Why the SSA is after Amcu's leader

Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa at the Royal Bafokeng stadium in Rustenburg. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa at the Royal Bafokeng stadium in Rustenburg. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) was already troubled by personality clashes, regional disputes and rumours of attempts at personal enrichment. But official confirmation that leader Joseph Mathunjwa was under investigation by intelligence services was something akin to a spark in an explosively paranoid environment.

“There was always this thing about people [competing organisation the National Union of Mineworkers, NUM] being agents,” an Amcu shop steward in the platinum belt said this week. “Now the government gives us a piece of paper saying they are going to spy on Joseph, because they think he is a spy … Who do we trust now in our union?”

Amcu split from the ANC-affiliated NUM more than a decade ago, but only shot to prominence in 2012, when more than 40 people died in Marikana during a strike in which Amcu played a pivotal role.

Officially Amcu has shaken off the news of a State Security Agency (SSA) investigation into allegations of Mathunjwa’s involvement in “espionage activities”, announced last week, taking it only marginally more seriously than the general public reaction of perplexed amusement. Speaking anonymously, however, mid-ranking officials this week expressed serious concern about the effect just the existence of such an investigation would have on the work of the union.

Amcu faces key events in the coming months that will set its future course and determine what political effect it will have, including:

  • The submission by the Farlam commission of its Marikana massacre report, by the end of March;
  • Wage negotiations in the gold and coal mining sectors, where current agreements expire in June; and
  • Ongoing courting of the avowedly politically unaligned union by a number of left-wing organisations that will either contest or be involved in the 2016 local government elections.

Amcu members say there were already divisions on how the union should handle these matters, with sometimes fierce contests about whether Amcu should align itself with the new United Front or the Economic Freedom Fighters, or neither. With spies in the mix, everything becomes a great deal more complicated, including internal democracy.

“If I go against my leadership in a meeting and afterwards they tell people ‘that man is a spy for the government’ I won’t be safe walking home,” a disenchanted shop steward said.

That kind of paranoia is a direct result of a statement by the SSA last week that Mathunjwa, as well as public protector Thuli Madonsela, EFF leader Julius Malema and former DA parliamentary chief Lindiwe Mazibuko, was under investigation on allegations of espionage.

Amcu was a major player in the strike that led to 34 miners being gunned down at Marikana in 2012, which led to a flurry of intelligence interest in the trade union. (Mujahid Safodien, AFP)

“The State Security Agency, working with other departments within the security cluster, will institute an investigation in order to verify and determine the veracity of the allegations made,” the agency said.

The source of the allegations, the SSA said, was “social media platforms” and the blog africainteligenceleaks.wordpress.com.

Despite its name, the website contains not intelligence leaks but conspiracy-laced musings of a user named “Derek” sans anything resembling credible evidence. The site, initially Portuguese, has links to Spanish websites and uses a logo associated with an African studies centre at Michigan State University.

Thanks to badly broken English the site does not quite call Mathunjwa an agent of the CIA (as it does Malema). It does, however, claim that Mathunjwa sought help from Otpor, a Yugoslav organisation credited in part with the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, which received United States support in the run-up to that regime change.

Extended belly laugh
These details of the publication, and the content of the allegations themselves, drew an extended belly laugh from a former intelligence officer, who said this week that such an allegation, had it been mailed to the SSA on a piece of paper, would have gone straight to the “crank pile”.

“The job is about analysis, right? First you have to screen out all the nonsense people waste your time with.” Although a junior may be tempted to take everything seriously for fear of missing a real threat, he said, it was the higher-ups’ job to suppress such fears, lest true threats to security slip past while they are swamped with outlandish conspiracy theories.

Intelligence insiders say Amcu was the subject of, at most, mild intelligence interest before August 2012. After the Marikana massacre, with sudden concerns about contagious violence, there was a scramble to establish an intelligence pipeline that could provide early warning. As the immediacy of the threat waned, so did the attempts at monitoring Amcu. Especially on the private front.

