Johannesburg - Concerns are growing in South Africa that new
laws on intelligence, security and graft-busting may end up protecting the
political elite more than the nation.
President Jacob Zuma's ANC government has proposed three
measures - two revisions to apartheid-era intelligence bills and a third on
oversight of the police's anti-graft unit, the Hawks - that have prompted
concern data may be suppressed.
The bills threaten reporters with jail for using sensitive
government information, increase the powers of a circle around the president to
keep a lid on secrets and could clip the wings of the elite Hawks, trained by
the likes of the US FBI.
They are nowhere near as draconian as the laws drawn up
under white minority rule, when the names of liberation struggle leaders such
as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu could not even appear in print.
But some insiders see them as corrosive.
"The priority of the pieces of legislation is not the
stated protection of South Africa," said a senior law enforcement official
who asked not to be named.
"They are aimed at protecting certain individuals
within the ANC."
The government says the new laws are overdue and fears of
abuse are not justified.
"All work being done will continue to be done within
the ambit of the constitution and the rule of law and so we should not be
alarmist in our approach to the reforms," said Brian Dube, spokesperson
for the State Security Ministry.
"South Africa has a very healthy oversight system with
regards to the intelligence services."
Investigative reporter Mzilikazi wa Afrika tested that
oversight after he wrote articles about a suspect land deal that threatened the
career of the chief of police.
He was arrested, bundled into a police vehicle and accused
of fraud, a move widely regarded as police intimidation. Charges were soon
dropped when it appeared he had been set up, and more than a year later, the
police chief was forced out after a government investigation concluded the land
deal was illegal.
Under the new laws, the alleged forged document wa Afrika
was arrested for holding could have been declared a state secret, making it
harder for him to argue, as he successfully did, that it had likely been
Avenue for exploitation?
As the wa Afrika case shows, the concern is not so much
about the legislation per se but what critics see as cracks in the bills that
could open wide avenues for exploitation.
It may take more than a year to implement all three, but as
each comes into law in a parliament where the ANC has a commanding majority,
they could strengthen Zuma's hand for a presidency that could last until 2019.
If he wins a bruising battle for the ANC leadership at the
end of this year, he will likely be the party's nominee for the 2014
presidential race, which the ANC will almost certainly win.
"Because Zuma comes from an intelligence background in
the ANC he is aware of the political value of intelligence. He needs to try to
make sure intelligence cannot be used against him in his quest to be
re-elected," said Dirk Kotze, a political science professor at the
University of South Africa.
More than a third of the members of its National Executive Committee
have faced corruption investigations and some of those have been convicted of
All three of the major global credit ratings agencies have
downgraded South Africa's outlook, citing increasing corruption.
Reuel Khoza, chairperson of South Africa's fourth largest
bank Nedbank Group [JSE:NED], echoed that concern.
"Our political leadership's moral quotient is
degenerating and we are fast losing the checks and balances that are necessary
to prevent a recurrence of the past," he wrote in the bank's annual report.
Zuma has faced several corruption charges but has never been
convicted. The government has launched a new investigation into an arms deal
about a decade ago that put several ANC officials in jail for taking bribes. It
is run by a team largely appointed by the presidency.
Zuma says his conscience is clear and that the allegations
are part of a conspiracy to discredit him.
In 2006, then president Thabo Mbeki sacked his intelligence
chief, saying his allies had been spied on to help tip the balance in favour of
Zuma then ousted Mbeki in the last ANC leadership race in
2007 and easily won election as the country's president in 2009. He says the
allegations of spying are politically motivated.
In the most recent, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula, a Zuma
rival, said this month he suspected his phone was being tapped.
The protection of state information bill, which will soon
become law, has riled South African media and activists.
"The... bill has been and continues to be seen as an
obvious means of concealing the corruption that has become a way of South
African life for many, from high-placed members of the government down to
menial officials," Nobel Prize literature laureate Nadine Gordimer wrote
in the New York Review of Books.
The bill was revised as it went through parliament to narrow
the scope of what can be classified and add an independent Classification
Review Panel to oversee the process.
But the oversight could take years to set up and critics say
it gives State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele too much power.
The opposition called for Cwele to be sacked after his wife
was convicted in May last year of running an international drug ring. He said
he was unaware of what she had been doing. The Mdluli conundrum
"One has reservations about the ability of Minister
Cwele to exercise his authority," said Alf Lees, a member of parliament
from the opposition Democratic Alliance.
"The incident with his wife raises great concern for
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe told parliament last
year: "He (Cwele) wasn't implicated in any way. The matter went through
the courts and at no stage was he called in as a witness or a partner in that
Critics say the general intelligence laws amendment bill now
before parliament would put intelligence in the hands of a few people close to
the president and let them monitor, without court approval, "foreign
signals", which they say could include phone calls abroad and emails
routed through foreign servers.
Even ANC MPs have said they were worried about how the new
structures might be used.
"There was a concern about the mandate to collect
political intelligence," parliament's ANC-majority ad hoc committee on
general intelligence said in a statement.
The final piece of legislation, the police service amendment
bill, is aimed at satisfying a Constitutional Court decision to give more
independence to the corruption-busting Hawks.
The measure allows the police minister, appointed by the
president, to sack the Hawks' leader and seek approval later at the
ANC-dominated parliament. It also lets senior politicians in a ministerial
committee coordinate Hawks investigations.
"The legislation is good if you have good people and
bad if you have bad people," said Gareth Newham, who heads the crime and
justice programme of the Institute for Security Studies.
Asked to comment on the criticism, the presidency referred
to the security ministry and an April address by Zuma in which he said the
system had sufficient checks and balances.
"The democratic state led by the African National
Congress, will never undertake any activity or pass any law that undermines the
security of the South African people, or which violates their constitutional
rights," Zuma added.
The president has come under fire over several of those he
has chosen to be in his inner circle.
He had to replace his police minister last year due to the
land deal and the man he selected as national director of public prosecutions
was removed by a court which decided he was more beholden to the president than
protecting the rule of law.
The police were berated for this year reinstating Richard
Mdluli as the head of its Crime Intelligence Unit, responsible for wiretaps and
investigations, after he was suspended pending official investigations
implicating him in fraud and nepotism.
Police documents obtained by Reuters said Mdluli was
suspected of illegally obtaining a fleet of luxury vehicles and placing
relatives and mistresses on the police's payroll.
Mdluli protested his innocence, alleging a racist conspiracy
by police and media to topple him, and the charges were dropped. The presidency
has denied reports Mdluli was reinstated so he could use the office to protect
In parliamentary questioning this week, Zuma said the
decision to reinstate Mdluli was a police matter. The acting police chief last
week said he is moving to suspend Mdluli.
A Western diplomat who asked not to be named said the
biggest worry with the new bills was that freedoms in South Africa's liberal
constitution are slowly being eroded.
"This year will determine how South Africa will develop
over the next 15 to 20 years," the diplomat said.