Our security and intelligence institutions need serious reform. South Africa has a long unfortunate history of politically compromised security institutions.

In 5 February 1998 then South African National Defence Force chief General Georg Meiring handed President Mandela a Military Intelligence Report which alleged that there was a left-wing plot to topple the government. The report claimed that McBride, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Bantu Holomisa and Meiring’s likely successor, Lieutenant General Siphiwe Nyanda, were conspiring against the government

In 2007, amidst the run up to the African National Congress’s December elective conference, the Browse ‘Mole” Report was leaked. The Browse Mole report, which was authored by the Scorpions, outlined evidence that the Angolan intelligence establishment was planning to covertly support then former deputy president Jacob Zuma in his bid to become president of the ANC and the country. The report also referred to a meeting of African leaders where possible military backing for Zuma was allegedly discussed. Furthermore it reported on a meeting of former Umkhonto weSizwe veterans which apparently suggested that the local security establishment should support a pro-Zuma coup if necessary. The document was leaked to Zuma’s supporters at Cosatu and seriously embarrassed the Scorpions and the then government domestically and in Africa.

President Zuma used another fake intelligence report called ‘Operation Checkmate’ as a basis for the firing of Pravin Gordhan and Mcebisi Jonas. The report apparently stated that the Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, planned to meet foreign businesses to discredit President Jacob Zuma.

As of writing the Mail & Guardian has a front page report which alleges that the State Security Agency’s (SSA’s) covert support unit is being used to target the political opponents of Jacob Zuma ahead of the ANC’s elective conference in December. The covert support unit is supposed to fight terrorism and organised crime. This comes a week after the leak of emails damaging to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The incidents described above are just a few examples which reflect the corrosive effect that political factionalism can have on state institutions. These cases highlight the high degree of factions serving their own particular ends in the security services. There are many more stories of dysfunction in the police service, crime intelligence, the National Prosecuting Authority, the Special Investigative Unit, State Security, including the domestic and foreign branches, the National Communications Centre and the military than one blog post could relate. The use of these institutions for factional narrow ends has a corrosive effect on the efficacy of those institutions, hampering the ability of these important security institutions to serve their primary function, safeguarding the public. When security services are serving narrow political interests they are not doing what they were intended to do, fighting crime and dealing with threats to national security- in short, saving lives. Security institutions need to maintain an apolitical character to protect their independence and make sure that the powers afforded to them are not misused. Misuse of power of this type can be a threat not only to the safety of citizens but a threat to democracy itself.

There needs to be a series conversation about the reform of our security institutions. There needs to be better transparency, accountability, professionalism and greater separation from political influence. For example, as of writing, there exists no obvious way for people to apply for jobs in the SSA. Recruitment is opaque and there have been reports of positions in the security establishment being given to the children of politically connected families. A yearly online process for recruitment of new SSA employees would be an important step in increasing the professionalism of the organisation, ensuring greater transparency and the creation of a merit based culture in these services.

Parliament must play a greater role in the oversight of the security establishment with frequent intelligence parliamentary committees becoming the norm rather than the rarity they have been in recent years. Furthermore, new more stringent laws need to be introduced to limit the ability of the security establishment to monitor citizens. To decrease political influence South Africa might, for example, consider implementing a selection process similar to that of the public protector by giving the intelligence parliamentary committee the responsibility to choose a shortlist of candidates for director general of SSA which the president must then choose from.

These are a few ideas. What is beyond doubt is the fact that South Africa’s security establishment must fundamentally change how it operates to better ensure that South Africans remain safe.