Editorial: Pull back curtain on secret services

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.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


Where is the deputy president?

David Mabuza is hard at work — it’s just not taking place in the public eye. The rumblings and discussion in the ANC are about factions in the ruling party, succession and ousting him

Zuma turns on judiciary as trial nears

Former president says pre-trial correspondence is part of another plot

SANDF inquiry clears soldiers of the death of Collins Khosa

The board of inquiry also found that it was Khosa and his brother-in-law Thabiso Muvhango who caused the altercation with the defence force members

Lockdown relief scheme payouts to employees tops R14-billion

Now employers and employees can apply to the Unemployment Insurance Fund for relief scheme payments

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday