The future of the NIA

Clumsy spying operations and high-level corruption have undermined trust in the intelligence service.

VUSI MAVIMBELA, the former African National Congress combatant chosen by President Thabo Mbeki as director-general of the National Intelligence Agency, faces a tough task. The NIA, as the agency is widely known, has hardly distinguished itself since its formation five years ago, as manifested by its recent shamefaced - and belated - admission that it had mounted a spying operation against the German Embassy in Pretoria.

Its surveillance of the German Embassy is instructive: it was discovered last November, as much through lack of professional expertise by the NIA as the vigilance of German counter-intelligence operatives, largely because the wires running from the inexpertly concealed video camera opposite the embassy to a rubbish bin on the pavement were visible to the naked eye. Clumsy, inept and amateurish are apposite adjectives to describe the exercise. The belated acknowledgement of responsibility can hardly be regarded as a polished exercise in damage limitation. The video camera was detected on November 17 but Intelligence Minister Joe Nhlanhla only admitted NIA culpability on February 7, a full two-and-half months after ordering an investigation that gave the impression that he was not sure what was going on in his own ministry.

One of the central problems confronting Mavimbela, who was trained by the Stasi, the dreaded secret police who helped prolong communist rule in the former German Democratic Republic, is that of establishing and maintaining a high degree of professionalism in the NIA. His predecessor, Sizakele Sigxahse, can hardly be said to have been an exemplary intelligence commander. It is an open secret that he embarrassed the NIA when, shortly after his appointment as director-general in 1995, police were called to his home to intervene in a family quarrel during which he had allegedly threatened to shoot his wife, thrown a plate of food at her and injured himself and one of his children in the process.

Speaking of the NIA and the challenges ahead, Mavimbela admits frankly: "We need to look inward, we need to strengthen ourselves." He refers specifically to deficiencies in "discipline and accountability" in the NIA corporate culture, a phrase which might apply to delinquent NIA agents facing a range of charges from theft to murder. An intelligence advisor to Mbeki until his promotion to the top administrative post in the NIA, Mavimbela's acknowledgement that there is room for improvement does not imply a blanket condemnation of his colleagues in the NIA.

His first major address to NIA staff as director-general is instructive. It contains extracts from the Bible and from the writings of Sun Tzu, a Chinese general and military strategist who lived in the 4th century BC. The biblical extract concerns a reconnaissance mission sent into Canaan by Moses. The military allegory from Sun Tzu's The Art of War relates to the deployment of a Chinese ruler's two favourite concubines as company commanders in an army of women.

There is a common underlying message in the extracts: the importance to intelligence operations - which may in some situations constitute a form of war - of clear instructions from the commanding officer. Thus Mavimbela commends Moses for his "precise instructions", noting: "One cannot over-emphasise the need for intelligence officers to have a clear understanding of the issues that relate to their core business." The quotation from Sun Tzu has an additional, more chilling message: failure to elicit obedience to clear, precise orders is punishable by death.

Thus Tzu relates how the women soldiers responded to initial drill orders with laughter and how, when the assembled soldiers greeted the reaffirmed and repeated order with further laughter, the concubine officers were executed. Mavimbela sums up the lesson of Tzu's tale: "If the commands are clear but nonetheless the soldiers do not respond to them properly, the fault lies with the officers." And he notes, too, that the Chinese ruler pleaded in vain with Tzu Sun for the lives of his favourite concubines. "It was the general's final responsibility to make sure that the two companies responded properly to the commands".

The lessons for the present are clear: "Instructions that define our core business should be clear and precise so that all of us can march in an organised file, with a common purpose and hence solidify the corporate culture that defines each one of us, as well as all of us collectively as the intelligence community". Mavimbela adds: "None of us should be allowed to shirk responsibility. Those who shirk responsibility, as the two wives of the rulers did, cause paralysis of the entire institution."

In his heavy emphasis on the need for clear instructions Mavimbela might be alluding to the failure of the men in charge of the NIA in the past to give clear direction to the agency. These men include former director-general Sigxashe and, beyond him, Dullah Omar, who served so inconspicuously as minister of intelligence that very few South Africans knew that the intelligence services fell under his aegis, and Nhlanhla, who was deputy minister of intelligence in President Mandela's administration.