“Nobody wants to be caught with blood on their hands,” a person with strong links to private mine security in the Rustenburg area explained.

Put spying accusations in the mix and everything becomes a lot more complicated for Amcu, particularly as it faces wage negotiations and the Farlam commission findings. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Like the state, those responsible for managing and securing mines at an operational level developed an intense interest in any inside information about Amcu to be had immediately after the Marikana massacre. But cooler heads realised that intelligence can be a burden. Handle intelligence-gathering badly enough that an informant dies and you can be held responsible; gather intelligence that accurately predicts violence but fails to prevent that violence and you can be held responsible; fail to gather intelligence that predicts violence while trying to do so and you can be held responsible; get caught at any kind of privatised intelligence gathering and suffer at least public embarrassment.

And so private spying dwindled, apparently as the state also focused its attentions elsewhere, such as on the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).

Numsa complaint
Before the end of March, Numsa plans to lay a complaint before the inspector general of intelligence – tasked with oversight of the intelligence services – about using state resources to monitor its activities. Confirmation that Amcu is being scrutinised by the same intelligence agencies could strengthen Numsa’s hand.

“If Amcu is being spied on it seems to give credence to Numsa’s allegations that it is also being spied on, as well as suggesting that the political intelligence mandate has widened once again to include organisations involved in lawful advocacy, who get on to the radar because they are considered inconvenient by the political elite,” said Jane Duncan, an academic at the University of Johannesburg and author of the recently published Rise of the Securocrats.

She describes a theoretical effect of political intelligence gathering that mirrors Amcu members’ experiences. “[S]urveillance ... sows division and creates confusion within an organisation. It makes activists and unionists suspect one another when asking searching organisational questions.”

But, she says, it can also have the opposite effect, galvanising already democratic organisations into greater transparency, with immediate disclosure of approaches by spies or “suspicious occurrences”.

It can also galvanise civil society. The Numsa complaint shows early signs of becoming a rallying point for civil society organisations long concerned about intelligence interference in their work, and in particular about the interaction between police crime intelligence and community activists.

Over the next year several organisations, such as the Right2Know campaign, plan to challenge the accepted government wisdom that political stability is a matter of national security, and that spying on political groups is thus not only allowed but required.

Meanwhile, not everyone who suspects they have the intelligence services’s attention is entirely dismayed.

“Normally we work on the margins of society; it is often easy to ignore academics who don’t have a major social base or a political constituency,” says Patrick Bond, an overtly left-wing and politically involved academic at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In 2014 he was one of a string of left-wing academics who suffered strange burglaries and data loss that they suspect, but could never prove, was related to intelligence dirty tricks.

“There’s not much one can do, except assume every email and every phone conversation is vulnerable to interception. But sometimes it backfires, it reaffirms the work you do and you find new energy in that attempt to intimidate.”

Increasing paranoia hobbles union and its president

Looming wage negotiations in the gold mining sector have provided some evidence of a co-ordinated external threat against the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), but insiders believe increasing paranoia in the union is a result of its own structural weaknesses rather than outside interference.

Members say Amcu has seen increased clampdowns on shop stewards seen as independent, with the biggest effect felt at Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), in the North West, where Amcu enjoys its biggest constituency.

In a recent regional elective conference, Amplats’s crop of shop stewards – seen as the most autonomous in the platinum sector – were left out of the newly appointed regional structure. This, analysts believe, was because union leader Joseph Mathunjwa fears losing control of his creation.

“In particular, he has targeted critical thinkers who are the core leadership within the mines,” says University of Johannesburg-based academic Luke Sinwell. “But he has done so strategically, so that the individuals look bad when in fact they are not … When he started the union, he was organiser, spokesperson, a recruiter. He cannot accept a situation whereby individuals are now beginning to dictate some of the terms upon which the union will operate.”

