Nomvula Xaba

Tom Sharpe’s ghost in South African spy leaks

South African author Tom Sharpe (1928-2013), who comically portrayed bumbling apartheid cops disguising themselves as ‘terrorists’, then arresting one another and leaving trails of exploded ostriches to mark their ‘secret’ operations, would have had a field time with the leaked South African State Security Agency (SSA) reports as exposed by Al Jazeera earlier this week.

The leaked SSA reports, -now sensationally dubbed the ‘spy cables’, with one alleging a ‘plot to kill’ African Union head Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, show most poignantly that, to say the least, South Africa’s counterintelligence spies have not worked very effectively over the past seven years. The Americans and the French want access to South Africa’s nuclear programme? Due to the ‘sophistication of their covert operations’, the national agency has not been able to ‘neutralise’ their activities, one report says

When Israel steals missile blueprints, the local spies meekly ask for them back and are told that certainly, this is ‘at least’ possible, ‘in the light of the strong cooperation between our services’. The Israeli condition that South Africa must cover the whole affair up and not charge anyone is, equally meekly, accepted. And whilst there is much ranting in the leaked reports about Israel ‘training militias in Africa’; Israel trying to ‘appropriate diamonds’ and plots to have these ‘processed in Israel’, South Africa seems unable to stop Israeli airline El Al from operating as a cover for spies in South Africa itself or to block the ‘free access to O R Tambo Airport by (El Al’s) Security manager’.

Yankee dollar

Besides Israel walking around freely around sensitive  South African ‘key points’, China and Iran are equally reported to be visiting South Africa’s nuclear installation Koeberg and weapons factory Denel. They ‘utilise ‘official access (on invitation) to demand access to sensitive plants’, reads the same report mentioned above. There is again no mention of any attempt to stop this. Most bizarrely, South Africa’s spies asked their Russian colleagues for help to find out what their own (South African) government was up to with regard to a joint satellite programme. 

In fact, the only work shown to have some content seems to have been done by South African spies for other, foreign agencies. “Everyone was working for someone else”, an insider was reported as saying, with the main temptation, apparently, the yankee dollar: reportedly, South Africa spends a disproportionate amount of time focused on Iran and jihadi groups, in spite of not having identified either as a major threat to South Africa. “The Americans get what they want,” an intelligence source told The Guardian (UK)

How effective the South African spying-on-demand actually is, has not been mentioned. But the Americans might be having a long hard look at their recruitment policies now that it appears that South Africa’s spies cannot ‘encrypt or protect’ phones, ‘check mail couriers’, ‘vet employees’, ‘back up computers’ or even do own computer work, outsourcing ‘ICT functions to private companies few of which undergo security checks’.

Broken arrow

South Africa’s State Security Agency’s failure to do actual national security work may partly have been due to it spending a lot of energy on a fight with South Africa’s tax service SARS on behalf of crooked allies. After a number of corrupt employees, fired from SARS in 2008 and 2009, remarkably ended up in the realm of the SSA, a project called ‘Broken Arrow’ was started ‘to smear the leadership of SARS’ and the then commissioner, later Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan.

In August 2014, South African weekly City Press had also reported on an SSA plan “to replace SARS’ top management”. It had linked this to tax-related investigations of tobacco smugglers with close SSA links.