Minister vs top spooks

The raging succession battle in the ANC ahead of its crucial elective conference next year in Mangaung in the Free State appears to be at the centre of spy wars that have pitted State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele against his top three intelligence chiefs.

The head of the State Security Agency, Gibson Njenje, foreign branch head Moe Shaik and director general Jeff Maqetuka have reportedly clashed with Cwele over his wish to use state security to spy on ANC leaders perceived to be hostile to President Jacob Zuma. 

In turn, Cwele allegedly wants to oust them from his department.

The Mail & Guardian has reliably learnt that Cwele wanted Njenje to put several senior ANC leaders under surveillance and intercept their communications.

His request followed a “threat analysis” in the ministry’s quarterly Political Stability Assessment Report, according to senior intelligence, government and ANC officials who have been briefed on the circumstances.

Njenje is understood to have told people around him that he was uncomfortable about being badgered by his seniors to conduct surveillance for party-political reasons.

Sources told the M&G that Cwele’s tactics were triggered by a “secret intelligence report” prepared by former head of intelligence Richard Mdluli, which claimed that top ANC leaders met in Estcourt in KwaZulu-Natal to plot the ousting of Zuma.

Those mentioned included Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale, national police chief General Bheki Cele, KwaZulu-Natal Premier Zweli Mkhize, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile and ANC treasurer Mathews Phosa.

These men are said to be close to embattled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, who is seen to be leading a campaign to oust Zuma and replace him with his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe.

The anti-Zuma group also wants Mbalula to replace ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe.

According to highly placed intelligence sources, Cwele allegedly told Njenje that ANC leaders needed to be “tailed” because they posed a threat to Zuma’s party presidency.

But an angry Njenje is said to have responded by saying that he would do what was necessary in terms of legislation, and would not be told to break the law by investigating factional fights in the ANC.

Shortly after this exchange, Cwele apparently told Njenje he wanted to redeploy him elsewhere in the government.

Njenje retorted that, if the minister wanted to redeploy him, he would have to pay him out in full because his contract had not expired.

Njenje is also understood to have promised to give Cwele a letter rejecting his offer to redeploy him and stating his own offer to leave if he was paid out in full for his contract.

A source said: “When it comes to a showdown between a minister and a director general, it’s always the director general that goes. That’s an iron law of governance.

“They [Njenje, Shaik and Maqetuka] don’t expect things to be different in this case, so they are trying to delay things and slow the process down, because things will change next year at Mangaung.”

Approached for comment about his redeployment, Njenje said: “I think he [Cwele] would be best placed to answer that question. I do not want to second-guess him.”

 

Cwele’s spokesperson, Brian Dube, said the minister would issue a statement to respond to the allegations at an appropriate time.

“No amount of distortion, lies and speculation by faceless ‘sources’ will draw us [in]to a public debate on these matters,” he said.

The M&G understands that Njenje and Shaik intend to take their complaints about Cwele to Zuma.

The two men are also trying to gather support from some Cabinet members, including senior party leaders who are sympathetic to their situation.

“Moe made a statement soon after he took over about the fact that the new executives would not do what politicians want them to do. They [the executives] wanted to be professional. He said this in front of the minister.

“The theme was that there would be no political interference. They wanted to build a new cadre that would not be involved in political issues. [Shaik] wanted officers to stay away from domestic politics and do the job of securing the country,” said a senior government official.

But Cwele is pushing hard to get rid of the two intelligence chiefs as soon as possible.

His expectation, apparently, is that Maqetuka would go of his own accord after the departures of Shaik and Njenje.

Shaik is apparently travelling overseas next week and there is concern that the minister will act while he is away.

“I am still employed at the department and have not resigned or been fired,” Shaik told the M&G.

On Thursday insiders at state security claimed that wealthy business people close to Zuma were also to blame for the deepening tension between the spy bosses.

Their identities are known to the M&G.

Two different government sources told the M&G that the first crack in the relationship between Njenje and Cwele came after some of these business people complained to Zuma that Njenje was investigating them.

“Their concern was that the investigation would disadvantage them in business opportunities. They were worried that the investigation would create doubts about their credentials,” said one source.

Analysis: No clear boundaries in ‘spy vs spy’ turf war

The crisis at the apex of South Africa’s intelligence services is at once both deeply personal and broadly structural, according to sources familiar with the players in the spy vs spy saga.

