Manala Manzini does not like the limelight. A typical intelligence agent, he prefers to do his work in the dark.

However, a meeting on Friday morning with President Thabo Mbeki and Ronnie Kasrils, the intelligence minister, changed all of that. He was thrust right into the public glare.

Manzini was in that meeting to be appointed as the acting director-general of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). His predecessor, Billy Masetlha, had been suspended on Thursday after being found to have conducted an illegal intelligence operation against top African National Congress official and businessman, Saki Macozoma.

In a boardroom at the ministry of intelligence in Pretoria on Friday, Manzini shuffled in his seat as Kasrils introduced him. Just minutes before he introduced himself to the media, Manzini cut a shy figure. He looked down, up and down again, pushing up his glasses.

The first thing you notice about Manzini is that he is a big man who has a very dark complexion.

"I like working in the background - that was until the minister and the president gave me this new challenge," were his first words said in public.

Manzini has a long history in intelligence. He has served in both the NIA and the South African Secret Service. He formed part of the negotiating team that led to the formation of a single intelligence organisation in South Africa.

As a senior intelligence official, he also formed part of the minister's executive. Until Friday morning, when he was summoned to the Union Buildings by the president, Manala had been head of technical intelligence collection within the NIA. He held that position for four years, first under then director-general Vusi Mavimbela and then under Masetlha.

His brief history in the NIA was all that Manzini was prepared to divulge to the media. As he clasped his hands and smiled, his boss, Kasrils, patted his shoulder and said: "This is a perfect spy."

Well, not any more. His cover has been blown.

  • Born in Meadowlands, Soweto, Manzini earned his stripes in the 1976 uprising, after which he fled the country and joined Umkhonto weSizwe. For a time the ANC Youth League's representative in foreign capitals like Amsterdam, Manzini spent much of his time in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, later becoming the party's chief representative there.