The Pelindaba Nuclear Research Centre near Pretoria. Picture: Etienne Creux

Johannesburg - China has strongly denied that it was responsible for a violent break-in and theft at South Africa’s Pelindaba Nuclear Research Centre near Pretoria in 2007.

According to one of the many top secret State Security Agency (SSA) reports leaked to the media network Al Jazeera, China’s aim was to steal technology to gain advantage in a new kind of nuclear power generation.

“It is suspected that the thefts and break-ins that took place at Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) were to advance China’s rival project called chinergy,” the SSA report said in December 2009.

“As is currently, China has developed and are now one year ahead of PBMR project, though they started several years after PBMR.”

Two groups of armed men cut through a fence surrounding the nuclear facility, disabled alarms and shot a man who interrupted them.

At the time of the break-ins at Pelindaba the South African government and nuclear officials dismissed them as "a piece of random criminality" and a simple "burglary attempt".

The SSA report this week is the first indication that Pretoria in fact suspected China - now its close ally in the Brics - the Brazil Russia India China and South Africa Forum - was behind the break-ins.

It does not explain how it reached that conclusion.

However it says China moved ahead after then to develop its own version of the same technology which South Africa itself later abandoned in 2010, citing a lack of investor interest. Nuclear scientists also questioned the PBMR technology.

But yesterday Pan Peng, spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Pretoria said; “the allegation is complete fabrication and ridiculous.”

Meanwhile the secret documents “reveal a torrent of politicised requests to South Africa's State Security Agency (SSA) for information on ‘rogue NGOs’, politicians and exiled groups from intelligence agencies around the world - many of them declined as inappropriate by the South Africans,” Al Jazeera said.

They include:

- An application from South Korea for a "specific security assessment" of Greenpeace Director Kumi Naidoo, a South African citizen;

- A request from Cameroon to spy on an opposition leader just weeks ahead of elections;

- An attempt by Rwanda to list "genocide fugitives" and "negationists" as targets for surveillance;

- A deal with Zimbabwe to spy on "rogue NGOs" whose activities are "aimed at subverting constitutional order," including think tanks and media, including social networks.

- Continuous demands from Sri Lanka for South Africa to spy on Tamil diaspora groups, with Colombo making ongoing, unconfirmed allegations that separatists had run military training camps in South Africa since 1998.

Al Jazeera said one secret document from 2010 exposed how, nine months before the G20 Summit in Seoul in November, South Korea requested "specific security assessments" on three men.

Two were listed as "dangerous persons" and were arrested in Pakistan in 2004.

The third was Director of Greenpeace, the South African Kumi Naidoo.

It is not recorded within the documents whether or not South Africa complied with the request from South Korea.

The South Korean embassy in Pretoria could not be reached for comment.

The Spy Cables, as Al Jazeera is calling them, also reveal how Cameroon asked South Africa to spy on prominent opposition leader Pierre Mila Assoute just weeks before a presidential election he hoped to contest in 2011.

An SSA agent wrote in September 2011 that Cameroonian intelligence had asked the SSA "to confirm or refute if Mr Assoute ever came to South Africa recently and the purpose thereof if it could be established."

The liaison officer declined, noting, "I do not think Mr. Pierre Mila Assoute has committed any offence which will warrant South Africa to provide information".

The Spy Cables also include an intelligence sharing MoU between South Africa and Zimbabwe.

It outlines a number of areas where the two nations could cooperate in intelligence gathering, including monitoring "activities aimed at subverting constitutional order".

A list of subheadings outlines the types of organisations that Zimbabwe and South Africa agreed to target, such as "rogue" non-governmental organisations or NGOs, including "think-tanks" and "not-for-profit trusts".

South Africa and Zimbabwe agreed to monitor media groups, "including social media" and to share their findings. However the cables published so far have not revealed if any of this surveillance of civil society actually happened.

A draft intelligence-sharing deal also reveals how Rwanda sought to persuade South Africa to spy on what it called "genocide fugitives" and "negationists".

Rwanda wanted this added to a draft memorandum of understanding on intelligence cooperation but the general manager of the State Security Agency's Central and East Africa Unit rejected Rwanda's proposal, writing that it was neither acceptable nor "operationally appropriate, given the current circumstances" to target "genocide fugitives/negationists."

In another secret cable, Sri Lankan intelligence suggested that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elaam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, had held a military training camp in South Africa in 2010, claiming individuals from Australia, Canada and Britain may have attended.

South African intelligence rejected the claims outright and told Sri Lanka it "could not confirm" the allegations, noting that the Sri Lankan government has been making "ongoing allegations" of this nature since 1998. 

This week State Security Minister David Mahlobo announced he was launching a full investigation into the leaking of the “purported” SSA cables, saying the disclosure was damaging to national interests and diplomatic relations.

He also said he would look into social media reports about espionage against several politicians and the head of a Chapter Nine institution, without elaborating.

David Maynier, DA MP and defence spokesperson, said yesterday that despite such hints, the Spy Cables had so far revealed “no evidence of manifestly and clearly illegal activity by the SSA. If such evidence were to emerge, it would escalate this into the stratosphere.”

Maynier said that that would include any evidence of SSA spying against a Chapter Nine head or politicians.

Pretoria News Weekend