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  • Ivor Chipkin

Was I the Object of an Intelligence Operation?

Updated: Aug 27, 2019

Reading the High-Level Review Panel report on the State Security Agency is a chilling experience. The findings are absolutely damning of President Zuma, his ministers and 'key players' in the SSA and especially the Special Operations Unit. The report is a chilling read for a more personal reason too.

The report defines 'politicisation' as occurring when intelligence operatives serve "the political interests and aspirations of individual politicians" (p.63). The Panel identified a 'key player' deployed to the SSA by then President Zuma via the then Intelligence Minister to "serve the interests of the Executive" and who undertook operations that were clearly unconstitutional and illegal. The report does not mention names but identifies the President's man as someone who formerly worked in the ANC underground and who, before joining the SSA, was accused of corruption at his former employee.

Some of these illegal, unconstitutional and 'factional' pursuits included the 'active monitoring of South Africa First, Right to Know, SaveSA, CASAC and Green Peace because of the 'penetration ability' of these groups. The Panel also found that the Special Operations unit had infiltrated and influenced the media as well as the #FeesMustFall movement (p.65).

During this time someone took a potshot at my car and the PARI offices were broken into, in very strange circumstances. Together with Mark Swilling and several others, I was working on the Betrayal of the Promise report, which proved to be hugely influential in galvanising political opposition to the Zuma administration. The report and subsequent book provided an analytical framework, which conceived of state capture as a political phenomenon (and not simply a criminal one) and that argued that South Africa faced a silent coup d'etat, with political power shifting away from constitutional and elected bodies to shadowy networks, comprising politicians, businessmen, senior officials and intelligence operatives. At stake, we argued was a political movement that set itself up against the constitution in the name of radical economic transformation.

At PARI the work on 'state capture', which was both theoretically engaging and politically important, generated huge suspicion and active opposition from several researchers. I was always puzzled by the depth of anger that it provoked, sitting through several meetings where I was lambasted for the 'racism' and 'neoliberalism' of the report. I remember that Ferial Haffajee who had joined PARI at this time was amazed that the very work that had attracted her to the institute was the cause of a growing revolt.

The High Level Panel found that the Special Operations unit had become a "parallel intelligence structure serving a faction of the ruling party and, in particular, the personal interests of the sitting President of the party and country" (p.66). There is no specific mention of PARI or of myself in the report, but then again the report names no names. It does give a sense of the danger that we were in nonetheless, as individuals and as a country.

What proved most controversial about the Betrayal report and the Shadow State book was the idea that the Zuma years were not simply driven by self-interested, criminally-minded networks. Paraphrasing Gertrude Stein, there was politics there and politics with a big 'P'. These ideas and convictions - that the constitution and the rule of law are an obstacle to change - have not gone away; they have simply morphed and migrated to new political formations and networks.

Johannesburg, 10 March 2019.

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