• Tue. Nov 29th, 2022

Jane Duncan | Zondo Commission report on SA intelligence agency important but flawed

ByChad J. Johnson

Jul 14, 2022

The fight for more responsible intelligence was bolstered by the exposure of the abuses by the Zondo report. But many of the conclusions and recommendations are vague and general, writes Joan Duncan.


South Africa’s judicial inquiry into state capture and corruption, the Zondo Commission, found that the State Security Agency was integral to state capture by corrupt elements. Among them were former President Jacob Zuma’s friends, the Gupta family.

The agency has been unstable for some time. Previous surveys have improved the performance of civilian intelligence. Yet the problems of poor performance and politicization persist. They intensified during Zuma’s tenure.

The committee’s hearings were remarkable for an institution accustomed to operating in secrecy. Spies testified in detail and in public about what went wrong at the agency during the Zuma era (May 2014 to February 2018). Some did so at the risk of their lives.

I’ve researched intelligence and surveillance, and served on the State Security Agency’s high-level review board. In my view, the Zondo report is a significant global example of radical transparency around intelligence abuse. But it lacks the detailed findings and recommendations to enable prompt prosecution. It also fails to address the broader threats to democracy posed by irresponsible intelligence.

Black Ops

The commission heard evidence of fraud, corruption and abuse of taxpayers’ money at the agency. He also heard how the Guptas benefited from this abuse. The agency shielded them from investigations that indicated they posed a threat to national security.

The most important recommendation is that law enforcement agencies should investigate further to find out if those involved in the report have committed any crimes. The commission said it was particularly concerned about secret intelligence projects that appeared to be “special purpose vehicles for siphoning off funds”. He specifically referred to three people who should be investigated further.

The first is former CEO Arthur Fraser, for his involvement in the Master Agent Network. It was a secret intelligence-gathering entity outside of the State Security Agency. It was controversial for more than a decade after investigations revealed misuse of funds.

The second person is former Deputy Director General of Counterintelligence Thulani Dlomo. He was in charge of the Special Operations Branch, a secret structure that the report said ran irregular projects and operations that may well have been illegal.

Chief among these was Project Mayibuye, a set of operations designed to counter threats to state authority. In practice, they and others sought to shield Zuma from a growing chorus of criticism of his mismanagement.

The commission found that the bill destabilized opposition parties and benefited the Zuma faction of the ruling African National Congress.

The third person is former Minister of State Security David Mahlobo. The commission concluded that he involved himself in operational matters rather than limiting himself to oversight of the executive. He also found that his handling of large sums of money, ostensibly to fund operations, required further investigation.

According to the commission, Mahlobo’s predecessor, Siyabonga Cwele, did the same by stopping an investigation into the Guptas and their influence on the Zuma administration.

The commission concluded, based on overwhelming evidence, that Zuma and Cwele did not want the investigation to continue. Had he continued, he could have prevented at least some of the activities that led to the Guptas’ capture of the state and the loss of billions of public money through corruption.

Recipe for abuse

The commission also touched on some of the deeper factors that predispose the State Security Agency to abuse.

One was the merger of the domestic intelligence branch, the National Intelligence Agency, with the foreign branch, the South African Secret Service, into a new entity, the State Security Agency, in 2009.

The commission concluded that the merger had dire consequences, as it allowed most of the abuses it examined to occur. The two entities were merged under a presidential proclamation. Yet the constitution requires intelligence services to be established by statute. This meant that until the legislation was introduced in 2013, the security agency operated without a clear legal basis.

It was highly centralized, allowing a super-manager to control all activities. This made abuse easier for a appointee with corrupt intentions. The agency was also based on a state security doctrine, rather than a people-centric doctrine. This doctrinal shift prioritized protecting the state from criticism, and specifically the president, over the safety of society. Departmental political exaggeration on operational issues increased the risk of abuse.

The commission also found that the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence, the Inspector General of Intelligence, and the Auditor General had not exercised proper oversight. This meant that checks and balances external to the State Security Agency were weak to non-existent.

Weigh Zondo Report

The fight for more responsible intelligence was bolstered by the exposure of the abuses by the Zondo report. But many of the conclusions and recommendations are vague and general. The commission could have been more specific about improving the independence of the inspector general, for example. Likewise, the ability of the Auditor General to audit the agency.

The commission could also have made more use of the evidence presented to it. And he could have been more adamant about when he thought the crime happened. Sometimes the report does little more than reiterate recommendations from previous surveys.

These include an investigation into the Principal Agent Network program in 2009, providing prima facie evidence of criminality.

Another is the 2018 High Level Review Panel report, which showed the agency had been politicized and repurposed to benefit Zuma.

A significant gap in the Zondo report concerns the infiltration and surveillance of civil society, and the agency’s broader threat to democracy.

Little is made of the fact that, according to a recently declassified performance report from 2017, the agency claimed to have infiltrated Greenpeace Africa, the Right2Know campaign, trade unions and other civil society bodies.

The spies posed as militants. They reported to the agency on the strengths of supporters, key players, ideology, support structures and programs. The report’s author, a member of a security agency, bragged about these and other accomplishments, such as infiltrating the social media of the Western Cape’s #feesmustfall student movement.

Look forward

In preparations to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators responsible for abuses by the State Security Agency, its infiltration into civil society must not go unnoticed. It must receive as much attention as all the grand corruption cases that will occupy the National Prosecutor’s Office.

Otherwise, social forces with the potential to bring deeper and more significant changes to society could remain the target of state espionage, as has been the case elsewhere.

Jane Duncan, Professor, Department of Communication and Media, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.