Editorial: Presidents and the urge to purge


With Zuma's power waning, we should not be surprised that there's been another purge of the country's top spooks.

It remains to be seen whether Zuma will be a better tactician than Mbeki (left) who, six years ago this month, was unceremoniously ejected from office by his own party. (AFP)

The continued instability in our state security agencies is worrying. For more than a decade, they have been entangled in factional battles in the governing ANC. It seems once the president feels vulnerable and fears losing his grip on power, he becomes paranoid and targets the security establishment – as we report elsewhere in this newspaper today. President Jacob Zuma is not alone. President Thabo Mbeki did the same during his abortive second term.

Mbeki conducted a purge of the security services in 2004, although ultimately it did not help his cause. Out went intelligence minister Lindiwe Sisulu and in came Ronnie Kasrils. Out went national intelligence agency director general Vusi Mavimbela and in came the man Mbeki mistakenly believed was a loyalist, spy boss Billy Masetlha.

During Mbeki’s last term, Masetlha and top spies Bob Mhlanga and Gibson Njenje were muscled out. Zuma has trod the same path and has turned on his own. Once trusted allies in the intelligence services, including Moe Shaik, Jeff Maqetuka and Njenje, found themselves out in the cold and resigned after clashing with then state security minister Siyabonga Cwele. Among the apparent reasons for pushing them out were the concerns they raised about the alleged hold the Guptas had over Number One. There was also resistance to accommodating Zuma’s cohort of KwaZulu-Natal spies, the so-called Nkandla detachment.

Zuma’s reliance on his own spy network appears not to have fazed Luthuli House. Some of these spooks were involved in Project Veritas, which vetted ANC candidates to Parliament and the legislatures – a useful tool to ensure elected public representatives remained loyal to Zuma in his last term.

In our pre-election reporting we predicted that, once Zuma announced his Cabinet, it would in effect be the start of the erosion of his power. Loyal comrades with an eye on their own futures would seek new alliances and no longer slavishly defend him. National executive committee members who were overlooked for plum posts would have more reason to look elsewhere to secure their future. Although we did not factor in Zuma’s exhaustion and health, we did note that he was planning to overhaul his security cluster ministers, believing they had failed him on a range of issues, including Nkandla. Allies such as Cwele, Nathi Mthethwa and Jeff Radebe were in effect demoted.

With Zuma’s power waning, we should not be surprised that there’s been another purge of the country’s top spooks. They are being farmed off to the foreign service as diplomats: out go Dennis Dlomo, the head of the national intelligence co-ordinating committee, as well as Simon Ntombela, the director of the domestic branch of the state security agency, and Nozuko Bam, the deputy director of domestic collection.

Despite State Security Minister David Mahlobo’s denials, this “clean-up” is another sign of a paranoid president. After all, Zuma is a securocrat. He apparently believes South Africa’s spies, like other state institutions, can be abused for personal and political gain. It remains to be seen whether Zuma will be a better tactician than Mbeki who, six years ago this month, was unceremoniously ejected from office by his own party.

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