Two events in the past fortnight highlight how state intelligence agencies have critically shaped government in South Africa, now and in the past. The first was the death of Mervyn Rees, the Rand Daily Mail investigative reporter credited with revealing how state resources were misused to finance a secret propaganda campaign known as Muldergate. Also called the Info Scandal, it brought down the government of then prime minister John Vorster and propelled PW Botha to power as executive state president.
There are continuities bridging the apartheid era and modern African National Congress (ANC)-ruled South Africa. One of the main pillars is an enduring tradition of factionalism. Party-dominant political systems produce factions in the ruling party because there is little hope of a change of government through elections. Factions use the media to promote their ideologies and interests. A symbiotic, give-and-take relationship develops between journalists and rival groups.
In South Africa, this has taken a particular form. A hallowed liberal theory sees the "press as opposition", presenting the real case against the government in the absence of effective parliamentary oversight. A less revered but realistic view is that newspapers play a key role in the political manoeuvres of factions within the state. This does not contradict the liberal view but it is a healthy corrective. Vigilant media, it is said, do not know the truth; they search for it by tapping their sources, trying by all means to prize open as many sources as possible.
Here a question still hangs over the role of the media in the Info Scandal. Rees got some of his most important news breaks from a "Deep Throat" whose identity Rees took with him to his grave. Should a reporter feel a responsibility to history to reveal confidential sources, perhaps only after other key players have left the scene?
The question is whether the Vorster government’s rogue activities were deliberately exposed by another faction in the National Party (NP) or merely taken advantage of when the opportunity arose. We may never know whether military intelligence engineered Vorster’s fall.
The second recent event has been the passage of the Protection of State Information Bill through Parliament. Several prominent ANC figures initially questioned it, but they were publicly flayed and dragooned into line, giving the impression of a party that was far from united.
In an oddly reasoned defence of the bill, South African Communist Party leader Blade Nzimande emphasised that it was not meant to cover up corruption, which his party would not tolerate. The measure was necessary to protect democracy by preventing the factional leaking of state information. This theme has been repeated by other leading figures.
A study by the Wits University Centre for Violence and Reconciliation, The Smoke that Calls, found ANC factions behind many service delivery protests, aiming to unseat the party’s own mayors and councils.
How strange that a law limiting voter knowledge of official activities should really be meant to control intraparty factions. Holding the lid down on an increasingly fragmented governing alliance is surely a party matter and not one to interfere with the entire nation’s right to know.
Factionalism is by no means a new departure in our politics. Under Hendrik Verwoerd, Vorster and Botha, the NP waged its own factional struggles. It was common for politicians to deny that two wings of the party, the verkrampte (narrow-minded) and verligte (open-minded) groupings, were fighting to control the party and state.
We are used to hearing similar denials today from apologists for the shambolic state of the ANC. And once again, it seems, the intelligence and security apparatus of the government are deep in the thick of things. No better example can be found than the farcical "Browse Mole" episode of 2006-07 that helped to unseat Thabo Mbeki and instal Jacob Zuma in his place. A weird "top secret document" concocted by the Directorate of Special Operation was judged by Parliament’s joint standing committee on intelligence to be "very dangerous and against our national interest". The committee recommended that "private intelligence-gathering activities" must be curtailed to prevent sensitive state secrets reaching "information peddlers". In 2009, all charges of corruption against Zuma were dropped by then prosecutions chief Mokotedi Mpshe, citing the Browse Mole report. Zuma was cleared to become president of the nation.
In the subsequent shake-up, those who had been sidelined either left the party or continued sniping in off-the-record contacts with journalists. Well-placed sources feed the media with information that might otherwise never appear in the public domain.
If and when it is signed by the president, the act will close off channels from disaffected elements. Having benefited in one way or another from the peddling of information, the ruling faction is trying very hard to prevent a recurrence.
But can laws stop leaks? During apartheid, many censorship laws curbed not only the press but also dissidents in the NP who could not disclose all they knew. Even so, confidential sources supplied Rees and others with enough information to shake the Vorster government to its foundations. The ruling clique was portrayed in Afrikaner circles as corrupting the moral foundations of the volk with dirty tricks and thuggery. He had abandoned the high quest of apartheid that Verwoerd claimed would allow each ethnic group to seek its own destiny. Botha came to power promising a new "clean" administration and offering a verligte vow to adapt or die. It sounded good. But Botha’s military-led "total strategy" was even more brutal than the police tactics that preceded it. Detentions and torture, disappearances, assassinations and chemical counterinsurgency failed to stop countrywide unrest. Meanwhile, a verligte faction set about negotiating with the ANC abroad to end the carnage, while selected journalists received insider briefings.
After 1994, the NP itself could not long survive the demise of the apartheid state with all its perks, and its members soon defected into liberal and conservative ranks.
Political scientists class factions as competitive, co-operative or degenerative. Factions may contribute to party health, play off one against another, or destroy the party entirely. Motives include self-enrichment, ideological differences, practical stratagems, local conflicts and personal loyalties.
Now social unrest is growing in South Africa as corruption, lack of service delivery, crime and police brutality batter the image of the party of the people.
Deep divisions have opened up over how to achieve development with security — another echo of apartheid times.
The ANC has always allowed contestation between ideologists and pragmatists; between socialists, communists, churches, youths, business and civic organisations; all of which have contributed to the successes of the mass movement. Some factions are more or less permanent, others more fluid.
The secrecy law, however, signals a radical determination to force conformity on comrades, criminalising the doubters and the disgruntled in the ruling alliance.
Our history suggests that this will fail.
Far from consolidating the position of dominant elites, it will accelerate the degeneration of the whole. And the media cannot be kept out of it.
Written by: Graeme Addison
Picture credit: Business Day
• Addison is a freelance writer and media trainer. This article was published on Business Day.