Editorial: Pull back curtain on secret services

President Jacob Zuma. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

President Jacob Zuma. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

The battle for control of South Africa's formal intelligence apparatus, waged to such destructive effect by ANC factions ahead of the watershed Polokwane conference and the ejection of Thabo Mbeki from the Union Buildings, was supposed to end after Jacob Zuma's election.

The final act in a spy-vs-spy epic that drew in the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), the Scorpions, SAPS Crime Intelligence, and various nominally private players was the leaking to Zuma's legal team of the"spy tapes" that appeared to suggest a conspiracy to influence the timing of his prosecution. Those tapes formed the basis of the National Prosecuting Authority's highly contested decision to drop the fraud and corruption charges against him, and smoothed his way to the presidency.

Zuma, himself an intelligence operative in the ANC underground, would now command enough loyalty, we were quietly told, to ensure that the men and women of the shadow world, with their powerful bags of tricks, would spend their time serving the Constitution rather than an individual politician.

Of course, it all started to unravel pretty quickly - most visibly in the attempt to put in control of Crime Intelligence a man facing serious misconduct allegations who was nevertheless seen as reliable by the Zuma camp. Things unravelled quickly and messily around Richard Mdluli.

Even more dramatic, although much less noticed by the press and public, was the abrupt departure of the bosses of the three main intelligence agencies - Gibson Njenje from the NIA  Moe Shaik from the South African Secret Service (the foreign intelligence department) and Jeff Maqetuka from the State Security Agency.
An astonishing upheaval, with real consequences for the security of the country.

Even Shaik and Njenje, previously seen as reliable supporters of Zuma, seem to have been pushed too far by the ongoing intrusion of ANC internal politics into intelligence matters.

Indeed, what was suspected at the time is now clearly established: concerns about the potential risks emanating from the outsized role played by the Gupta family in national life were identified and investigated by the spy agencies. Speaking to the Mail & Guardian this week, Njenje said so plainly for the record, and effectively accused Minister of State Security Siyanbonga Cwele of lying about it in Parliament.

The official line is that the spies were involved in some kind of improper activity designed to advance their unspecified "business interests". This appears to be a reference to an effort - which three senior intelligence sources from separate agencies confirmed to our reporters - to block the purchase of sophisticated eavesdropping equipment from a company allegedly associated with the Gupta family.

Those details may never emerge, but this much can no longer be denied: three weeks after the National Assembly adopted the Protection of State Information Bill, the commanding heights of the state security apparatus have been captured by political interests, and perhaps financial ones, that have nothing to do with their constitutional mandate.

The intelligence services may be worse off now than we were during the most precarious moments of the Zuma/Mbeki transition. But these are secrets that cannot be kept and therein lies the hope. Cleaning up the secret world and securing its service to the Constitution is a complex job, but openness, paradoxically enough, is the best hope of a start.

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