Siyabonga Cwele is an easy man to like. I’ve thought so since I interviewed him in his parliamentary office at the height of the Browse Mole “scandal”, that excursion into the wilderness of mirrors that unfortunate spies, politicians and reporters took at the height of the Zuma-versus-Mbeki wars.
Cwele was the man with a full deck of secrets, but he was nervous about talking to a journalist and even more so about being photographed — the interview was not enthusiastically granted. But the reticence seemed at the time quite charming. He was quick to laugh, he accepted that I was there to push him a bit and, although he wanted to rubbish the report along with Jacob Zuma’s enemies, he was prepared to entertain a debate.
At the time he was chairperson of the joint standing committee on intelligence, the woefully inadequate oversight body that seems to have its members — including opposition MPs — so much in the thrall of the cloak-and-dagger glamour that they see themselves as custodians of classified mysteries rather than as public representatives.
Cwele was the leading proponent of the MP as political extension of the security system, even attempting at one point to ban members of his committee from speaking to the press at all.
So although he is an avuncular and likeable man, and although I believe he genuinely wants South Africans to live more secure lives, I don’t really think he understands the nature of our constitutional state and the role of intelligence services in a democracy. And he understands nothing at all about communication, which is strange, because spookery is nothing if not an information game.
How else to explain his utterly disastrous handling of the arrest of his wife Sheryl on drugs charges?
He did not know anything about it, he told Durban’s Mercury, a ludicrous remark from the man at the helm of a vast information-gathering operation.
If that wasn’t implausible enough, he then went to ground and got absolutely no cover from the presidency, or from his party, which simply stood firm on the principle that his wife’s affairs are utterly separate from his.
Not only is that untrue, it is a very poor media strategy and it has had predictable results, with the minister unavoidably at the centre of the maelstrom.
For anyone prepared to read between the lines this much is clear: Dr Cwele wants nothing to do with Mrs Cwele. Her arrest went ahead unhindered and journalists at the Mercury got the inside track on the details. She did not immediately receive bail. He has said nothing in her defence, nor have any of his Cabinet or party colleagues.
In this way, Cwele, and his boss Jacob Zuma, are no doubt attempting to telegraph their attitude to the affair: we don’t mind if she goes down. The spooks belatedly got in on the act, letting the Sowetan know that the couple had been estranged for “five years” and that Cwele was in a relationship with an MP in Cape Town.
At very least the minister should have said something like: “I am deeply troubled by these allegations, and although I can’t pronounce on her guilt or innocence, it seems to me she has some difficult questions to answer.”
He might have wanted to add that he was filing divorce papers.
That would have made it clear where he stands on those 30 highly probative SMS messages between Sheryl and “friend” Frank, the Nigerian smuggler.
That is probably the most we could have hoped for. Of course, the correct thing for Cwele to do would have been to resign — not because he has done anything wrong, but because his position has become untenable.
The risk posed by the wife who is allegedly in cahoots with drug traffickers is immense — think of the leverage it might provide enemies of the state for blackmail, to give just the most obvious example.
And then there’s his credibility in sensitive meetings with his own staff and his international counterparts in the run-up to the World Cup, at a time of intense global security anxiety. It is cruel, but clear — he really should step down.
That will not happen. It is not the way this Cabinet operates. It is not hard to imagine the conversation between Cwele and Zuma:
JZ: What are we going to do about the charges against Sheryl?
SC: I really didn’t know. That woman and I are married in name only. Let’s leave her to Anwa Dramat and the Hawks to sort it out. She’ll get no support from me, just keep me out of it.
JZ: My friend, we all have family issues to deal with. Just keep your head down.
The outcome of this approach is a serious self-inflicted wound for Cwele, whose conduct looks more suspicious than it ought, and an injustice to all those South Africans whose security he is supposed to ensure.
The current administration seems to believe that brazening it out is the best communication strategy possible. Even in the most cynical assessment of spin tactics, they are wrong. Weighed in a larger balance, against the health of our democracy, they are criminally misguided.