Former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils says it is "absolutely out of order" that intelligence agents are vetting ANC MPs.
For the past year, an intelligence operation involving former spies has been working out of the 11th floor of the ANC headquarters, Luthuli House. Among their duties have been vetting potential members of Parliament, helping to select those who are to oversee the activities of intelligence agencies for the next five years.
But it remains unknown what else the group, code-named Project Veritas, has been tasked with at a time when factional battles have re-emerged in the ruling party, and in the context of a considerable history of security services being involved in just such factional fights.
And that has those who could be considered opposed to party president Jacob Zuma and his continued leadership of the ANC worried.
"When you speak out [against Zuma] you know that you can get kicked out like [Julius] Malema," said a provincial ANC leader in reference to the former ANC Youth League leader who was expelled from the party after disciplinary proceedings. "Now you have to wonder, if you even think against Zuma, will they be watching you? No, we don't like it, you could say."
During the operational life of Project Veritas, Zuma has been disparaged by some ANC groups, culminating in instances of public booing, and several party elders have called for him to account for the massive spending at his homestead in Nkandla.
The Mail & Guardian first reported on Project Veritas and its links with the security services last week. This week the party said that former intelligence officers were involved, but no active agents.
"The ANC cannot use government officials for its own verification," said party communications head Lindiwe Zulu. "There are no current serving officers. And I know ... that the ANC wouldn’t do that."
Last week the State Security Agency said it could not comment on the matter without the facts; this week its spokesperson was not available for comment.
At the ANC's headquarters Project Veritas staff are referred to as “the NIA [National Intelligence Agency] people". The NIA was the precursor to the State Security Agency.
Experts stressed that the use of former spies acting within the law would be entirely legal, just as the use of serving spies would be entirely illegal. Yet the very involvement of those with links back to the state security apparatus raises uncomfortable questions.
Former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils has long been an outspoken critic of the ballooning influence of intelligence agencies in the government. Though he had no direct knowledge of Project Veritas, the possibility that it could directly involve security officials horrified him, he said.
"This question of serving [intelligence] officers invading the area of the legislature in terms of the choice of MP is extremely worrying. Let me rephrase that: it is absolutely out of order," Kasrils said. "If I was an ANC MP, or would-be MP, I would be livid, absolutely livid."
His primary concern was the further capture of Parliament by securocrats, regardless of whether spies or former spies were involved in any other party activities.
"Those who make it, who are cleared, will certainly feel the power of intelligence, will have a fear of intelligence intrusion, and will probably just go belly-up and act in the way of being yes-men and women to everything relating to the power of intelligence ... The people who would take up the issue in an angry way will be those who don't make it, but at that stage what power do they have?"
In 2008 Kasrils scrambled to make public the so-called Matthews report, to sound the alarm on the excesses of the security services and the urgent need for comprehensive reform. The report, written by former deputy minister Joe Matthews, former National Assembly speaker Frene Ginwala and academic Laurie Nathan, warned of scenarios not very different to Project Veritas.
As far as can be ascertained in the shadowy realms of intelligence, the report has been entirely ignored ever since.
"This kind of problem was foreseen and forewarned, and the government has not heeded the warning," Nathan, now director of Pretoria University's Centre for Mediation, said this week. "One can only conclude that they don't see these things as problems."
The inertia may, in part, be explained by the in-house nature of political interference by security agencies, Nathan said.
"All revelations about illegal political engagement by domestic intelligence has not been in relation to opposition parties. It has almost always been about the internal factional issue in the ruling alliance," he said. "I say this in a mocking way: if you were [Democratic Alliance leader] Helen Zille, you would not have to fear that your phone was being tapped. But if you are believed to have your eye on the [ANC] throne, you should definitely worry that your phone is tapped."
Oversight system for intelligence services is not working
The South African intelligence services are subject to a system of both civilian and parliamentary oversight that should make abuse by the executive or the ruling party impossible – but the system is broken.
The security services and the inspector general of intelligence report to Parliament by way of the joint standing committee on intelligence (JSCI). The JSCI includes a range of opposition parties and has the power to summon officials and demand documents.
In March, the JSCI finally broke a three-year silence, publishing in a single day its annual reports for both 2010 and 2011. There has been no word on its reports for the subsequent years, however, leaving public knowledge of what oversight exists a full two years out of date.
The annual reports, when finally published, painted a grim picture of an oversight body both out of touch with and in thrall to those who should be under its control. The committee noted that it had learnt of major scandals in the intelligence community by way of the media. It cited instances where intelligence agencies simply did not provide it with crucial information, without any consequences, and blamed part of the delay in its activities on the pre-publication submission of its reports to the presidency, for confirmation that none of the information to be made public would compromise national security.
One report on a JSCI workshop came to the conclusion that, when the committee believed intervention was required, it could only make recommendations on action to be take – recommendations it would have to make to the executive. – Phillip de Wet