OPINION: Why the Deep State is watching you
There's been a lot of discussion over the course of the week regarding the dramatically named " Spy Cables" [insert own theme music and/or 'War on Spy Cables' CNN graphics here]. As they've dribbled out via Al Jazeera and The Guardian, we ask, "What do the documents mean?" Every adult South African knows the Deep State spies on citizens as a matter of routine. Well, here's a little tale from the depths of the Deep State - another reminder that your government is not your brother, but your Big Brother.
Kumi Naidoo is either a celebrity activist or an activist celebrity - as the executive director of Greenpeace, the distinctions tend to blur. Potted biography: he was born in Durban during the bad old days, and became an ANC activist before he could shave. He shot like a reverse meteor through the academic stratosphere and found himself a Rhodes scholar, and then worked his way into orbit of international activism to run perhaps the most famous NGO brand in the world. He's been arrested off the coast of Greenland; he's been arrested in the wilds of Mzansi. He hates Big Oil; he loathes Big Nuclear; he once dated a solar panel. I'm not telling you anything you don't know - Naidoo is on Twitter, he's on Facebook, dude even has a LinkedIn profile. In fact, I'm telling you this because it's not news. Love him or hate him or something in between, Kumi Naidoo is known as a known known.
And so, when his name bobbed up in a vast ocean of Spy Cables like an enormous Day-Glo dirigible, it caught many analysts off guard. What would the South African state want with Kumi Naidoo that they hadn't already taken from him in jail? What would the South Korean state - the country that asked the State Security Agency (SSA) to keep tabs on Greenpeace's head tree-hugger - want with Kumi Naidoo that they couldn't get off Amazon for R70?
In answering these questions, we (re)learn how the postmodern state is beholden to the interests of those it funds and is in turn funded by - about how its real citizens are plutocrats and corporates; about how its real interests are the technologies that it subsidises corporates to develop; about how it makes endless deposits into the fiduciary Vaseline that lubes the oligarchic circle-jerk that undoes the last vestiges of democracy.
Anyway, let's at least agree on this- Kumi Naidoo is a South African citizen. So, whatever your position, it's a little worrying that he is (most likely, although not certainly) under surveillance by the state at the behest at another state. In order to understand whether the all-seeing eye is upon him, we need to engage in what is likely to become a new academic discipline: Comparative Leaked Documents Analysis.
Here, we must take the Cameroonian Spy Cables as our first data point. In these, we learn that Yaoundé asked the SSA to watch an opposition group leader who, like apparently everyone else in the world, regularly visited Gauteng in order to flout whatever boycott is currently being imposed on Woolworths. In Cameroon, Pierre Mila Assoute is the wayward son of the ruling party, the boy who left his political father, President Paul Biya, in order to strike out on his own. Biya, playing according to type, took the split badly, and has been after Assoute ever since. In 2011, just a month before the country's general 'election', Assoute came to Johannesburg to either stock up on organic mango moisturiser or to plot Biya's downfall. Whatever the case, the president wasn't taking any chances. The Cameroonians asked the SSA to keep tabs.
What did the SSA liaison officer say about the request? "I do not think Mr Pierre Mila Assoute has committed any offence which will warrant South Africa to provide information."
So far, so good.
But now, as our second data point, we must examine the South Korean Spy Cables, the very documents that concern Naidoo and by extension the strength of our constitutional rights as citizens. The story begins in 2010, and relates to the G20 gabfest, held in Seoul. As any insider will tell you, the G20 is as much as anything a tradeshow for the wares that the host country is determined to shill. Kimchee notwithstanding, South Korea has lots of nuclear tech to offload. Its customers are primarily those that have let their electricity infrastructure fall behind the pace of development, because under a cloud of fake desperation lies the big fat juicy kickback deals that South Korea's chaebols have basically perfected.
Welcome to Seoul, President Zuma!
Kumi Naidoo, it goes without saying, is one of the leaders of the anti-nuclear movement, and has been adamantly opposed to the building of a new facility in South Africa. He hates the thought of the French outfit Areva selling its tech here - and Lord knows, when it comes to corruption, no one quite does it like the French - and he's opposed to the Russians doing the same (re: corruption, ditto). The South Koreans, anxious not to be tarred with the same brush, wanted to know what Naidoo was thinking before he was thinking it. And so, shortly before the G20, Seoul asked the SSA to spy on Kumi Naidoo.
When I spoke to Naidoo on Thursday evening, he played the Comparative Leaked Documents Analysis game as well as anyone. "The SSA said no to the Cameroonians," he reminded me. "But we've looked at the SSA documents with the South Koreans, and there's no evidence that they said 'no' to them." Some folks are big in Japan, but Naidoo is big in South Korea, and has been for decades. He's been there on at least 10 occasions, and was invited to be a visiting professor at their top university. In Seoul, he's a celebrity activist (or did we agree on activist celebrity?) He has the potential to do real damage to the deal.
"Man, they were really pushing nuclear technology on South Africa quite aggressively," Naidoo explained, "and they didn't want a strong anti-nuclear message. They didn't want the South Korean people to hear that message, especially coming from someone from the global south."
In other words, the South Koreans - with no apparent shame - asked a prospective buyer of their nuclear technology to spy on an individual who could perhaps undermine the deal, even though that individual happened to be a citizen of the country they hoped to sell the said technology to.
And there is no evidence to suggest that the SSA refused.
Yup. It looks like the SSA rolled over and played spy in order to quiet any dissent over a deal that hadn't even been made yet.
Nuclear, it seems, is coming to this country whether we like it or not, and it may turn out to be catastrophic long before the first fallout cloud turns our bowels into liquid and our sheep into bleating carcinomas.
"There's lots of nice talk about civil society," Naidoo said, a tinge of sadness creeping into his voice. "But I do not believe we have as vibrant a democracy as we could have. I'm being naive, I know, but I hope there can be some discussion around the quality of our democracy following these leaks. And we must question the nuclear plans. If people think there were high levels of corruption in the arms deal, then let me tell you, this will make the arms deal look like a Sunday morning picnic."
Now, Kumi Naidoo may be your ideological opposite. He may be the kind of activist your mom warned you about. You may think him a Luddite. But he is a citizen of this country, and the Constitution furnishes him with certain rights - among them, the right not to be surveilled for the benefit of a South Korean chaebol.
This, then, is a snapshot of how the Deep State works. It throws its citizens aside in order to focus on the big deal - or rather the kickbacks that come with the deal. The Deep State is the poisoned groundwater that we all eventually drink. It's the normal we pretend to ourselves isn't normal.
"When you add in Marikana, and Andries Tatane, this has a chilling effect," Naidoo told me. "But what I hope will come from this uncomfortable thing I'm going through is that we'll have a real conversation about the energy framework in this country."
But the Deep State doesn't engage in "real conversations". It's too busy watching.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.