 

To prevent the type of outbreaks that we have seen, or at least shorten their duration, limit their spread and mitigate their impact, the intelligence community needs to be modernised. It may require state-of-the-art technologies (more than simply buying new machines, but also acquiring cognate epistemic capacity) and to employ highly skilled people in areas ranging from mathematics and calculus to psychology and anthropology.

Threats to South Africa include everything and anything from religious fundamentalism to economic espionage. Most importantly, the intelligence community needs to be delinked from the pendular politics of our minimalist democracy, and contribute to the safety and human security of the country as part of achieving stability and prosperity with high levels of trust among citizens. DM


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  • Dennis Bailey says:

    “the intelligence community needs to be delinked from the pendular politics of our minimalist democracy” – even if IC understood this, how would it do it in the short term?

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    I’m going to beg to differ on your take, Issy, to a point anyway. Mbeki was the one who turned the intelligence services inwards, towards himself, and his fear of competition and rivals. Zuma learnt a lot from Mbeki, more than either will admit, including the dubious art of centralising power, an exercise in which the intelligence services played a central role. Our intelligence services were further broken by appointing the wrong people to head them. Ronnie Kasrils was probably the last neutral head who had the country’s interests at heart. Subsequent intelligence heads were oxymorons, or simply just morons. They whispered sweet nothings into the ears of presidents, lined their pockets with slush fund proceeds, and appointed family members in positions of authority. Ndluli springs to mind. To call these buffoons an “intelligence service” is…. lets just say as far fetched as saying Bezos is an astronaut because he spent two minutes in space.

  • Desmond McLeod says:

    As I read and interpret this article, it applies to the ANC’s governance since inception ie. “What they seem to have missed is that they were, now, the state.”
    I believe that most of the problems this country is facing are due to the ANC not changing from guerilla warlords to state managers.

  • Helen Swingler says:

    Moerse thanks for another elegantly crafted and intelligent piece, Dr Lagardien. There are several gems: ‘pecuniary perversities’, ‘pendular politics’ and ‘cognate epistemic capacity’.

  • Di Turner Turner says:

    One of my favourite Maverick writers – never to be missed

  • District Six says:

    It makes sense. Thank you. What you say is important.
    Having said this, anyone with an iota of common sense could have foreseen that the build-up at Nkandla was a crisis. The so-called security cluster should have met in Durban on Tuesday after the ConCourt decision and set a plan in place to mitigate what was inevitable. By Thursday, nothing in mitigation had happened, and Friday was D-Day. Groups defying lockdown for three days, firing live rounds, and beginning to amass in numbers –
    What does anyone think was brewing?

    And not only that, but there was zero response for a further 4 days.

    One gets that the state didn’t want to look kragdadig. But no one can say they’re surprised? All the warning signs were there.

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