The NIA traces its origins to the amalgamation in 1995 of the intelligence departments of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress with the former National Intelligence Service, previously known as the Bureau for State Security, as well the intelligence units of the supposedly independent "homelands". Tension between the disparate components of the NIA remains a problem, judging by Mavimbela's comments in a recent interview with the Financial Mail. He stresses the need to move beyond concentration "on the techniques of spying" to the building of a "common vision" of the future based on service to the democratically elected government as the embodiment of the will of the people.

Nhlanhla takes up the same point, stressing the need for accelerated transformation of the NIA into an institution whose personnel reflect the demographic profile of the country as a whole and who, by implication, are united by a commitment to the new, non-racial South Africa. Nhlanhla refers in a briefing paper to a campaign to attain "full representivity" in gender, disability and race. He says that the NIA has appointed a woman, Vi Pikoli, to the high-ranking position of deputy director general.

Nhlanhla believes that the NIA has been unfairly treated by the media, that its "mishaps" are publicised, often sensationally, and its successes ignored. He believes that the NIA and its fraternal intelligence service, the South African Secret Service (which falls under his ministry) have served South Africa "quietly, secretly and successfully". He cites as its successes in the past year the violence-free general election on June 2 and the safe arrival and departure of Commonwealth Heads of Government for their conference in Durban in November.

But blaming the media does not explain away Mandela's pointed criticism of the NIA in 1997 for its failure to secure its own headquarters from theft. Mandela's exact words, delivered during a visit to the NIA's new headquarters in the wake of the theft of ten microbuses and expensive computer equipment, are worth recalling: "How can you claim with any measure of integrity that you are competent to protect the country if you cannot secure your own premises?" Nhlanhla's response is similarly worth recording: "We will find those buses and the equipment, wherever they are. The culprits should know that the law has a long arm".

At the time of writing, nearly three years later, the thieves are still at large. NIA liaison officer Helmut Schlenter provides "context" to explain the breach in NIA security: the thefts took place during the NIA's move from an array of offices in Pretoria to its new headquarters and before the perimeters of the headquarters were secured against thieves and enemies of the state. Whatever rationalisations are proffered, the NIA has not made good Nhlanhla's boast that the culprits would be traced and apprehended.

Another scandal has since overtaken the NIA: reports of maladministration, incompetence and corruption in a special NIA unit established, ironically, to track down the millions of rands reportedly stashed away in overseas bank accounts in the 1980s, and even before, by apartheid apparatchiks fearful of future developments. Two men described as NIA special agents but disavowed by the NIA have appeared in court in Johannesburg on theft charges totalling nearly R100-million, involving in part the alleged sale of stolen share certificates. Thabo Kubu, the head of the special unit, has been suspended pending further investigations.

Kubu is not alone. Another high-ranking NIA operative, Sizwe Mthembu, general manager of the NIA's surveillance unit, has been suspended. A former commander of the dreaded Quatro camp in Angola, where ANC dissidents were tortured in the 1980s, Mthembu is under investigation for suspected complicity in skulduggery involving the diversion of R3-million from a special account to pay for luxury cars, some of which were registered in the name of a soccer administrator. Mthembu is named as a man guilty of human rights abuses in the Motsuenyane Report which was commissioned by the ANC to investigate allegations of torture in ANC detention camps. Joe Seremane, former Land Claims Commissioner and now a parliamentary representative for the Democratic Party, has implicated him in the death of his brother, Timothy, at Quatro.

The NIA's tale of woe does not end with Mthembu. One of its men, Ayob Mungalee, is a senior member of People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) and an awaiting trial prisoner following his arrest at a police road block for allegedly transporting explosives to Cape Town last year. Exposed as an "NIA agent" by the police - the NIA labelled him an informer - Mungalee is at the centre of a controversy between the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the NIA. The SAPS justify their exposure by arguing that the NIA refused to discuss with them how they planned to control Mungalee, thereby implying that Mungalee might have been using the NIA rather than vice versa. The NIA complain that the police have wilfully blown the cover of one their "moles" in Pagad, which the authorities suspect of involvement in the series of bomb explosions in Cape Town since 1998.

