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Inside Labour: History, spies and the need for transparency

Apr 20 2018 06:00
Terry Bell

The reason South Africa now has a 15% value-added tax (VAT) rate is because of corruption and maladministration at government level. 

This is the view of leading economist Iraj Abedian, who is certainly no radical, let alone a member of the labour movement. However, most trade unionists, being aware that an estimated R50bn was stolen over the past three years alone by the state capture project, agree fully with this analysis. 

It boils down, yet again, to working people having to pay for a mess not of their making. But at least some people are now being exposed for involvement and may be held accountable. However, this is only so because transparency came into play. 

And that came through good investigative work by media workers, by journalists, who were often aided by workers who were prepared to speak out. Because, without transparency, there can be no accountability.

Perhaps more importantly, without transparency and open debate in this era of widespread fake news, it can be impossible to distinguish fact from often poisonous fiction.

Over the past week and more, there have been a number of worrying developments in this area that have placed the media - and working journalists in particular - in the firing line. These have highlighted the need for transparency, for workers everywhere to speak out and to open debate wherever wrongdoing is suspected.

But much of the present furore is a throwback to the past, almost a case of the living dead of apartheid rising up to try to sow havoc. The trigger was the screening on television of a year-old documentary to coincide with the funeral of Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela.

Apart from arguments about shoddy journalism, this well-made if highly subjective film about Winnie Mandela provided an opportunity for elements of the former apartheid security police to try again to encourage paranoia, especially about the media. 

Political opportunists and some ill-informed activists took up, and even further distorted, statements made in the documentary. A particular focus was the claim that the apartheid police had 40 agents in South African newsrooms; that such a list existed. 

In fact, several lists claiming to contain the names of “apartheid spies” do exist, several released after the original one, apparently to cause confusion. The original list was provided by the journalist/spy John Horrock and contains 42 names. 

But, like other such lists, it does not distinguish between agents, sources and contacts. Horrock told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that these were the three categories that comprised “friends in the media”. Agents were trained and paid members of the security services, while sources were individuals who were either bribed or blackmailed or ideologically committed to the apartheid cause. 

Contacts were merely journalists known to the security services to whom “leaked” information could be fed with a good chance of it being published. Many of these contacts may have been unaware that they were being used; that the information they were given to publish suited particular political agendas. 

As a result, any publication of names on such lists should be treated with caution, especially since the police were also known to include names of “innocent” people on official documents just in case lists were leaked.

The original and apparently genuine list on which the 42 names appear was leaked more than 20 years ago and dates back still further. A number of the individuals named are dead - Horrock himself died in 2010 - and others are no longer part of the media scene.

'Spies in the media'

This has not stopped the opportunistic or ignorant from demanding the exposure of such “spies in the media”. Ironically, there are probably security service agents now in newsrooms, but they would not be serving apartheid; they could, however, be part of disruptive political factions within the governing alliance.  

In 2000, for example, military intelligence attempted to recruit senior journalists as spies, but were foiled when one of them, Adrian Hadland, exposed the attempt. 

There has also been considerable evidence in the recent past of what have been referred to as “rogue elements” functioning within the police and National Intelligence Service. This does not mean that the eavesdropping and myth-making along with the poison spread by the apartheid state’s friends in the media should not be examined and exposed. 

It should be, if only to help ensure that the same mistakes are not made again. It was for this reason that the TRC recommended that it should be illegal for security agencies to recruit journalists. Like so many other TRC recommendations, including further investigations and prosecutions, this one was not followed through.

It was again evidence that politicians practice “the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs that properly concern them”.

Politicians, business leaders and all those in authority - whether in schools, hospitals, trade unions or anywhere else - must be held publicly accountable if we are to avoid repeating again the mistakes of the past and those we live with today.

Add your voice or just drop Terry a labour question. Follow Terry on twitter @telbelsa.

terry bell  |  inside labour  |  labour


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