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South Africa’s intelligence community started failing in 2007 and it’s been all downhill ever since


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.

The downward spiral started with a massive intelligence failure on the part of the National Intelligence Agency that led to then president Thabo Mbeki and his camp miscalculating their support base at Polokwane in 2007.

The apartheid intelligence community had the wherewithal to know when it was high noon for the Afrikaner community, a change for the better was needed and the consumer — PW Botha — understood the environment to be in agreement with his intelligence community. That intelligence community recruited graduates, properly trained persons, including training from foreign services as partners, professionalism was the order of the day.

Why do I say so? Well, one only has to look at how the then intelligence community supported the main consumer — the SA government — and SA businesses under very difficult conditions. Sanctions were the order of the day and yet the intelligence community was hard at work to ensure that local businesses could breathe and that they were protected inside the country. They even facilitated the production and importation of materials for our nuclear bombs. They secretly facilitated and managed clandestine talks with the liberation movement which ultimately led to our universal suffrage.

You think we can demand this kind of professionalism from our current intelligence community? The emphatic answer is NO

Nelson Mandela’s presidential term was in effect the honeymoon period of our new-found democracy, so the less said about that period the better. We were all finding our feet as government, the legislature and the judiciary, including our security and intelligence communities. To work and trust your former enemies and put your life in their hands at times was not easy, but we persevered.

However, the downward spiral started with a massive intelligence failure on the part of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) that led to then president Thabo Mbeki and his camp miscalculating their support base at Polokwane in 2007. While everyone claims to have seen the writing on the wall preceding that conference, it seems the national intelligence agencies clearly did not. Or was that the case, I wonder?

The factionalism within the intelligence community came into full bloom leading up to the 2007 ANC Polokwane conference. They did not provide Mbeki, the commander-in-chief, with the correct intelligence as to his chances of winning that conference. Or better yet, they chose not to tell him how outnumbered he was with regards to the Zuma people. He lost in the end, and it cost him the presidency. Just a few months later, he was unceremoniously told to vacate the West Wing. It was also the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) that did not charge Zuma in 2007 that led to our nine wasted years and State Capture.

Peace and unity in the ANC at all costs is not working at all, Mr President. What are you playing at? No consequence management, post this obvious massive intelligence failure both by crime intelligence and state security, will come back to bite you. Not doing anything because the attempted insurgency has support at the highest levels in government, is the wrong move.

You are presented with an opportunity, Sir; play the hand you’ve been dealt.

This inaction brings me to the issue of understanding the consumer-producer relationship. And perhaps the fact that we do not have the appropriate levers in place for the consumer is what is handicapping us in this regard. It was the Church Committee of 1975 and the post-9/11 intelligence review commission that led to a major restructuring of the intelligence community in the US.

The fact is that commissions don’t hold up well when it comes to the intelligence community because it relies mostly on what the consumer (government) wants and not what needs to happen with the producers (intelligence agencies). Do commissions work? Policy changes maybe, some budgetary considerations, but never any real structural changes. Is it not the consumer that continues to politicise the producer? The consumer-producer relations are critical. How equipped is the consumer to effectively deal with matters of national security?

Let’s look at what President Joe Biden has: the National Security Council, active unlike ours that only really started meeting recently; a national director of intelligence – we don’t have such a person; a national security adviser, who is now on retirement and has not been replaced as yet; and with these titles or office bearers comes a bureaucracy and staff complement, plus budgets. This is what President Biden has.

As for the British, they have the Cobra committee. The COBR, or Cobra, is shorthand for the Civil Contingencies Committee that is convened to handle matters of national emergency or major disruption. Its purpose is to coordinate different departments and agencies in response to such emergencies. The COBR originated as the acronym for the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms, a series of rooms located in the Cabinet Office at 70 Whitehall.

It is different from Sage (the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies), which convenes independent scientific and technical experts to give advice to the COBR during emergencies. The two bodies have been central parts of the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Here at home, these would be the Security Council plus the National Covid Command Council. But are they together as effective as the British systems?

What is it about intelligence communities that says we cannot radically restructure them for our purposes or close them down and start over again? I mean, R250-billion lost with the current Transnet ports computer hack and counting. Another $10-billion more or less in the recent looting and destruction, and yet we don’t want to radically change this community which is useless to us as the consumer.

What we need is a highly educated and skilled elite that is able to effectively manage state intelligence and metadata, and be very clear on what it requires from the intelligence community. We don’t have this at present. Treasury has it and continues to do it, the SA Revenue Service recently had it and continues to do it, the SA Reserve Bank has it — highly educated and skilled people.

Why has the CR administration not done it? We hear complaints about Cabinet ministers and yet no reshuffle. We have received the high-level panel report on intelligence from Sydney Mufamadi, yet nothing tangible has happened. We had a massive intelligence failure earlier this month — no consequence management, nothing has happened.

Can the intelligence community provide us, as outlined in the Freedom Charter, with peace, security and comfort? At this point in time, I have to say no, Sir.

The inaction (on your part) we are observing on all critical intelligence community fronts will indeed not only be your Achilles heel but very possibly your rotting corpse, good Sir. This, ultimately, will lead to our collective political demise if left unchecked.

Snap out of it, President Ramaphosa, and do what must be done, and do it now! DM


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  • Oscar, don’t you get it that your beloved ANC is totally useless. “Led” by a man without a spine, and manned by crooks who have zero interest in good governance.

    • Oscar, first some high level points:
      1/ The ANC now stands in the way of country prosperity, even survival. It is the problem, not the solution.
      2/ Party unity is not achievable when the constituents are so disparate, and existentially warring.
      3/ The country does not have time for the long game of outmaneuvering each other, and the party is in any case doomed to a slow death.
      This is the Minsky moment. Oscar, re-evaluate your loyalty. Join our side. The cognitive dissonance must be killing you.

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