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State Security Agency: Paradigm shift needed – restoring trust in state security

FILE – The burning of a national key point, Parliament, should be the final lapse for the State Security Agency, says the writer. In this file photo from January 2 a fire broke out in Parliament in Cape Town. A total of 36 firefighters and six firefighting appliances battled a fire in Parliament Avenue. File photo: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

FILE – The burning of a national key point, Parliament, should be the final lapse for the State Security Agency, says the writer. In this file photo from January 2 a fire broke out in Parliament in Cape Town. A total of 36 firefighters and six firefighting appliances battled a fire in Parliament Avenue. File photo: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Jan 23, 2022

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OPINION: As the factional battles within the ruling party gains traction ahead of the elective conference, it remains to be seen whether the leadership of the SSA resists any attempt to use it for nefarious political objectives. The SSA has to regain the trust of a suspicious nation, writes Dr Pingla Udit.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa on the establishment and control of intelligence services section 209 (2) in terms of national legislation states:

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The President, as head of the national executive, must appoint a woman or a man as head of each intelligence service established in terms of subsection (1), and must either assume political responsibility for the control and direction of any of those services, or designate a member of the Cabinet to assume that responsibility.

The White Paper on Intelligence claims the objective of security policy is to “go beyond achieving an absence of war to encompass the pursuit of democracy, sustainable economic development and social justice”. In tandem with this policy objective, the post-Cold War era led to intelligence services focus being on national security and human security.

The intelligence reform and transformation of Apartheid-era state security towards a democratic dispensation, in 1994, was conducted in a remarkable way, in accordance with Constitutional principles, a philosophy of intelligence and control and coordination of intelligence and a balance between transparency and accountability.

In the aftermath of the July insurrection and following a national outcry over the catastrophic failures of the security cluster, including the State Security Agency (SSA), in their inability to pre-empt the civil unrest, President Cyril Ramaphosa made sweeping changes to his Cabinet, including the relocation of the SSA into the Presidency under his direct control. At the time, he also moved Deputy State Security Agency Minister Zizi Kodwa to oversee the SSA in the Presidency, notwithstanding he was heavily implicated at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry.

For decades, the SSA, in its current and previous compositions, has been embroiled in numerous controversies, including interference in the ANC’s elective and other internal processes, corruption, abuse of power, malfeasance and state capture.

Against this background, the relocation of the SSA to the Presidency and the appointment of Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele as its political head have been positioned by Ramaphosa as a decisive attempt to provide strategic direction for the SSA.

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In attempting to understand Ramaphosa’s rationale, there are several critical aspects for consideration. One condition is trust for the intelligence service not to undermine the president. The president needs to trust the head of the intelligence service and needs to develop confidence. The delicacy of information being disbursed between them and the situation in motion necessitates trust.

Politicians should not be involved at an operational level but from a strategic point.

The question of confidence is also an issue. The caveat is if there is a low level of trust between parties involved, then the intelligence services can be used for nefarious activities. There has to be a level of trust in both instances.

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To avoid another conundrum and contested space, the relationship between the Ministry for Intelligence and the National Security Council necessitates clear lines of closer cooperation and greater coordination.

Given the crisis in the country, there are some short-term gains in this intelligence process: it can exert direct control over the implementation of recommendations of the High-Level Review Panel Report, December 2018; that is, implementation of clean up and policy decisions. That would include unearthing hidden reports about the para-military group that were involved in dirty tricks.

The reshaping and transformation of the intelligence services is a long road rather than relocation as a single event. Legal issues that affect its work from time to time will need urgent attention until it has undergone full rehabilitation and seeks professional integrity and ethical leadership.

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There are critical benchmarks on the road ahead:

(i) Intelligence provides key threats and priorities to the president through early warning, strategic assessments and estimates and therefore, intelligence services do need their independence and space.

(ii) If there is no distance between intelligence and the presidency, in the event the president is compromised, how does intelligence report it?

(iii) If enemies of the state target the presidency for infiltration, how will intelligence watch covertly?

(iv) Generally, departments have a lax approach to information; only intelligence has strong protocols, and thus, raises the concern for potential leaks.

In the long term and post-Zondo Commission Inquiry, a paradigm shift is necessary on the philosophy of intelligence, structure and product to inform policy-making and strategic decisions.

The explosion of state capture and corruption because of lack of understanding of “influencing” and “benefiting, whether the person is the president or not, it is about the capability to deal with twenty-first-century threats such as localised threats, terrorism, natural resources, cybercrime and other security challenges in the future.

This foreground is the role of parliament to exercise its important oversight role. As the governing party is in the majority, the current oversight in Parliament needs a major overhaul.

The burning of a national key point, Parliament, should be the final lapse for the State Security Agency.

In the wake of the July insurrection and the appointment of an Expert Panel by the president, there are high expectations from the proposals and recommendations of the Panel’s Report that will have a direct impact on fixing and stabilising the State Security Agency in the broader national interest.

Another pressing matter and one that will be a litmus test for Ramaphosa is the upcoming ANC elective conference.

It is now a matter of fact that in the past, the country’s intelligence services and its resources have been abused to influence the outcomes of these elections.

As the factional battles within the ruling party gains traction ahead of the elective conference, it remains to be seen whether the leadership of the SSA resists any attempt to use it for nefarious political objectives. The SSA has to regain the trust of a suspicious nation. The way it conducts itself in the next 12 months will confirm whether it is on a new trajectory or whether it is merely a tool in the hands of its new political principals.

* Dr Pingla Udit is a researcher and former Deputy Coordinator at National Intelligence Coordinating Committee.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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