The crux of the structural problem, they allege, is the expanding efforts of State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele to exercise operational control over the services ­and the active resistance from the senior managers under him: Lizo Njenje, Moe Shaik and Jeff Maqetuka.

Part of the problem lies in a legislative regime that gives the minister wide but poorly regulated powers to appoint, remove and shift personnel.

The minister is also empowered to issue “directions” regarding “command and control” of the services.

The problem is exacerbated by a legal drafting that initially gives the president such powers but allows him to delegate them to a member of the Cabinet, effectively clothing the intelligence minister with presidential authority.

The Constitution states that the president “must appoint a woman or a man as head of each intelligence services and must either assume political responsibility for the control and direction of any of those services, or designate a member of the Cabinet to assume that responsibility”.

The restriction to “political responsibility” is not mirrored in intelligence legislation, which simply says the director general “must, subject to the directions of the minister and this Act, exercise command and control of the intelligence services” —­ wording that may give the minister an effective veto over operational decisions.

Up to now, the practice within the services has largely ignored the wide discretion given to the minister and has stuck with international practice that frowns on political authorities getting involved in operational matters.

Former minister Ronnie Kasrils said that on his watch he was careful not to stray into the operational prerogatives of line managers.

That only changed somewhat in the wake of the hoax email scandal and the surveillance of Saki Macozoma.

After that, Kasrils issued instructions that surveillance that was “politically sensitive” had to be cleared by him — until the service could institute mechanisms to tighten up the mandate and process of authorising such operations.

Even so, Kasrils was criticised privately by intelligence managers for straying on to their turf.

Kasrils said the Intelligence Review Commission he appointed in the wake of the hoax email saga raised some of these issues, but its recommendations were not even considered.

The commission, headed by the late Joe Matthews, noted in its report: “A number of critical issues are not covered adequately in the legislation: the provisions on the supply of intelligence to the minister, the president and government departments are unsatisfactory; the legislation does not deal with authority to task the intelligence services; it does not cover the dismissal or suspension of the director general of an intelligence service; and it does not provide for ministerial approval of intrusive operations.”

But the report was seen as Kasrils’s baby and was buried by the Polokwane revolution.

Now it appears that staff deployments and decisions on politically sensitive operations are again at the centre of conflict between Cwele and his top directors.

As one senior intelligence manager put it: “We may have disagreed with the conclusions of the commission, but they raised valid issues. They were ignored and now it’s come back to bite us. I hope this current crisis can persuade us to have the dialogue on where and how the boundaries should be drawn.”

That appears unlikely, however.

Sources sympathetic to Njenje and Shaik say that the normal turf disputes between the minister and his managers are made intractable by the minister’s own insecurity and relative lack of experience in intelligence.

Said one: “This minister never worked in intelligence himself, whereas Maqetuka, Njenje and Shaik each have decades of experience. They have struggle credentials. The minister doesn’t even sit on the ANC national working committee or national executive committee.”

The result, they claim, has been a level of mistrust and second-guessing and a tendency on the minister’s part to see conspiracies against him and to disregard advice.

One example cited has been the debacle around the Protection of Information Bill, which has been driven by Cwele and has provoked unprecedented public opposition and some embarrassing backtracking from the ANC.

According to insiders, the intelligence services made their own inputs to the minister that were also critical of the draft Bill, but Cwele failed to share their comments with the parliamentary committee dealing with the legislation.— Sam Sole

* Got a tip-off for us about this story? Email amabhungane@mg.co.za

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.

Charles Molele

Charles Molele

Charles Molele is a senior politics reporter at the Mail & Guardian. Charles joined the paper in 2011. He has covered general news, court and politics for the past 19 years, and also worked as a senior reporter for the Saturday Star, Sunday World, ThisDay, Sunday Times and is former politics editor of the New Age. Charles's other career highlights include covering Kenya's violent general elections (2007/08), Zimbabwe’s sham general elections (2008), Mozambique's food riots (2010) and the historic re-election of US President Barack Obama (2012).
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  • ML

    ML

    Matuma Letsoalo is a senior politics reporter at the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003, focussing on politics and labour, and collaborated with the M&G's centre for investigations, amaBhungane, from time to time.In 2011, Matuma won the South African Journalist of the Year Award and was also the winner in the investigative journalism category in the same year.In 2004, he won the CNN African Journalist of the Year prize – the MKO Abiola Print Journalism Award. Matuma was also a joint category winner of the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the year Award in 2008. In 2013, he was a finalist for Wits University's Taco Kuiper Award.
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