How Deep Is the Rot in South Africa's Intelligence Services?

By Jane Duncan · 24 Oct 2011

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Picture: scriptingnews
Picture: scriptingnews

South Africa has a sorry history of its intelligence services being abused for political ends. In 1994, the country was promised that never again would those in power be in a position to misuse the state apparatus to spy on their political opponents.

This promise was repeated after the bruising succession battle between then president Thabo Mbeki and his successor, Jacob Zuma, after evidence emerged that National Intelligence Agency (NIA) officials took sides in the battle. The NIA has since been incorporated into the State Security Agency (SSA).

Yet there is evidence of the cycle of abuse emerging once again, in spite of the fact that the intelligence services claim to have tightened internal controls. A weekly paper has alleged that illegal monitoring of communications is rife, and various political leaders have alleged that they are being spied on. Mbeki's supporters also stand accused of attempting to reassert control over crime intelligence ahead of the next African National Congress’s (ANC) national conference to gain political advantage.

Unsurprisingly the media focus on these issues has been on political elites and mainstream parties. Yet many grassroots activists have a wealth of experiential knowledge about the intelligence services and their modus operandi. They have been aware of a buildup of abuse that started in 1999, when the NIA's mandate was broadened to include the gathering of political intelligence.

The problem has been most noticeable in relation to mega-events hosted by South Africa, such as the World Conference against Racism and the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Fearing a Seattle-style seige of these events - when a World Trade Organisation meeting was shut down by activists in 1999 - the intelligence services monitored activists' activities, leading to pre-emptive arrests and attempts to ban gatherings.

The Landless People's Movement and the Anti-Privatisation Forum have also, at various stages, alleged intelligence infiltration and surveillance of their activities. The NIA has also admitted to monitoring the protests in different parts of the country. Yet there has been virtually no public debate about the appropriateness of their actions.

In December, South Africa hosts yet another mega-event, in the form of the COP 17 meeting on climate change. Once again, predictably, there is evidence of activists being placed under surveillance.

S’bu Zikode is President of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a shackdweller’s movement in Durban. The movement has been a thorn in the side of the local ANC, which has resorted to extreme measures to reduce its influence.

Zikode travels abroad extensively for the movement. On returning from the past few trips, and while still at the airport, Zikode has received calls on his cellphone. The callers claimed to be from the police, asked him about the organisations and individuals he met with and what he said in those meetings.

Then Zikode starting noticing interference on his cellphone. According to Zikode, “Sometimes it sounds like the line is open. It’s also like there’s the sound of the sea or waves. My phone is strange. I would hear people speaking but not to me. Sometimes I would speak and there’s an echo. This went on. I then phoned my network (MTN). They said I should check with the security agencies. It was then that I became very suspicious.”

According to Zikode, the Crime Intelligence division of the South African Police Force (SAPF) has also phoned the Abahlali office repeatedly, asking about the movement’s involvement in the civil society committee for the upcoming COP 17 conference. The Committee aims to facilitate civil society engagement with the event and is also organising a global day of action around climate change.

According to Abahlali’s General Secretary Bandile Mdlalose, who has taken a number of these calls, “They are always asking about things that we have been talking about. They tell us that we know we have a problem with the [eThekwini] Mayor. We were told about the things that we wrote and are planning and we are asked why we are doing this. They make it clear that they are not trying to get information, but that they already know [what we are doing]. They want us to know that they are watching us.”

Zikode has also taken some of these calls. He said, “They have also asked whether we are working with Des D’sa. There are certain individuals who are presented as troublemakers. We are legal. We have strategies, but we are legal. We are part of this country too, and we need to be presented with evidence as to why we should not be trusted.”

Des D’sa is an environmental activist and chairperson of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, which is also a member of the civil society caucus. He says that Crime Intelligence has been phoning him too. According to D’sa, “They want meetings and meetings. They have been harassing me. They phone me all the time, wanting to know who our working relationships are with throughout the world [on COP 17].”

According to national police spokesperson Vish Naidoo, Crime Intelligence is part of the co-ordinating committee for COP 17. Naidoo said, “They will be asking lots of questions to identify threats to the event, so that we can prepare ourselves. This is in no way intended to intimidate people. We have a constitution that defends the freedoms of expression and association. We can prepare for planned demonstrations, but we must also anticipate unplanned demonstrations. This is what we have done in relation to all the other major events that South Africa has hosted. So far, no serious threats have been identified.”

