/ 24 March 2017

Chief justice break-in fuels conspiracy theories

Damp squib: Ex-spooks say it’s unlikely that national intelligence was behind the break-in at Mogoeng Mogoeng’s offices. Photo: Paul Botes
Damp squib: Ex-spooks say it’s unlikely that national intelligence was behind the break-in at Mogoeng Mogoeng’s offices. Photo: Paul Botes

When news broke that the office of the chief justice had been burgled at the weekend, many South Africans immediately suspected that spies had been involved.

And as news was breaking on Wednesday that three seemingly ordinary suspects had been arrested in the case, it was the spies who turned suspicious.

“I’m not saying this is the thing [that happened], but you should keep in mind that sometimes the cops keep small-time gangsters [at] hand just in case they need a ‘break’ on a big story,” an intelligence operative cautioned.

Acting national police commissioner Khomotso Phahlane’s appeal to avoid “misplaced and/or irresponsible utterances and allegations” made no difference; a pall of suspicion hung over the affair.

It only deepened when, by Wednesday afternoon, charges against one of the suspects were withdrawn — and the other two suspects were not charged with anything to do with the burglary.

“Told you so,” the spy gloated.

But the entire incident did nothing to reverse initial suspicions that intelligence agencies had been behind the theft of the 15 computers from the chief justice’s office, where judges’ personal information is held.

As expressed by Economic Freedom Fighters Floyd Shivambu on Twitter, soon after Democratic Alliance chief whip John Steenhuisen said the same: “My rational suspicion is that the State Security Agency (Mahlobo) is the one who broke into chief justice’s office and stole computers,” referring to State Security Minister David Mahlobo.

Many seemed to agree — but not the spies. Or, at least, if their brethren were behind the incident, they insisted, it was not rational.

“If we want kompromat we have much better ways to get it than to steal some computers,” a former intelligence operative groaned, using the Russian word for compromising material that can be used to blackmail or discredit someone.

Another spy boasted that if the security apparatus wanted to obtain information, “we could get it without ever leaving the Farm”, referring to the signals-intercept capabilities of a State Security Agency (SSA) installation outside Pretoria.

A third insider said that if the motive was to intimidate the judiciary, there were more direct ways to achieve this. “What you do is you show them their own blood,” he said, before explaining how easy it was to recruit a criminal to create a violent incident with no possibility of the orders being traced back to source.

The arguments are compelling, even if it is impossible to accept at face value the assertions by the SSA and by the Mail & Guardian’s sources that intelligence agencies had not been involved. Yet the arguments simply would not gain traction.

Days before the break-in, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng had presided over the Constitutional Court’s scathing indictment of Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, and by extension her employer President Jacob Zuma, who has himself suffered humiliation at the hands of the judiciary. Weeks before, Mahlobo said that malicious foreign actors were using the judiciary to undermine the government.

The South African Police Service — still in the throes of internecine warfare rooted in politics — refused to release details of the break-in, and would not part with apparent video footage even before seemingly jumping the gun by announcing arrests.

The coincidence of a violent attempted ransacking of the home of Zane Dangor, the former director general of social development who was at the heart of Dlamini’s mortification, was hardly needed.

When the media reported that it a similar car may have been seen outside the home of South African Social Security Agency chief executive Thokozani Magwaza and that Black Sash lawyer Geoff Budlender’s phone was snatched while he was in his car, the public imagination went into conspiracy theory overdrive.

Indications are now that these two incidents were coincidental. But such is the political climate that we are ready to believe that state institutions will be abused for political ends again, as they have been in the past.