The unresolved mess over spying

The rash of reports over "spying" has not eventuated in the promised judicial commission.


The rash of reports over "spying" has not eventuated in the promised judicial commission. Meanwhile, the Government currently employs almost three times as many intelligence agents as it did at the height of the "total onslaught" - and despite guarantees in the Constitution, many South Africans are not confident that their mail and phones are secure.

1996 had hardly been ushered in when Police Commissioner George Fivaz startled the nation by announcing that there was evidence of systematic spying on himself and other senior police officers. Fingers were immediately pointed at the National Intelligence Agency [NIA], which furiously denied any involvement.

A welter of claims and counter-claims followed. Dirk Coetzee, one of the NIA agents alleged to have been spying on the police, not only denied all such responsibility but suggested that the chain of accusation might be traceable all the way back to the murder of the civil rights lawyer, Griffiths Mxenge, in 1981.

Electronic bugs were indeed discovered in the offices of several senior policemen and another such device was discovered in the car of the Minister of Land Affairs, Derek Hanekom. The head of the SABC, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, announced that she too had evidence that she was being bugged.

Such claims were not new: back in July 1994 there had been reports of the removal of a bugging device from President Nelson Mandela's bedroom, and another from Telecommunication Minister Pallo Jordan's office as well as an illicit search of Justice Minister Dullah Omar's office while it was being de-bugged.

But this time the claims did not stop. An N1A agent popped up to say that he had been spying on National Party councillors in Gauteng at the behest of Deputy President Thabo Mbeki and Safety and Security Minister, Sydney Mufamadi - a claim they indignantly rejected.

A senior intelligence source briefed the press with the news that the doubling of foreign embassies in South Africa had meant that the number of foreign spies in the country had "increased tenfold - the guys at counter-intelligence are swamped". Most of this? he added, was trade, technology and industrial espionage.

Yet the next development was an accusation of industrial espionage against South Africa. The accusation was directed at Denel Informatics and Home Affairs officials, and was launched by Laser Optronic Technologies, a firm bidding against them for a government contract.

Next came news of an attempted frame-up of the former Foreign Minister, Pik Botha, in which someone had gained access to the secret files of the Foreign Affairs department and deliberately falsified a document there. Finally, it emerged that police were investigating the possibility that bodyguards employed by Mbeki had been spying on him, seeking to obtain his confidential documents and listening to his private telephone conversations.

To date not one of these allegations has been disproved and hard evidence has actually been furnished of the spying against both Hanekom and several senior police officers. Meanwhile rumour is rife: bugs are said to have been found in the offices of several parastatals and in some cases officials have been sternly warned by management not to discuss sensitive matters over the phone. It is, in the current state of knowledge, impossible to confirm or deny such allegations and rumours. All one can say with certainty is that the anxieties they reflect are widely shared.

Under the long nightmare of the apartheid regime South Africans got used to the notion that neither their letters nor their telephones were secure and, despite a constitutional guarantee of the right to privacy and the inviolability of one's private communications, many assume that the bad old ways are still in place, with agents merely reporting to a new set of political bosses.

This may, in fact, be entirely untrue. While Mbeki termed the undoubted spying on the police "a serious attack on South Africa's security", he also argued that there was no evidence pointing to who might have placed the bugs: "It could be drug smugglers, car theft syndicates, money launderers or the perpetrators of the KwaZulu-Natal violence."

And, of course, beyond that there is the clear possibility of a good deal of paranoia, of people imagining surveillance which does not really exist. But even that possibility bespeaks a climate of fear, suspicion and anxiety which is very much at odds with what one ought to expect to find in a democratic society which is, at last, at peace with itself and its neighbours.

Yet it is impossible to be critical of such anxieties when the chief of police, no less, is sending out circulars to his senior officers warning them to take precautions against surveillance. If Fivaz, a man of spotless record appointed under the democratic conditions of the new South Africa, does not believe that his constitutional rights are being respected, how can anyone else? Or again, if such distinguished and transparently honest citizens as Hanekom and Matsepe-Casaburri can be bugged, is anyone at all safe? The attempt to frame Botha and

the allegations of espionage against Mbeki raise similar worries.

The spying issue is thus about a lot more than cloak and dagger. We have a virtually brand new Constitution, guaranteeing all manner of rights, but for that Constitution to mean anything it has to be credible. Many African states, as also the states of the former communist bloc, had fine sounding constitutions which never attained any credibility with their citizens, partly because it was apparent that the governments of those states had no real respect for them and were spying on their own citizens.

Not only did this mean that any notion of civil rights under such regimes was stillborn but, since citizens knew they were being spied on but their government always denied this was so, the very notion of trust in government - the most basic building block of any new democracy - was never established. The price of such distrust was very high: because they did not trust their phones or their mail, people stopped trusting government altogether; because they thus did not trust their government about economics, people smuggled their money overseas; because they did not trust government to protect them, people took the law into their own hands; and so on.

The intelligence community

This continuous eruption of spy stories has inevitably focused public attention on the nation's new intelligence community, now consisting of the NIA, the South African Police Service’s [SAPS's] Crime Intelligence Service(ClS), Military lntelligence[Ml] and the Secret Service [SASS].