Chinese checkers: Behind SA’s next public protector and her ‘spy’ alter ego, Meng Xi
Tales of the deeds of Meng Xi don’t exactly litter the countryside of China, but in at least two cities in that country she is still well, and fondly, remembered.
There was the time Meng Xi toured the display section of a Gaungdong-based manufacturer of washing machines. One photographer just could not get enough of what a journalist colleague later called “the smile of the nice lady”.
And so Meng Xi kept smiling, every time the camera was pointed in her direction, even as the tour dragged on well beyond the length of time washing machines can reasonably be expected to retain any fascination.
Or there is the story of the Chinese state official who did not quite grasp the difference between Mpumalanga and the Kruger National Park. Which one was the one with the lions again? Meng Xi cheerfully took on the mantle of geography teacher, then threw in a few references to the charms of the “rainbow nation” overall and the many reasons for also visiting Cape Town while on safari.
She could have been a little more respectful and her dresses could have been a little longer.
Those shortcomings notwithstanding, Meng Xi (the name assigned to her in the strange process of translating foreign names into Chinese) did not appear to be a South African spy during her time in China. That, though, is exactly what the country’s opposition claims.
“We were reliably informed that she, indeed, during her tenure as an immigration officer in China was already on the payroll of the State Security Agency [SSA],” said Democratic Alliance MP Werner Horn this week in reference to Meng, or Busisiwe Mkhwebane as she is known in South Africa.
“We have been advised that the time spent as an immigration officer in China is highly suspicious, having been informed that this is simply coded language for being on the payroll of the State Security Agency,” DA MP Glynnis Breytenbach separately told Parliament.
These claims alternately perplexed or amused those who had worked with Mkhwebane while the presumed next public protector was, on paper at least, a high-ranking home affairs official at South Africa’s embassy in Beijing.
“I can confirm without any fear of contradiction that advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane was employed as counsellor for the department of home affairs at the South African embassy and was never in the employ, nor performed any assignment for, the State Security Agency throughout her period of service in China,” Bheki Langa, the former South African ambassador to China, told the Mail & Guardian this week.
That, of course, is exactly what a good diplomat would say in maintaining the cover of a secret agent. “I think, mindful of the fact that by nature if you are indeed a spy, it is of a secret nature,” the DA’s Horn said.
But all available accounts support Langa’s version and Mkhwebane’s denial this week.
Mkhwebane kept a low profile both before and after Parliament voted to recommend her to President Jacob Zuma for appointment as public protector. She responded only selectively to messages.
Her close associates were also wary; many were willing to describe her in broad terms such as “hard-working and professional” but extremely loath to go beyond that.
“She’s already got the job,” one recent colleague said. “All I can do now if I talk to you is lose it for her.”
Mkhwebane started work as an “analyst” at the SSA in July, a fact she disclosed on a questionnaire sent to her by the parliamentary committee that considered candidates for the public protector post. She did not appear to think it extraordinary.
“Working there is to make sure that I use my expertise that I got at the department of home affairs on refugee law and immigration law,” Mkhwebane told the parliamentary committee.
She spent years heading up interaction between the government and refugees and asylum-seekers.
The SSA did not “want to get tangled up in these allegations”, spokesperson Brian Dube said this week to specific questions about what Mkhwebane was doing for the agency. He did confirm that she took up the job in July — and would remain in it until Zuma confirmed her as the new protector.
“I don’t know what is strange about that,” he said.
It is strange, the DA says, because an analyst is a fairly lowly position, a considerable demotion from the higher levels of the civil service in which Mkhwebane has been employed for more than a decade.
The party did not put forward a theory for why a covert agent would blow her own cover just as she was to become a public figure.
But the DA is not alone in its concerns. Whether or not Mkhwebane was a spy previously, she is currently entrusted with state secrets, a highly placed government official said this week.
“People employed in a position where they see that kind of information are put there because they are on the side of the government of the day. You don’t find dissidents there.”
That is a concern in and of itself. Current public protector Thuli Madonsela — who herself has been called a CIA spy in the past — this week flatly refused to comment on Mkhwebane now or in the future, saying it would be improper in a number of ways.
In strictly general terms, however, “you certainly don’t want anybody executive-minded” in the post, she said.
Chinese sources had trouble digesting the concept of “executive-minded” and could not address the likelihood of Mkhwebane being so, but provided mutually corroborating accounts that gave no hint of traditional spycraft.
Mkhwebane was photogenic, she was “a nice African lady”, she wore fairly demure clothing but did not shy away from “exotic colours”, she was from a perceived strong ally, and she was willing to do the ceremonial washing-machine tours.
“We liked her,” said a Chinese state-media journalist this week, speaking through a translator.
None of the Chinese journalists who spoke to the M&G was authorised to do so, and so were not willing to be named. Two provided independent accounts of the same events. A third briefly reviewed contemporaneous material to confirm that Mkhwebane, at the time acting as the top home affairs technocrat in China, had at her fingertips numbers and statistics related to Chinese visitors to South Africa and the speed with which different types of applications were processed.
She did not exactly blend in as a good spy arguably should, former ambassador Langa said, recalling the first time he saw Mkhwebane, at a 2010 function to welcome him to the embassy where she already worked.
“Among the many guests she was quite a striking figure and hard not to notice: tall, good-looking and colourfully dressed. Even in the harsh Chinese winters, when normally everybody looks frumpy in ill-fitting greatcoats, Busisiwe somehow managed to look elegant, right down to high-heeled designer boots.”
The presidency could not confirm when Zuma would make a decision on Parliament’s recommendation of Mkhwebane. Madonsela’s term expires in mid-October.