Still fighting spy wars

The spy cables saga and its ramifications are replete with dramatic ironies. For one thing, it’s ironic to see Julius Malema, who in a famous outburst (when he was still ANC Youth League chief) accused a British reporter of being a “bloody agent”, now being accused of being an agent of the CIA. We must presume that when Juju hurled that insult, he was unsure whether the journalist was an MI6 agent or a CIA agent, so he just left that part out.

In another irony, the spy cables leak makes it clear that South Africa’s intelligence agencies have worked closely with the CIA, especially in the “war on terror” – and have co-operated largely happily with the “bloody agents” of MI6 and Mossad.

Last month, when State Security Minister David Mahlobo responded to the leak of the spy cables to Al Jazeera, he appeared to dismiss them (saying such leaks are “nothing new”) but said he would set up an investigation into a separate report on a website that nobody had heard of until then – Africa Intelligence Leaks (misspelled, in its URL, as

The site purports to reveal that Malema, Thuli Madonsela, Lindiwe Mazibuko and Joseph Mathunjwa are CIA agents. That Mahlobo took this “leak” seriously was and is worrying, but he was also, in effect, giving publicity to the absurd claims. Malema and the others have, of course, vociferously denied the accusation.

And they are not the only ones accused of CIA links. This week a Twitter user going as a provider of “ANC history” wrote: “CIA may very well be funding our liberal media. Just look at the media’s propaganda against the ANC.” I don’t know, on the basis of this tweet, whether the Mail & Guardian is considered “liberal”, but the claim that we are funded by the CIA has previously been made by Independent Media head Iqbal Survé.

Thus any disagreements with, or even revelations of wrongdoing by, the political elite become “propaganda against the ANC”, and its purveyors are – obviously – CIA funded. There cannot, so this logic goes, be any other reason one might disagree with the present ANC government or find it to have done anything wrong.

The “CIA agent” insult is as old as the ANC’s alliance with the South African Communist Party, which funnelled much-needed Soviet funds to the ANC from the 1960s, when it went into exile, until 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed. The “CIA agent” accusation emerged in the Cold War years.

The Eastern bloc training of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) military leaders included a large amount of Soviet propaganda. ANC security and intelligence operatives got extra training in the then East Germany by its Stasi secret police.

The Stasi’s style was very much based on policing personal ideological adherence. Any dissent or disagreement was conflated with ideological heresy. Thus, the MK cadres in the camps who complained about conditions and their superiors’ attitudes were accused of “objectively” undermining the struggle and were therefore tantamount to being enemy agents.

The ANC in exile was certainly riddled with spies for the apartheid state up to the highest executive levels, hence its paranoia. The party’s security and intelligence department, which became known as Mbokodo and included Jacob Zuma among its leaders, focused mainly on the internal policing of the movement. (Its actual espionage successes were negligible.)

In the late 1970s, Thabo Mbeki, then Oliver Tambo’s right-hand man, was accused of being a CIA agent by Mbokodo because he had helped the American broadcaster CBS make a documentary, The Struggle for South Africa. There were resentments and power plays at work, of course, as Mark Gevisser records in his Mbeki biography, but that was the accusation.

It was just as well Mbeki was so close to Tambo or he may have experienced what happened to Pallo Jordan, who was detained in Lusaka for six weeks by Mbokodo and made to write and rewrite his autobiography – another trick learnt from the East Germans. The security people would look for inconsistencies, which would reveal the suspect was lying and was thus an enemy spy.

The deadly insult in calling Madonsela and others CIA agents is the implication of traitor, impimpi, sell-out or enemy of the state. It’s like calling someone a witch in the Middle Ages – and we know what happened to izimpimpi in the 1980s.

A democratic government and its agencies should not participate in the politics of smear and denunciation any more than parliamentarians should call each other “cockroaches”. Our political discourse is becoming blindly polarised and the organs of state are way too obsessed with conspiracies.

It’s as silly as Mac Maharaj and Moe Shaik trying to defend Zuma in 2003 by accusing the national director of public prosecutions, who might have prosecuted Zuma for corruption, of being an apartheid spy. (They got it badly wrong.) It’s as preposterous as former homeland security policeman Richard Mduli weaselling his way into Zuma’s favour by spreading conspiracy theories, or the fuss made about the “Browse Mole” report and other mysterious utterances of the spook community.

It is doubtless because of his Mbokodo background that Zuma takes such things seriously, but that’s no excuse for hosts of others in the ANC and government to succumb.

Shaun de Waal is the editor of the Mail & Guardian‘s comment and analysis section

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.


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