/ 4 September 2021

State security in the presidency — the risks and opportunities

 6152 Dv
Strong arm of the law: After the national security disaster of the July looting, the police recovered allegedly stolen goods from people’s homes, in this instance in Vosloorus. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat

Sun Tzu

The announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa that the State Security Agency (SSA) will be incorporated into the presidency is a bold move; it represents an opportunity to lead the renewal of the agency, but simultaneously creates significant risks. These risks could affect both the president and his political future, and the SSA and our ability to transform it into a capable instrument of the state. The extent to which the boldness is transformed into opportunity instead of disaster requires a sober assessment of the move, the rationale behind it, and the limits of such a move without a greater strategic reorientation of our national security thinking, strategy and organisation.

As young activists we were taught an elementary axiom of struggle: always proceed from the real to the possible. This advice, which everyone claimed originated from Lenin, but somehow could never be found in his writings, would be good food for thought for those who respond to the president’s announcement with a mixture of euphoria and nostalgia. These two elements, which permeate responses among the commentariat, fail to appreciate the complexity of the situation in which we find ourselves, thereby minimising the extent of the challenges we face. 

On the other hand, they posit that a mere return to the status quo ante — that is, “life before Zuma” — would somehow create an SSA that is capable, professional and driven by integrity. The dangers inherent in such an approach to rebuilding the intelligence community might overwhelm the potential presented by the president’s announcement.

Foundational steps: Joe Slovo, Nelson Mandela, Jacob Zuma, Alfred Nzo and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela during a rally for Mandela. Slovo said in 1990 that the party’s leaders must ‘turn the snowfall of talks into an avalanche of transformation’. Photo: Louise Gubb/Corbis Saba/Getty Images

Joe Slovo’s maxim, at the inception of formal negotiations with the apartheid state in 1990, that we should “turn the snowfall of talks into an avalanche of transformation” was premised on three key factors, which should concern us as we consider ways in which the SSA can be capacitated and reorientated to meet its strategic purpose:

  • A thorough study of the conditions, including the geopolitical environment, the domestic situation and the balance of forces;
  • An assessment of our own organisational capability to exploit an opportunity and respond to the threat environment; and
  • The development of organisational and personal capabilities, skills and competencies that meet the needs of the contemporary situation.

If one transplants these three prerequisites to the shift of the SSA into the presidency, the possibility of a real transformation and the emergence of a capable intelligence service becomes more likely. Euphoria and nostalgia run contrary to the ability to think through the current context and the challenges it creates; they often reduce such challenges to individual personalities and undermine an appreciation of the need for systemic change and capability development.

The building of the SSA within the presidency requires a sophisticated assessment  of the geopolitical context, the state of our political economy and the nature of the national security threats facing us. This must be part of the process of developing a national strategy — from which flows a national security and national intelligence strategy — that allows the society to actively participate in its formulation. This context should drive the mission of the SSA as it finds its feet at the centre of state power. 

Our most recent national security disaster, the violence in July 2021, represents the interaction of these factors in microcosm: a fragile state led by a divided governing party; an underdeveloped economy — stratified racially and in terms of gender — that continues to exclude the majority of South Africans and diminish the country’s national power; the effortless weaponisation of social media; and a dysfunctional security architecture.

The reconceptualisation and construction of South African intelligence requires the development of new capabilities, with the requisite leadership, that can speak to the challenges above. The work conducted under the previous minister in respect of the professional capacitation of the agency, and the development of a fit-for-purpose leadership becomes even more critical now. 

The president’s decision provides the first real opportunity in more than 10 years to build and develop a new leadership of the institution that is not recycled from the past, does not have any beef to settle and is not loyal to this or that faction of the governing party. It provides an opportunity to create a leadership core that has integrity and can gain the confidence of the officers of what must, by now, be an agency traumatised by the years of neglect, strategic confusion and corruption.

The greatest risks in the move of the SSA to the presidency lie in the blurring of lines between the political, national security and intelligence elements as the process of developing new capabilities and leadership commences. In the first instance, the president, by taking the SSA “into his house”, assumes responsibility for an institution that has been notoriously difficult to transform or direct, without the capability of a ministry to do so. Although proximity to the institution’s premier client has certain benefits, the issue of capability remains a big question.

Another potential pitfall is role confusion, with multiple new parts having to engage in the midst of  an institutional re-engineering, multiple security crises and a leadership vacuum within the SSA. Paradoxically, having been brought into the presidency, the need to protect the autonomy of the agency from political interference becomes even more critical. 

Here, it is essential to distinguish between — and prevent the confusion of responsibilities between — the civil servants leading the agency; the deputy minister, who is an accountable political official; and the national security adviser, who is neither an accounting officer nor an accountable politician. In this period of institutional transition there is a danger that such relations and power are allocated on the basis of immediate need and proximity to power, rather than the more sustainable and necessary distribution of roles and power we require in a new SSA.

The solution is to move beyond the belief that systemic challenges can be nullified by declaration; that the reimposition of an imaginary glorious past magically creates capabilities fit for the future. Instead we must focus on the  building and development of an institution proceeding from the real to the possible, driven by a proper national strategy with a leadership and capability programme at the root of this process. 

If this approach is taken, the president’s announcement may yet prove to be an important opportunity for modernising the South African national security architecture and building the requisite intelligence capabilities the country needs now — and in the future. The starting point would be less focus on internal power struggles and tactics, and a greater focus on a clearly articulated and popularly supported national strategy to guide not only intelligence officers, but also the country as a whole.