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Rwanda’s involvement in Ramaphosa phone surveillance will further strain relations

It made international headlines but surprised no one that the phone number of President Cyril Ramaphosa showed up in the leaked database of the NSO Group, with suggestions that he was selected for surveillance by Rwanda as a client of the Israeli spyware firm.

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Sources suggest that several other South African phone numbers feature on the database. However, because of limited resources, only a short list of numbers could be verified to a standard that made for safe legal release as part of the Pegasus project.

Besides Ramaphosa, the list includes French president Emmanuel Macron, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council as well as American diplomat Robert Malley.

Macron has ordered a series of investigations, given what the Élysée Palace termed the “potential seriousness” of the matter. Ramaphosa’s response has been more muted, but similarly there will be an intelligence probe to determine if there was actual surveillance.

“Of course we will not be happy that we have been targeted because we believe that not only infringes on the privacy of the person of the president but also infringes on the sovereignty of this country to make its own decisions without other countries trying to pre-empt those decisions and influence them,” the acting minister in the presidency, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, told a news conference.

“The state security agencies will have to look at whether the targeting resulted in the actioning . . . whether the phone of the president was tampered with.”

A surveillance expert said he doubted the South African intelligence community would be able to establish as much.

“Our intelligence community does not have the know-how, they won’t detect it. It is easy to do if you have the proper software, but they don’t even have the software to securely encrypt mobile phones,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“There are ways to do it, even through tracking data usage. But it is doubtful that they have the skills to do this.”

Whatever the outcome of an investigation, the leak will hamper efforts to repair relations between Kigali and Pretoria, which have been marked by what Africa Confidential editor Patrick Smith terms “serial antipathy” for the better part of two decades.

In 2014, these reached their lowest ebb when South Africa expelled three Rwandan diplomats in response to an attack on the home of exiled Rwandan dissident General Kayumba Nyamwasa.

It was the third failed assassination attempt against Nyamwasa on South African soil, and part of a pattern of persecution of Rwandan opposition figures who have chosen the country as a safe haven away from the Kagame regime’s reach in eastern Africa.

The attack followed the murder of former Rwandan intelligence boss, and Nyamwasa’s partner in the Rwanda National Congress (RCN), Patrick Karegeya, in the Michelangelo hotel in Sandton on New Year’s Day 2014.

The investigation went nowhere for years, and the Karegeya family turned to AfriForum and advocate Gerrie Nel for assistance.

In 2019, the same year Ramaphosa’s number may have been targeted, the National Prosecuting Authority informed Rwanda that it had arrest warrants for suspects Ismael Gafaranga, commonly known as Apollo, and Alex Sugira, both believed to live in Rwanda.

Smith said it would make sense that the Kigali regime would be interested in Ramaphosa’s conversations, but also those of South African authorities dealing with an established pattern of attacks on members of the Rwandan opposition.

“It is a matter of record that Rwanda has this policy, very much like Israel, of tracking down opponents overseas and killing them. Kagame has taken that mode and turned it into an art form,” he said.

Nobody, including the victim’s family, expects Kagame to comply with South Africa’s extradition request, and author Michela Wrong, whose book on his regime is titled Do Not Disturb, questions why South Africa does not take a stronger diplomatic stance against Kigali’s excesses.

Smith says there is little ambiguity about Kagame’s role in the attacks on the exiled leaders of the RCN, and he has a vested interest in making sure investigations never result in suspects telling a local court at whose behest they were acting.

“He would want to know what the policy is, what is happening with these cases. The standing of the Rwandan government depends on these cases going nowhere.”

South Africa is plainly annoyed by an internal Rwandan problem playing itself out in its territory. To this day, the government provides 24-hour security for Nyamwasa. 

But regional tensions, and the disconnect between South Africa’s emphasis on a human rights-based constitutional norm versus Kagame’s on security and intelligence, also play a role. More recently, his decision to send troops to Mozambique to quell the insurgency in its northern Cabo Delgado province has left Ramaphosa and the rest of the region feeling upstaged and alienated.

‘Control freak’: Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, for whom intelligence is ‘gold dust’ (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

“Rwanda is trying to punch above its weight by deploying troops in the Central African Republic and Mozambique, both areas where South Africa has not performed very well, and it may see itself as a strategic competitor in SA,” Wrong said.

Surveillance is standard in the region, part of a pattern where some governments intercept the communication of others on a systematic basis, but in the prevailing geopolitical climate Kagame could be trying to pre-empt Ramaphosa’s diplomatic discussions on his actions.

Wrong recalled that Kagame, as a young rebel officer, served as an intelligence gatherer for Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni, and that surveillance has been his stock-in-trade ever since.

“He is a control freak, he values intelligence as gold dust and he is not too fussy where it comes from … spying on Ramaphosa would seem a completely normal part of his modus operandi,” Wrong said.

Kagame’s political opponents who sought exile in South Africa were part of the military elite in Rwanda before falling foul of him and being blamed, without much credibility, for security incidents.

But from Kigali’s point of view, South Africa is sheltering terrorists.

Against this backdrop, any attempt to stabilise ties is deeply pragmatic. 

For Rwanda, there is the nuisance factor of the status quo. With South Africa no longer having a high commissioner in Kigali, the many students who come here to study have to first travel to neighbouring states to apply for visas.

As for South Africa, Wrong said it was puzzling that the country did not take a harder line.

“They are practically apologising for the crimes Rwandan intelligence have committed on South African soil. The relationship is baffling, it seems one of subservience,” she said.

“South Africa should be upholding the rule of law.” 

Kagame’s special adviser in South Africa could not be reached for comment.

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