On fact value, Naidoo’s explanation may sound perfectly reasonable, but what underpins it is a presumption of the potential for criminality on the part of these movements. Furthermore, the activist accounts imply behaviour that extends beyond gathering information about potential threats and veers dangerously towards intimidation of perceived political opponents. It is not at all clear, for instance, what Abahlali’s fractious relationship with the Mayor has to do with COP 17.

Crime intelligence operatives may well be tempted to cross this line because of their mandate. The National Strategic Intelligence Act requires Crime Intelligence to provide strategic intelligence on national security matters, which lends itself to political intelligence gathering that moves far beyond the SAPS’ crime prevention mandate. But the problem of expansive mandates does not stop with Crime Intelligence.

In response to the 2005/6 crisis in the NIA, former Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils set up a Ministerial Review Commission on Intelligence (excluding Crime and Defence Intelligence). The Commission found many weaknesses on the oversight mechanisms of the intelligence services.

A key finding was that the-then NIA's mandate was inappropriately broad: a problem it attributed to the overbroad definition of national security in the White Paper on Intelligence. This definition draws on the South African Constitution, which states that “...national security must reflect the resolve of South Africans…to live as equals, to live in peace and harmony, to be free from fear and want and to seek a better life.”

The Constitution’s definition is based on a politically progressive global perspective that rejects a state-centric definition of security, which has led governments to pursue militarised, often repressive, solutions to problems of social instability. In contrast, the progressive perspective enjoined states to address the totality of factors undermining human security, such as poverty, inequality and poor health.

However, this progressive perspective is being used for regressive ends, namely to broaden the scope of the intelligence services to the point where they have been mandated to act as a state watchdog of society.

In 2008, Kasrils warned that a national security policy informed by a human security perspective cannot mean that the intelligence services should be involved in every aspect of public life. He argued that such an approach was bound to lead to intelligence services that are unduly intrusive. The Commission also warned that “...An overly broad domestic intelligence mandate can lead to the NIA focusing in an inappropriate manner on lawful political and social activities.”

The Commission identified other problems too. Counter-intelligence functions are insufficiently regulated, which leaves them open to abuse. Furthermore, there is no legislative regulation or judicial oversight of intrusive intelligence gathering methods such as spying or infiltrating organisations (with the exception of the interception of communications). The oversight body for intelligence services, the Inspector General of Intelligence, is not sufficiently independent from the executive, lacks resources and does not release its reports publicly.

Furthermore, there has been no parliamentary or public debate about the most appropriate mandate for these services. Regrettably, the public is not clamouring for one either.

South Africa is meant to have a state-of-the-art oversight system for the intelligence community. Yet in the grubby real world, there are too few safeguards to prevent factions of the ruling party that seek to gain or retain power from using the intelligence services to further their political objectives.

Unsurprisingly, the Commission’s recommendations to improve accountability have not been implemented. For as long as the threat of leadership change hangs over Zuma’s head, the political will to act on the report will not be forthcoming. It is politically expedient to keep things the way they are.

How deep is the rot in South Africa’s intelligence services? It is difficult to tell, but the accounts of activists suggest a deep set problem.

South Africans seem to have accepted unquestioningly that intelligence matters are inherently secret, and therefore lie outside the public domain. Unless these assumptions are challenged and citizens start to demand accountability from these most secretive areas of government, then activism may well revert back to being a dangerous, even life threatening activity. And the S’bu Zikode’s of the world may continue to bear the brunt of this regression.

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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23 Oct

Its Much More Extensive

Abahlali for instance has born the brunt of much more extensive NIA involvement for years (not just since preparations for COP17). This includes evidence of interference and wire taps as far back as 2006 when Abahlali first started.

My own experience is a case in point. After AbM was attacked at Kennedy Rd in 2009, I wrote a few articles about the attacks and how MEC for Safety and Security, Willies Mchunu, condoned and likely knew about the attacks before they happened. After this, I received a threatening phone call from someone who self-identified as being from the NIA grilling me about why I wrote the article and my support for AbM.

In 2003, Anti-Eviction Campaign activist, Max Ntanyana, was abducted by the NIA, tortured and dropped off to find his way home. They also got him arrested on false charges trying to keep him in Pollsmor prison while he awaited trial.

Unfortunately, people often don't take these incidents seriously as it is often perceived that people who claim the NIA is after them are crazy conspiracy theorists. Of course, sometimes people are just being paranoid. However, this does not mean we should take these allegations lightly. The NIA is much more active in undermining dissent than we might think.

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