Playing the ‘spy card’ an old trick
When Kebby Maphatsoe called Thuli Madonsela a CIA spy, he followed a long-established path within the ANC, writes Marianne Merten.
Cape Town - Deputy Defence Minister Kebby Maphatsoe’s limp apology shortly after a parliamentary session that saw ANC MPs accused of protecting him from answering for his spy claims against the public protector, may have closed this sorry chapter, but it has by no means closed the book on such narratives in South Africa’s public discourse.
When Maphatsoe resorted to describing Public Protector Thuli Madonsela as a CIA plant or spy, he followed a long-established path within the ANC, for such labels were applied to the “other” in political and organisational battles all the way back to exile days. It is part of a deeply ingrained history in this country.
The number of conspiracy theories is disturbing and it is never acceptable to throw about spy allegations, says Centre for the Study of Democracy director Steven Friedman, but there is a historical context.
“We have a history in which people were engaged in activities where, when you spoke to the wrong people, you’d get killed,” he says. “People used to be fingered as spies to settle arguments. This (Maphatsoe’s comment) is the consequence.”
Twenty years into democracy, the older generation dominates the ranks of political and government leadership under a president, schooled in exile intelligence, whose administration increasingly seems to favour the securocratic – from initially classifying the R215 million Nkandla security upgrades top secret to calling the riot police to Parliament.
But playing the spy card is not new, nor are conspiracy theories. In the Thabo Mbeki presidency, these largely, but not exclusively, focused on the outside – Western pharmaceutical profit motives and drive to impose their approach to HIV/Aids. This was only defeated through strong civic activism against Aids denialism and wide-ranging public debate.
On the political front, in 2001, businessmen Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa were accused of plotting to oust Mbeki, who was seeking a second term as president at the 2002 Stellenbosch ANC conference. The then-much-used label of “ultra-leftist” eventually fell away, as did the allegations against the trio.
In 2003, prosecutions boss Bulelani Ngcuka was accused of being the apartheid agent RS452 amid the ructions of his decision not to prosecute Jacob Zuma, then the country’s and the ANC’s deputy president. That was despite him saying there was a prima facie case for corruption.
Although the Hefer Commission of Inquiry found Ngcuka “probably never” was a spy and that number was linked to an Eastern Cape woman who moved to Britain, he traded prosecutions for business soon after.
In 2007, the Browse Mole Report, which claimed southern African intelligence support for Zuma’s bid for president and funding from as far afield as Libya, introduced the label “information peddlers” into South Africa’s political lexicon.
Mbeki lost his bid for a third term as party president, and the report was ultimately dismissed. But it brought into the limelight the divisions of the state intelligence services and their involvement in the political battles in the run-up to the Polokwane ANC national conference.
It was déjà vu in the run-up to the 2012 Mangaung ANC conference when the Ground Coverage Report, widely attributed to controversial crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli, claimed a plot by four cabinet ministers to oust Zuma.
A year ago, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, on suspension for an office extra-marital affair, was accused of being part of a plot to undermine the government in an intelligence report that spins a web of insinuations against outspoken South Africans in legal and civil society circles.
Vavi said at the time: “The abuse of state institutions to drive internal factional wars has continued unabated. Some of us put our lives on the line and fought these tendencies. We thought it was buried at Polokwane. We were wrong.”
Judith February, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies governance, crime and justice division, says: “There’s a paranoia that runs deep in the ANC – and it’s not new to this administration.
“People casting suspicions, that squares with a culture in the ANC, it goes back to exile, and some of that is taken into a modern constitutional democracy,” she says.
The ANC firmly argues its right to be heard in public debates.
Its national spokesman Zizi Kodwa says there must be a multiplicity of voices, no matter how small, as all are crucial to a constitutional democracy, but the public discourse needs to be respectful and engaging.
Instead, he says, “when the ANC is under attack, there are celebrations”.
The spy comments from the deputy defence minister, also chairman of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association and of the exile generation, ask the question whether the ANC’s hegemony, and its consistent election victories, somehow hasn’t translated into controlling the levers of state power.
The ANC faces contestation on many fronts. In townships, communities protest about service delivery and not being heard by politicians. In leafy suburbs, there is anger about a perceived lack of interest.
In politics, there is objection from those formerly of its ranks – first Cope in 2009, today the EFF.
Relations with the corporate sector are often rocky over a plethora of issues from the strikes on the platinum belt and elsewhere to policy contestation on anything from a nationally legislated minimum wage to a greater state role in business, particularly the energy field.
Many within the ANC ranks privately express disquiet about levels of paranoia and over what could possibly be an unintended consequence amid a closing of the ranks, allowing comrades to keep fingers in the till instead of slamming closed the cash drawer.
Perhaps then it’s not surprising this generation of politicians, and the younger ones who take a leaf out of their book, fall back on resorting to the spy label and allegations of agents undermining democracy.
It has worked in past times of contestation.
But the impact on public discourse is devastating. Unless there are other inquiries like the 2003 Hefer Commission to publicly ventilate such claims, the allegations remain disprovable.
And so does the possible role of rogue intelligence agents, let loose from an intelligence sector in flux after years of restructuring and which, according to the auditor-general in the 2012/13 financial year, failed to achieve 74 of its 135 stated targets.
There is hope. No one in the ANC or the government publicly supported Maphatsoe’s comments.
But that’s not enough in a constitutional democracy founded on the values of openness, accountability and responsiveness.
A new set of values, rather than dipping into the bag of old tricks, is needed.
And it is needed now.
* Marianne Merten is a senior political writer for Independent Newspapers.