It’s been a bad week for South African strugglistas. They’ve just found out it’s not actually okay to call one’s political opponents agents of a foreign power. Labelling the enemy a spy for the dark imperialist forces has long been de rigueur for South African politicians.
Given the ANC’s experiences in exile during the struggle against apartheid, one could forgive a little lingering paranoia. Infiltration of the party’s intelligence was a real threat back then and it must be difficult to shake the fear.
Fast forward to 20 years into a stable democracy, and the denouncing of those one disagrees with as an agent has evolved into something far more opportunistic and surprisingly commonplace.
Those who throw the term around casually were probably surprised the backlash Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Kebby Maphatsoe faced when he hinted, during a tombstone unveiling on Saturday, that public protector Thuli Madonsela is in the employ of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The reaction was swift. Maphatsoe, who has headed the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association for seven years, retracted his comments and apologised, following a threat of legal action by the public protector, a pending complaint from the United States ambassador, an outcry from opposition parties and even alarm from within his own party.
But the only thing Maphatsoe has done differently to his like-minded comrades was using the term in an official speech as a member of Cabinet. Many others have got away with similar before.
Aids … and the Scorpions
A senior figure alleged during public hearings into the disbandment of the Scorpions that the CIA was working with British intelligence to engineer the African apocalypse. Sam Kikine, the head of the International Traditional and Medicine Research Council, reportedly made this accusation at one such hearing in Durban in August 2008: “Why have the Scorpions not investigated Wouter Basson and the CIA, who have created this Aids? The Scorpions are working for MI5 and the CIA, and not for South Africa.” It is not clear why the CIA thought it would be necessary to create an independent body to police corruption if its real agenda was to wipe out sub-Saharan Africa with an incurable disease.
In May last year, in the midst of the battle between Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and his adversaries within the trade union, an “intelligence report” surfaced that ostensibly “exposed” US state department-backed fronts, which were purported to fund all manner of oppositionist forces.
The report claimed knowledge of a conspiracy involving Vavi, Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale, Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, AgangSA’s Mamphela Ramphele, Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, National Union of Metalworkers boss Irvin Jim and “others perceived as opponents and who dare to speak truth to power” to topple the ANC government and replace it with one more favourable to “imperialist” interests.
Malema’s unique blend of paranoia and nostalgia for a liberation struggle he was too young to be part of has made him a particular fan of the idea of the agent provocateur. In one of his first interviews following his election as ANC youth league president in 2008 he referenced President Jacob Zuma’s then court woes on “forces of darkness” and “imperialist forces”.
In 2010 he made global headlines when he threw out a BBC journalist from a press briefing shouting after him “Bastard! Go out. You bloody agent!” When disgruntled members of his new party, the EFF, complained about Malema’s decisions and leadership this year he told media his accusers were “disrupters and infiltrators” planted by the ANC.
ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has repeatedly blamed “white foreign forces” for the woes affecting the platinum sector. In June last year, Independent Online quoted Mantashe as saying: “What is happening in Marikana … I can give you what comes out of that information. Anarchy, anarchy, anarchy driven by people who are from far away … Sweden, Irish.”
Later that month, the Sunday Independent reported him as saying: “The reality is that it is a Swedish citizen who is at the centre of anarchy in the platinum belt. I did not suck it out of my thumb.”
He was understood to be referring, in part, to Liv Shange, the deputy general secretary of the small Workers and Socialist Party who, according to her union, was from Sweden and had been living in South Africa for 10 years.
Casual references to foreign powers and spies are unlikely to let up after Maphatsoe’s slap-down. But thanks to the swift reaction this week, at least we’re less likely to hear the likes of it from a Cabinet member again. – Additional reporting by Sarah Evans