The Mungalee affair - which has not yet run its course - underlines the as yet unresolved rivalry between the NIA and the SAPS. Episodes in the contest include:
• NIA suspicions that police tipped off journalists about their intervention in the Sigxashe family squabble;
• NIA allegations of wilful police negligence, or even of a cover-up, in the investigation into the violent death of one of their agents, Muziwendoda Mdluli, who was found dead in his car with a bullet wound in his head on October 2, 1995; • police allegations that their headquarters were bugged by the NIA.
In a recent interview, Nhlanhla insisted that the police had admitted planting recording devices in their own offices for their own reasons but that the media had failed to exonerate the NIA from blame. Mavimbela, who believes that the rivalry might be fuelled by police envy of the higher salaries earned by NIA men, regards the inter-service enmity as mutually inimical. The appointment of a new black police commissioner, Jackie Selebi, may help to end the destructive discord.

But the police are understood to have cleared the NIA of suspicion of electronic eavesdropping on the parliamentary office of the Democratic Party's chief whip, Douglas Gibson, and on the room the DP uses for caucus meetings. The device, which is said to have been used for monitoring conversations, is a laser beam projected onto the windows of the two rooms, allegedly from the NIA office in the building opposite. A police report, now in the hands of the Western Cape's director of prosecutions, Frank Kahn, is said to support Nhlanhla's strenuous denials of NIA involvement. DP spokesman James Selfe does not challenge but cannot confirm that the NIA has been exonerated from blame.

Nhlanhla has since confirmed that the intelligence services are consolidating and boosting their capacity to intercept electronic traffic and that they already have the capacity to intercept and record cellphone conversations. But he hastily adds two assurances: first, that these powers are only exercised within the law (ie, with the permission of a judge) and, secondly, that the NIA is not interested in using its power to record the "love affairs" of individuals or the legitimate activities of opposition parties.

As if to challenge Nhlanhla's assurance that his ministry respects the right of legally established political parties to operate without the threat of electronic snooping, the Afrikaans newspaper Rapport has since published a letter purportedly written to it by former SABC journalist Cliff Saunders demanding R50,000 from the NIA for services rendered. He is alleged to have rejected a settlement offer of R10,000, allegedly made to him by two NIA agents at a meeting in a Gauteng hotel. According to Rapport, Saunders, well-known as a propagandist for the previous white minority government, used another right-wing journalist, Jani Allen, on a spying mission against the Inkatha Freedom Party and its leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. In a statement to Rapport, Saunders has said: "I was not a spy. Work I did, for whomever was designed to promote welfare, stability and security of the country and further afield. No one can prove otherwise."

In his briefing paper on the intelligence service, Nhlanhla - who was promoted to the rank of a full minister by Mbeki after he took over from Mandela last June - states: "It is our strong view that intelligence services that have no oversight mechanisms often lack public confidence and a supportive working environment". As a consequence, Nhlanhla reckons, the intelligence services are "treated as a political football" and the quest for a national consensus on intelligence matters impeded. But, he adds, in the case of the NIA and the SASS that deficiency is about to be remedied. The passing of the Intelligence Services Control Amendment Act last year has laid the foundation for two delayed developments: the resurrection of the joint parliamentary standing committee on intelligence and the appointment of an inspector general of intelligence to exercise civilian oversight of the intelligence services.

Reasons for the delays are first, the formula for the composition of the parliamentary standing committee had to be changed because of the number of opposition parties in Parliament increased from six to12 after last year's general election; and, secondly, the delay in the appointment of an inspector general was caused by the acceptance and then rejection of the post by Lewis Skweyiya, an ANC-supporting lawyer who, on reflection, decided that the remuneration offered was too low.

It is, however, debatable whether the impending changes will guarantee public confidence in the NIA and the SASS. The same amendment Act empowers Mbeki to veto the release to the public of information garnered by the inspector general and even to promulgate regulations restricting the right of the parliamentary committee to receive reports on intelligence. This is despite the fact that the ANC has a built-in-majority on the committee, that its members are subject to a security check conducted by the NIA, and that they are constrained by a solemn undertaking not to disclose confidential information entrusted to them. These powers portray Mbeki as Big Brother breathing down the neck of the inspector general. While some citizens may be reassured by the thought of Big Brother supervising the supervisor, many will find the image ominous and deny the NIA the trust that Nhlanhla believes it deserves.

Focus 17, March 2000.
Patrick Laurence is an assistant editor on the
Financial Mail.