Night of the generals

1st April 2016

Increasing surveillance of ANC dissidents and burglaries of journalists and activists point to paranoia at the top

Source: Africa Confidential

A veteran of the pre-liberation African National Congress armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, Spear of the Nation), General Siphiwe ‘Gebuza’ Nyanda doesn’t scare easily. Yet when a well armed hijacker decided on 23 March to make off with his Porsche luxury car, he didn’t offer any resistance. Nyanda survived without a scratch and the car was found without serious damage a few hours later. Another random hijacking? Perhaps, but it has emerged that Nyanda is the spokesman for a group known as Senior Commanders and Commissars of the ANC’s former military wing.

Just days before the attack, this group published a memorandum highly critical of President Jacob Zuma‘s style of government (AC Vol 57 No 6, Gordhan and Zuma slug it out). It ran through the familiar charge sheet: December’s damaging and arbitrary sacking of Nhlanhla Nene as Finance Minister; the orchestrated harassment of current and previous Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan by the Hawks, the specialist police unit. Then the group declared its support for Mcebisi Jonas, who said that the Gupta family had offered him the post of Finance Minister before Zuma sacked Nene (AC Vol 55 No 11, A loyalist cabinet and Vol 57 No 4, Zupta Inc.).

Then came the coup de grâce which removed any ambiguity about the group’s intentions. The memo concluded, ‘…in the light of the many challenges facing the ANC and the state, we further call for the leadership of the ANC to urgently convene a special National Conference.’ In today’s febrile political climate, the idea of a special ANC conference would have but one aim: to sack Zuma from the presidency, a rerun of the recall of ex-President Thabo Mbeki at the Polokwane National Elective Conference of 2007.

Fighters fight back
The call had special weight, given Nyanda’s history as an MK commander. The other signatories had their standing, too, both as liberation fighters and security apparatchiks who had fallen foul of Zuma. Riaz ‘Mo’ Shaik, former MK fighter and then head of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), was a long-time Zuma ally. Indeed, his brother Schabir Shaik was a close business ally of Zuma’s and was gaoled for involvement in 1999’s US$6 billion arms procurement scandal (AC Vol 52 No 25, High unit costs).

Also among the signatories was another former NIA boss, Gibson Njenje (AC Vol 52 No 14, Zuma and the securocrats). Both Shaik and Njenje split with Zuma after they had tried to block what they saw as the Gupta family’s growing power. Amid the rising chorus of Zuma critics, Nyanda’s group is the most forthright and probably carries the most political weight. For some, that could mean that the theft of his car was the first warning shot. There’s no sign that he and his battle-hardened friends are ready to back off.

A more prosaic sign of skulduggery was a break-in at the Helen Suzman Foundation on the afternoon of 20 March (AC Vol 44 No 9, Looking down the line). Again, the timing was important: it was three days after the Foundation had filed an application with the Pretoria High Court for the suspension of Lieutenant General Berning Mthandazo Ntlemeza as Director of the Hawks anti-corruption unit. Among the claims in the application is that Ntlemeza was found to have lied under oath by Judge Elias Matojane in the Gauteng High Court.

As Ntlemeza is a key ally of Zuma’s and has played a leading role in the Hawks’ bizarre pursuit of Gordhan for setting up an ‘illegal fiscal monitoring unit’ at the South African Revenue Service, the Foundation’s application has great resonance currently. This month’s robbers padlocked the Foundation’s security guard to the railings outside the building, then carried away several computers, hard disk drives and paper files. They seemed to have a clear objective.

Come in Number One
Accusations and suspicions extend far beyond these two cases. Senior ANC officials have told Africa Confidential that their telephones are bugged. Some National Executive Committee members said they believed conversations were being monitored by State Security Agency (SSA) officials who pass the information to Zuma’s office.

‘Senior ANC members are so paranoid that Number One [Zuma] is listening to them that they prefer not to have conversations on their cell phones,’ said a former intelligence officer. An ANC provincial leader said that ‘the preferred communication is via WhatsApp. That is the safest. No one can really monitor that.’ There is also a long-held belief that state security officers have been used as proxies to settle internal battles in the governing party. Several senior South African Communist Party members, including Blade Nzimande, have complained bitterly that their telephones are being monitored.

The State Security Minister, David Mahlobo, insists that that the interception of citizens’ phone calls ‘is lawful and South Africa’s intelligence services can only bug people when there is good reason to do so’. Having headed the ANC intelligence organisation during the struggle against apartheid, Zuma knows a lot about surveillance.

The training and assistance ANC intelligence operatives received from East Germany‘s State Security Ministry, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, commonly known as the Stasi, instilled a lasting ethic. Zuma takes a close interest in the intelligence chiefs: he ensures they are part of his inner circle, either from KwaZulu-Natal or people who owe him politically.

