Imbokodo 2.0?

By Richard Pithouse · 26 Apr 2012

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Picture credit: Arcanum Deep Secrets
Picture credit: Arcanum Deep Secrets

The allegations that have been levelled against Richard Mdluli are very serious. If they are true he is a dangerous man, a very dangerous man.

We do need to be mindful that some of the allegations against Mdluli have entered the public domain as different factions of the police leak information and allegations against each other. But Jacob Zuma's decision to make him the head of the Crime Intelligence unit in the police is still chilling. The man is accused of kidnapping, murder, fraud, corruption, promoting officers with criminal records and pending charges and the use of rape to intimidate witnesses.

There has been no credible and public process that has investigated these allegations and concluded that they are unfounded. Under these circumstances, appointing him to any position within the police would be a gross dereliction of duty. But the gravity of the situation is compounded by the fact that Crime Intelligence has, for many years now, functioned as the intelligence unit that deals with politics.

A democratic state does have to keep a close watch on groups that, like the various right wing groupuscles, reject democratic modes of engagement and engage in violence. But over the last decade Crime Intelligence has observed, interrogated and harassed grassroots activists whose struggles are plainly just and whose activities pose no threat to society. People engaged in entirely lawful forms of political action have been subject to surveillance and harassment.

Crime Intelligence has functioned as a political intelligence unit that targets people and groups that are critical of the ANC in the popular public sphere that the party considers its own and which it rules, through the state and through party structures, very differently to the elite public sphere. In Durban, politicians have, with reference to intelligence reports, openly referred to activists as agents of foreign governments.

According to the SAPS in Grahamstown, Crime Intelligence has recently compiled a list of activists deemed to be 'dangerous' and instructed local municipalities that they should not give permission for protests at which people on this list are scheduled to speak unless the riot police are present. None of this can be said to be, in any sense, a defence of democracy.

Media reports indicate that Crime Intelligence is not only being used against dissent in opposition to the ANC, but is also being used in the factional battles within the ANC. And as some journalists have noted the fact that the VIP protection unit has now been absorbed into Crime Intelligence means that it will, if it so desires, know every detail of the movements of every VIP. The spectre has been raised of the head of Crime Intelligence emerging as a new J. Edgar Hoover – a man with enough dirt on enough powerful people to build his own power base. But even if Mdlulil is Zuma's man, rather than driving his own project, the prospect of a man who appears to be ruthless and without regard for the law running a very well funded intelligence operation as a political project is a world apart from a society based on free and open mobilisation, debate and engagement.

The fact that the ANC was brought to power by a democratic electoral process and that this was made possible by mass democratic politics on the streets and in the factories does not mean that all the currents in the party are democratic. For most of its history the SACP was largely under the control of the totalitarian regimes that ran the Soviet Union. It, and the ANC, welcomed the Soviet tanks into Budapest in '56 and Prague in '68 and neither it nor the ANC has ever taken full measure of its embrace of the Soviet Union. The fact that American imperialism has such a bloody record does not provide retrospective legitimation for complicity with Stalinism or exorcise Stalinist modes of thinking from the party.

Zuma himself was schooled in the politics of the SACP for many years and also has roots in Imbokodo, the ANC's internal intelligence unit in exile. There is plenty of evidence that it collapsed into paranoia and ruthlessness and there are credible reports of torture and murder. Zuma was the Deputy Head of Imbokodo from 1986 to 1993 and it seems that abuses continued under his watch.

There are times when a liberation movement, or a progressive government, does need a counter-intelligence capacity. There are also times when it is necessary to take up arms. But a key difference between forms of resistance or governance that are able to remain democratic under these circumstances and those which are not, is that in the former intelligence or military activities are subordinated to open and democratic processes. When the situation is reversed and intelligence or military forces and practices come to dominate political spaces and practices it is inevitable that there will be a collapse into authoritarianism.

People that came into the ANC from the mass democratic struggles in the trade unions and in the United Democratic Front have often been profoundly shaped by their experience of popular democratic practices. And, although no one in the ANC is likely to admit this, the party also has a liberal current. But the ANC remains invested in two political cultures and projects that both carry real risks of authoritarianism.

One is nationalism. Nationalism is often an emancipatory political force and in South Africa it is not yet a force that has run its course. But when a political party becomes, as the ANC often has, a substitute for a nation it is easy to collapse into a sense of messianic certainty about the eventual redemption of the nation that translates, in practice, into an equally messianic certainty about the political virtues and trajectories of particular individuals and organisations.

The other political culture within the ANC that carries a real risk of authoritarianism is that of the left. Of course there have been many democratic experiments on the left in theory and in practice and in South Africa and around the world. Many of these have been invaluable and some offer our best hopes for ways to resist and perhaps transcend the increasing domination of capital over society. But the ANC is largely uninterested in these experiments and the way in which the ideas of the left are mobilised within the party are often statist, paranoid, authoritarian and invested in a dangerous fantasy about an unfolding historical process that will take us on towards socialism.

The appointment of Mdluli as head of Crime Intelligence is a declaration of intent on the part of Zuma that cannot be spun as anything other than what it is – contempt for democracy. Democrats in and outside of the ANC need to take a clear position against the securitisation of a state that already wields intelligence agencies deeply involved in the machinations of palace politics and the mechanics of repression, not to mention an often brutal and corrupt police force.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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