Why Cyril Ramaphosa’s spy agency review rings alarm bell
Is the president effectively dealing with the state intelligence structure?
President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced the appointment of a "high-level review panel" to examine the workings of the State Security Agency (SSA) but is simultaneously opposing a legal fight by the government’s intelligence watchdog for greater independence.
It is not yet clear why or how Ramaphosa wants control over the inspector-general of intelligence to remain in the hands of the security agency, or why he is defending his decision to move former SSA head Arthur Fraser to a powerful new position in correctional services, despite the serious allegations levelled against him.
Earlier in 2018, Inspector-General of Intelligence Setlhomamaru Dintwe went to court after Fraser revoked the security clearance he needed to investigate Fraser himself.
Author Jacques Pauw has alleged in his book The President’s Keepers that Fraser set up an illegal network of agents, including his own relatives, that potentially wasted up to R1bn of taxpayers’ money. He further suggested Fraser could be guilty of treason for setting up a home computer server into which top-secret reports were fed.
In court documents, Dintwe said he believed there was, at the very least, a prima facie case for Fraser to answer.
He suggested that, should the allegations against Fraser be true, he could face charges of corruption, fraud and violating intelligence legislation.
Fraser in turn insisted he was safeguarding SA’s national security when he revoked Dintwe’s security clearance in 2018 and slammed the investigation against him as malicious and politically motivated.
Dintwe successfully fought for the restoration of his security clearance. Now, as a consequence of what he described as Fraser’s threats, intimidation and active attempts to block his investigations, Dintwe is also seeking a court order that will ensure such interference cannot happen in the future.
And the president is opposing that case.
Ramaphosa’s spokeswoman Khusela Diko has not responded to requests for comment on the president’s basis for resisting Dintwe’s application, in which he seeks an order that "the director-general of the State Security Agency has no authority to grant, revise or revoke the security clearance of the inspector-general of intelligence".
Ramaphosa is also fighting the DA’s challenge to his decision to move Fraser to a powerful position at correctional services, right in the midst of Dintwe’s explosive court action against the spy boss.
The DA’s lawyers have told Business Day that the president has missed his deadline to file the record of his decision to move Fraser. In other words, it remains uncertain what considerations the president made before making that decision.
In light of all of this, just how serious is the president about effectively dealing with a state intelligence structure that he himself in 2017 suggested may be behind the hacking of his private e-mails, and which several of his cabinet ministers believe may have been involved in the bugging of their phones? At this point, it is hard to tell.
Real and effective oversight
What is clear, though, is that SA’s intelligence services have seemingly been allowed to avoid any real and effective oversight for most of the life of our democratic state.
Weeks after former president Thabo Mbeki lost control of the ANC to Jacob Zuma, the Matthews Commission produced Intelligence in a Constitutional Democracy, a report about the shortcomings of the country’s state intelligence agencies that was signed off by Joe Matthews, Frene Ginwala and Laurie Nathan.
The report’s abstract stated its aim as being "to strengthen mechanisms of control of the civilian intelligence structures in SA in order to ensure full compliance and alignment with the Constitution, constitutional principles and the rule of law, and particularly to minimise the potential for illegal conduct and abuse of power".
The report was never recognised, or acted upon, by the Zuma administration, and in many respects, the politicisation of the intelligence services it sought to tackle only worsened. In recent months, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba and several South African Communist Party leaders, including Blade Nzimande and Solly Mapaila, have formally complained to the inspector-general of intelligence about suspected state bugging of their phones.
"It’s clear that the office of the inspector-general of intelligence needs to be properly independent to exercise proper oversight over an environment that is very necessarily quite closed, but also immensely powerful," says Lawson Naidoo from the Centre for the Advancement of the South African Constitution.
How the president explains his stance on Fraser, and his opposition to greater independence for the inspector-general of intelligence, may arguably prove far more pivotal in demonstrating his commitment to a politically neutral, accountable intelligence service, than his institution of this review.
After a series of cases in which he has chosen to stand on the sidelines, Ramaphosa’s opposition in these spy cases needs to be fully explained.