The reputation of the intelligence services is suffering in other ways. Last Christmas, there was a series of burglaries at the SSA headquarters in Pretoria. At least 50 computers were stolen from Defence Intelligence Headquarters at the same time, the local press reported. On 26 December, more than 50 million rand (US$3.2 mn.) in cash was stolen from a safe on the premises. Two agency officials were arrested and on are on bail but there is no news of the missing millions. An SSA insider said that the case was not as ‘clear-cut’ as it seemed and heads were likely to roll in the coming months. ‘For now, no one inside the Agency is saying anything and we are watching the next move in the state’s case and want to hear what the arrested officials will be arguing in court.’

At the same time, there is a crisis in the parliamentary scrutiny of the intelligence services. Zuma has been eager to appoint another old ally, Cecil Burgess, as Inspector General of Intelligence (IGI), a post which is meant to hold the services to account and report to Parliament. It was soon clear that the opposition to his appointment meant that it would not receive the necessary two-thirds support in the House.

Accordingly and at the last minute, the ANC Chief Whip withdrew the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence’s report supporting the appointment. Earlier, the Speaker, Baleka Mbete, had written to all parties, pleading with the opposition to put aside their differences and fill the important post.

This was the ANC’s third attempt to have the report adopted and the second to end in a withdrawal. The IGI oversees the SSA as well as military and police criminal intelligence, investigates illegal espionage and keeps a check on intelligence operatives both at home and abroad. The post has been vacant for a year and the list of uninvestigated complaints is piling up.

State Security Minister Mahlobo had left it to Mbete and the new acting Chief Whip, Dorris Eunice Dlakude, to get cross-party support for their candidate as he has been too busy keeping tabs on the President’s detractors before next year’s bruising ANC leadership battle.

In January. it emerged that Zuma had met members of the parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and had made it clear he wanted to see former ANC MP Cecil Burgess appointed as IGI. While the Committee recommends a candidate for this powerful post to the President, Zuma has the final say before the recommendation goes to Parliament for ratification or rejection.

Zuma is set on appointing Burgess, who showed his loyalty to him and the ANC when he used his lawyer’s wit to steamroll the controversial Protection of State Information Bill – widely derided as the ‘secrecy bill’ – through Parliament in 2013 (AC Vol 55 No 16, Jobs for the boys – and girls). Burgess is a former ally of the Cape Town Mayor, Patricia de Lille, and was an MP for her now-defunct party, The Independent Democrats.

Burgess defected to the ANC in 2005 and rose quickly up the ranks, chairing Parliament’s special ad hoc committee on the Information Bill. He also chaired the ad hoc committee that found no wrongdoing on the part of the President when it looked into the spending of taxpayers’ money on upgrading his homestead at Nkandla (AC Vol 56 No 5, No-fly zone for legal eagles).

Burgess is Zuma’s favourite for the post on a shortlist of eight that included former MK veterans such as Clinton Davids. In June, the ANC could not get Parliament’s approval. Not everyone in the party was happy with the choice: some saw Burgess as a pro-Zuma hawk and others said he had no history in the ANC’s underground structures. The Intelligence Committee denied that Zuma has applied pressure over the appointment. Zuma’s special pleading was reported in the Committee’s confidential proceedings.

The Intelligence Committee is one of the few that meets behind closed doors. Cornelia ‘Connie’ September, the veteran trades unionist and former Human Settlements Minister who chairs the Committee, argues that opposition politicians don’t understand the sensitive nature of the Committee’s work. The Democratic Alliance’s John Steenhuisen lambasts the selection process, arguing that Burgess isn’t qualified for the job. He wants legislation to ensure the post is filled by a retired judge. That would ‘prohibit the back-alley lobbying, cadre deployment and political interference’, he says.

The sudden resignation on 2 March of the ANC Chief Whip, Stone Sizani, pointed to the high stakes in the row over the IGI. He was seen as not supporting Burgess’s appointment and therefore as hostile to Zuma. The ANC has now referred the matter back to the Committee to ‘ensure there is sufficient consultation around the candidate’.

Mahlobo on the rise
Politicians across the political divide were shocked by the 2014 appointment of Mahlobo, an unknown civil servant from Mpumalanga who was parachuted in to head the powerful SSA and who, says the SSA website, ‘was sent by the ANC to China for Political Education’. In the past, senior ANC National Executive members, such as Lindiwe Sisulu and Ronnie Kasrils, held the portfolio. Mahlobo worked under Kasrils as a Director at the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry from 2002 until Kasrils left in 2004, and for two years thereafter. He is now seen as one of Zuma’s closest lieutenants and staunch defenders on the National Executive Committee and shielding Zuma from the Nkandla homestead fiasco. Mhlobo has been vocal about the ANC leadership battle.

In 2015, Mahlobo came under fire for jamming mobile telephone and internet services during the opening of Parliament (AC Vol 56 No 4, A rowdy state of the nation). He travels abroad regularly with Zuma and was one of the few ministers to accompany him to Russia in 2014 to meet President Vladimir Putin. Those meetings are understood to have included discussions about Russia’s multi-billion dollar bids for contracts to expand South Africa’s nuclear power industry, an issue of great sensitivity to international intelligence agencies.