Murray Hunter: The SSA spied on the people of SA and there's so much more we don't know

Ramaphosa's panel has recommended that those who abused their power in the SSA face criminal prosecution. It's hard to overstate how rare a thing that is. And there's even more to discover, writes Murray Hunter.

For the past eight years (up until about two weeks ago), I've been part of the efforts led by the Right2Know Campaign to expose and act on the abuses of South Africa's security structures, as they became ever more powerful and active under the Zuma administration. Throughout this time, nearly every public institution and office-bearer has dodged their duty to hold these securocrats accountable. Many did so without shame.

On Saturday, when President Cyril Ramaphosa finally released the findings of the independent review of the State Security Agency (SSA), it felt like something big had changed.

What's most shocking about the report is not its revelations – although these are shocking enough. But, by this stage, there is already a mountain of public evidence that SSA operatives have engaged in widespread spying, corruption, political interference and abuse of power.

Indeed, that a government-appointed body sat, investigated, made these findings, and then for those findings to be released, is probably the most shocking thing of all.

The release of this report is a sign, at last, that the state infrastructure may be willing to reckon with at least some of these demons.

We now have in writing an acknowledgement by the state that it has actively treated its own people as a threat – especially those that were outspoken against then president Jacob Zuma. The SSA Panel's report found evidence that the SSA had "boasted" of its spying operations on a range of civic formations, including the Right2Know Campaign, student movements and unions. Indeed, the Panel found that rogue operations went beyond spying, to active disruption – "infiltrating and influencing" the media to try to get more positive coverage, setting up a bogus union to rival AMCU, and covertly trying to redirect the Fees Must Fall protest movements.

Much of this was already known or suspected but, until this moment, there has been little or no action. We have published reports and booklets on surveillance of activists and unionists and journalists

But every complaint to the Inspector General of Intelligence is still pending, years later.

Every request to Parliament's intelligence committee to open its doors and hold hearings on this – for example, as then-State Security Minister David Mahlobo escalated his public claims of "rogue NGOs" that are being watched by the SSA – was dismissed or ignored. The doors did not open.

At least this committee's lack of appetite and sheer inability to oversee the spies is now documented in the panel report.

So what's next?

We have transparency, but not enough.

We need to know so much more about who was targeted in these rogue operations, and on whose orders. While the smear of 'Stratcom' has now been flung at every journalist who reportedly negatively on Zuma's networks, we now need to know much more about the panel's findings that SSA operatives have been "influencing and infiltrating" the media to try get good publicity.

Even more than transparency, we need accountability.

Ramaphosa's panel has recommended that those who abused their power in the SSA face criminal prosecution.

It's hard to overstate how rare a thing that is. To date, we know of only one intelligence official who has ever been prosecuted for surveillance abuses. In 2017, nearly six years after the fact, a Crime Intelligence official was found guilty of fraudulently getting a warrant to spy on Sunday Times journalists (reportedly at the behest of then Police Commissioner Bheki Cele), and received a suspended sentence.

It is widely believed that the only reason he faced charges was because, by mistake or design, Cele's phone number ended up getting tapped along with those of the journalists.

Those figures who have sat for years in the shadows, claiming to act for the people of South Africa while they looted, spied and lied, should be dragged into the light – and hauled before a magistrate.

But that too, is not enough.

These are not just structures made up of a few too many bad people, where the solution is to get rid of the bad people. We need to recognise that the decay and venality that took root in the SSA was not some dreadful aberration of the Zuma era – though it cannot be denied that things got bad under JZ – but something that can easily be repeated. (And let us remember, by the way, that Ramaphosa's panel looked only at the SSA. South Africa's other significant intelligence agency is the police's Crime Intelligence Division, which enjoys similar powers and secrecy, and where the rot is at least as deep.)

Rather, we need to ask ourselves what made these structures – which claim to protect us from existential threats – bend so easily towards one man's self-interest? And, what must be done to prevent it from happening again? The panel has, of course, many useful policy recommendations, such as better safeguards, stronger oversight, and vastly more transparency (and that Ramaphosa should act to scrap the Secrecy Bill, by the way). 

But the part that's missing from this report is us. Under the Zuma administration, a growing number of South Africans awakened to the damage that could be done by securocrats when their powers went unchecked. This realisation was the basis on which ordinary South Africans mobilised to halt the Secrecy Bill. Read this report, and remember that we have much more to mobilise for.

Securocratic rot is like mould. It grows where you don't look. 

- Hunter is an independent researcher, and previously was a campaigns organiser with the Right2Know Campaign.

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