Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

SA spied on its government to get facts on Russian deal

South Africa’s intelligence service relied on a spy “with direct access to the Russian government” to find out details of its own government’s involvement in a $100-million joint satellite surveillance programme with Russia, the leaked spy cables obtained by Al-Jazeera and shared with The Guardian reveal.

The satellite system, known as Project Condor, which was launched into orbit by Russia in December last year, provides surveillance coverage of the entire African continent. The project has been shrouded in secrecy, with Russia originally refusing to reveal who its client was.

Those in the dark appear to have included South Africa’s intelligence agency. But a South African agent with access to Russian military intelligence was able to help, according to a leaked espionage report marked “top secret” and dated August 28 2012.

The intelligence report records a briefing from an agent codenamed “Agent Africanist”, who is identified as having direct links with the government in Moscow and Russian intelligence officers, including those closely involved in the joint satellite project.

Surveillance
Project Condor would, the agent reported, place “South Africa in a position to conduct its own aerial surveillance in Africa, potentially right up to Israel for strategic military purposes”.

The satellite system, which is reported to be costing Pretoria $100-million, has been the focus of criticism in South Africa since some details emerged in local media. The scheme, first proposed eight years ago, has been reported as being the pet project of General Moretti Motau, former head of South African military intelligence, who has now retired and sits on the board of the weapons firm, Armscorp.

Most countries have several intelligence agencies, usually one responsible for collecting information and running agents overseas, one for domestic work and one run by defence departments for more specific military information. Much of the time they act as rivals, reluctant to share information.

The country’s parliamentary opposition has challenged its value, at a time of cost-cutting elsewhere in government, and questioned the secrecy around the project. Critics claim there is no clear need for such a scale of surveillance, aside from peacekeeping operations in the rest of Africa and spotting poachers in remote parts of the country.

Key role players
The report from Agent Africanist identifies South African and Russian military intelligence (GRU) as being the “key role players” in relation to the Condor project, and details changes in Russian foreign intelligence (SVR) deployments in southern Africa.

“Project Condor is regarded as a significant part of the envisaged strategic co-operation” between Russia and South Africa,” the secret report states. “Currently, there are 30 Russian technicians working in South Africa in close co-operation with South African authorities on the project.”

The report suggests South Africa is seeking closer strategic ties with Russia on the basis of the integration of the Condor project, with another satellite system being developed by Moscow. “The aim is to eventually integrate the two satellite systems and capabilities providing wider strategic coverage with obvious benefits for both countries,” the intelligence document says.

Working together
The prospect is also held out of the two countries working together to challenge the domination of African arms sales by the United States and France. 

A GRU official is quoted as reporting that the South African government is “seriously deliberating” selling shares in the state-owned arms manufacturer Denel.

“This has attracted the interest of the Russian arms industry,” the cable says. If a sale were to go ahead, “Russia will strongly consider entering into a strategic arrangement with Denel”, whose focus would be “geared specifically towards the African market, taking on the likes of France and the US”. 

In recent years the state enterprise has sold off subsidiaries, but to German and French – rather than Russian – arms manufacturers. – The Guardian

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Ewen Macaskill
Guest Author

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

Fears of violence persist a year after the murder of...

The court battle to stop coal mining in rural KwaZulu-Natal has heightened the sense of danger among environmental activists

Data shows EFF has lower negative sentiment online among voters...

The EFF has a stronger online presence than the ANC and Democratic Alliance

More top stories

Mkhize throws the book at the Special Investigating Unit

It’s a long shot at political redemption for the former health minister and, more pressingly, a bid to avert criminal charges

Pockets of instability in Kenya are underpinned by unequal development

Stability in Kenya hinges on a just, equitable distribution of resources, and a commitment to progress human development for the marginalised

Eastern Cape premier Mabuyane lives large amid province’s poverty

Oscar Mabuyane and MEC Babalo Madikizela allegedly used a portion of state funds for struggle icon Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s commemoration for their own benefit
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×