Mathunjwa is also said to be increasingly paranoid because, beyond being the president of the union, he does not have a constituency of workers to speak of at branch level. That means he could easily be voted out of his position were the party to hold a national elective conference.

“[Ideally] the president of a union must be employed somewhere where a branch of the union exists so that it can remain a member-driven organisation,” says Bheki Buthelezi, a Democratic Left Front volunteer based in Rustenburg.

“All office bearers [should ideally] be mandated members of the union. The exception here would be secretaries and organisers, who are officials employed and paid solely by the union. That’s why he’s always tightly managing branches.”

Mathunjwa responded by SMS to initial attempts to reach him, but ultimately did not comment.

According to Sphamandla Makhanya, an Amplats-based shop steward who was recently expelled from the union, Amcu shop stewards remain by and large untrained, and the union shut down a Democratic Left Front- initiated training project when the union suspected it included political education, going beyond the strict parameters of the Labour Relations Act. Makhanya, who was accused of accepting R8 000 from a secret group of white men to “bring down the union”, has lodged a dispute with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration for termination of contract without notice. He describes Mathunjwa’s attitude towards his shop stewards as one of “behave or jump”.

With issues confronting the union including a hotly contested Amcu-backed funeral scheme for members, mass meetings are being held behind locked gates. – Kwanele Sosibo

When (un)intelligence meets politics

February 1998
Defence force head Georg Meiring presents an intelligence report to President Nelson Mandela, alleging that the “Front African People’s Liberation Army” was planning to overthrow his government. Those cited as involved included Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Michael Jackson. The report is officially rubbished as wholly fabricated.

April 2001
Minister of safety and security Steve Tshwete announces that Cyril Ramaphosa, Mathews Phosa and Tokyo Sexwale are under investigation about an alleged plot to overthrow then-president Thabo Mbeki. No substantial evidence is ever presented and Tshwete eventually apologises to all three.

September 2003
National Prosecuting Authority director Bulelani Ngcuka is dramatically “outed” as having been a spy for the apartheid government. An inquiry by retired Judge Joos Hefer finds no evidence that the allegations against Ngcuka are true.

August 2005
Businessman Saki Macozoma discovers that he is under surveillance. His complaints lead to an investigation that uncovers Project Avani, a counter-intelligence operation exploring foreign involvement in ANC succession. Avani “discovers” two conspiracies against the government: a Xhosa faction opposed to Zulu leadership of the country and white reactionaries in politics, the media and the Scorpions. Although easily proven to be fabricated, emails supposedly intercepted during the investigation are initially believed by officials as senior as Kgalema Motlanthe, and ultimately see the departure of intelligence officials only slightly less senior.

May 2007
The Special Browse Mole Report, prepared by the Scorpions anti-corruption unit, is leaked. The report alleges a conspiracy to overthrow the administration of Thabo Mbeki in favour of Jacob Zuma – possibly in a military coup – involving ANC military veterans in the defence force, Angola and Libya, among others. The report mixes truth with fantasy and is dismissed, as are officials involved in its creation.

March 2007
Intelligence officials start monitoring the National Prosecuting Authority and the Scorpions, in part it seems as a result of the Browse Mole Report. Later that year they record conversations around the timing of reintroducing criminal charges against Jacob Zuma. Two years later these “spy tapes” are cited as the basis for a decision to discontinue the Zuma prosecution again.

October 2010
Suspended and arrested police crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli apparently sends a “ground cover intelligence report” to Zuma; Mdluli later claims his signature was faked. The report alleges that a group including Cabinet ministers Sexwale and Fikile Mbalula were conspiring with others inside the ANC to unseat Zuma that December. Those named angrily dismiss the report as a work of fiction.

August 2013
Suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi releases a report he says leaders in the union federation had circulated. The report claims Vavi’s political ambitions had him working with organisations in the United States in a bid to topple the government, and cited him as responsible for everything from xenophobic violence to the Marikana massacre. Supposed co-conspirators include deputy president Ramaphosa and Sexwale. – Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet


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