Are foreign intelligence services in charge of SA?

Charles Simkins on why these accusations are concerning for the country's constitutional democracy

Are foreign intelligence services in charge of South Africa?

1 June 2017

In an increasingly fractious political environment, the ANC’s draft policy document on Peace and Stability includes bold claims about interference from foreign intelligence services in domestic South African politics. In addition, the document labels a wide range of groups as accomplices in this plot. This brief, by Charles Simkins, takes issue with this characterisation and looks at why these accusations are concerning for South Africa’s constitutional democracy.

The African National Congress has issued nine draft policy documents for its June National Policy Conference (NPC) and has invited the public to comment on them.  In response, we draw attention to three paragraphs at the beginning of the policy document on Peace and Stability.  They read as follows:

3.  There is a concerted effort many foreign state and non-state actors who have launched an aggressive onslaught to former liberation movements in our region, the ANC is not an exception. In addition to economic weaknesses, our security assessment identified the activities of the Foreign Intelligence Services (FIS) as an overarching threat undermining our national security and national interest. During the past year, they continued their efforts, in close collaboration with negative domestic forces, to undermine our democratic and constitutional advances. The modus operandi of FISs is through penetration, influencing, manipulation and ultimately subversion in the quest to advance and promote their national interests. These attacks may result in the diversion of governance and the possibility that the broader purpose of government will be hijacked by those with ulterior agendas, sectarian interests and nefarious intent.

4.  If the state is weakened, it will be increasingly vulnerable to institutional penetration by foreign or hostile forces. The main strategy used by the FISs is to mobilise the unsuspecting masses of this country to reject legally constituted structures and institutions in order to advance unconstitutional regime change. The alignment of the agendas of FISs and negative domestic forces threatens to undermine the authority and security of the state. Their general strategy makes use of a range of role players to promote their agenda and these include, but are not limited to: mass media; nongovernmental organisations and community-based organisations; foreign and multinational companies; funding of opposition activities; Judiciary, religious and student organisations; infiltration and recruitment in key government departments; placement of non-South Africans in key positions in departments; prominent influential persons; and punning [sic]of covert intelligence networks and covert action on our soil.

5.  In essence, FISs work with their partners inside the country to ensure that the ANC led Government is unable to implement any policy that runs counter to their policies and strategic objectives, and is prevented from adopting independent positions in regional and international forums. Given our influence on the global stage, our geo-political positioning, our land, food and future energy plans, FISs will continue to prioritise South Africa for intelligence collection. As the gateway to the African continent, our detractors believe that their efforts to control and manipulate South Africa will enable them to control the whole African continent, advance their agendas and expand their spheres of influence.

We think that these paragraphs are objectionable, both on their face and in their implications.  We recommend that they be deleted from the final version of the policy document. If not, they should be rejected by the NPC itself.  They threaten our society with terrible things and, we venture to suggest, they are not in the interests of the ANC itself.

Our reasons for these views are:

1. It is objectionable to characterise people with different views from the governing party as ‘negative domestic forces’ and alarming to learn how extensive the list is regarded as being.

The term ‘negative domestic forces’ implies a claim to sole authentic representation of the people by the ANC.  In a democracy, and in particular our constitutional democracy, there is no such thing: the government represents the people and is composed by their preferences.   And the list of infiltrated organizations is very long: the media, non-governmental organizations, companies, the judiciary, religious and student organizations, key officials and prominent individuals. 

Senator Joseph McCarthy’s activities in the United States in the early 1950s gave rise to a new political phenomenon:  McCarthyism, the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence.  McCarthy’s main targets were government employees, those in the entertainment industry, educators and union activities.  The list in the draft policy document is longer.

2. The phrase ‘the unsuspecting masses’ is patronising, and contemptuous of the ability of ordinary people to understand their circumstances and preferences.

The indications are that an increasing number of South Africans consider South Africa ripe for a change in government, in response to the way in which the government has been performing.  Confusing a change in government with ‘unconstitutional regime change’ muddies the waters in a dangerous and unacceptable way.  It undermines the constitutional provision for regular, free and fair elections .

3. It is disingenuous to imply that non-governmental organizations work to frustrate ANC policies and strategic objectives. 

Litigation against the government by NGOs is usually the exercise of the right to administrative action which is lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair.  The Helen Suzman Foundation’s litigation is designed to promote constitutional democracy and the rule of law.  We fully respect the right of government to choose its policies within the framework of constitutional democracy and the rule of law.  Equally, we have the right to be critical of government policy, where our research shows this to be inadequate or wrong-headed.  

4. The corollary of alleged foreign intelligence penetration, manipulation and subversion is greater political control of the media, civil society, business, the judiciary and individuals.  Aspirations in this direction are a sure and certain sign of growing authoritarianism.

Larry Diamond, Marc Plattner and Christopher Walker in Authoritarianism goes global consider the big five authoritarian states: Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela .  They chart how authoritarian regimes spread messages in a non-transparent way, by crowding out other voices.  They manipulate electoral processes.  They are scaling up their media capabilities at the behest of political leaders.  They are investing massively in internal security. They are managing information flows.  They are choking independent civil society. 
They are learning from each other.  Is this a club we really want to join?

5. Every country has intelligence services gathering information on other countries.  To a considerable extent, this can be regarded as a normal state of affairs. 

Should foreign intelligence overreach, the best response is diplomatic rather than threatening an anti-democratic domestic clampdown.  Information flows from one country to others through media reporting and diplomatic channels, as well as espionage.  The standard democratic procedure for dealing with spies is to declare them persona non grata, and it works. 

6. The last time we saw the paranoid response indicated above was in the 1980s ‘total onslaught’ era.

And the reason is the same – fear of losing power.  What the authors seek to communicate is power and kragdadigheid.  What they actually project is anxiety and a sense that democracy has become a threat, rather than an opportunity.

7. The contrast between the self-confidence of the ANC of twenty years ago and its current beleaguered state is painfully apparent in the passage quoted. 

This is the reason that the ANC should, in its own interests, avoid bluster threatening repression.  Not only does it indicate weakness rather than strength, it will also have the consequence of creating resentment, hatred even, of the ANC itself.

By Charles Simkins, Head of Research, HSF, 1 June 2017


[1] After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?  - Bertolt Brecht, The Solution

[1] Section 19 of the Constitution

[1] Two of them, like us, are BRICS