[BOOK EXTRACT] The President’s Keepers

Investigative journalist Jacques Pauw exposes the darkest secret at the heart of Jacob Zuma’s compromised government: a cancerous cabal that eliminates the president’s enemies and purges the law-enforcement agencies of good men and women. As Zuma fights for his political life following the 2017 Gupta emails leak, this cabal – the president’s keepers – ensures that after years of ruinous rule, he remains in power and out of prison. But is Zuma the puppet master, or their puppet?

It was late at night and after several vodkas that I prodded Engelke about the SSA and Fraser. “With that man,” Engelke said and looked around him, “you don’t mess. He’s far too powerful.”

“Why is he so powerful?” I wanted to know.

“He’s very close to Zuma,” said Engelke as he leaned forward and dropped his voice. “I’ve got two children back home. If I talk to you I might never see them again.”

“What can you tell me about him?”

“I have to be very careful. I’m bound by an oath of secrecy. I’m afraid I cannot say much.”

“I understand,” I said and put my hand in the air to signal to the high-heeled and leggy waitress. “Why don’t we have another vodka and discuss this?”

Towards the end of 2009, internal State Security Agency (SSA) auditors descended on the Route 21 office complex near Irene, south of Pretoria. The NIA had just been restructured by security minister Siyabonga Cwele and was now known as the SSA. The target of the auditors was the operational headquarters of the Principal Agent Network (PAN) programme, a top-secret state intelligence programme that had guzzled as much as a billion rand of taxpayers’ money in just three years.

When the auditors arrived, expenditure files were stacked in the boardroom, at the ready for their scrutiny. What the auditors didn’t know was that the boardroom was bugged and kitted out with concealed cameras. In the room next door, PAN agents and managers were surveying the auditors as they sifted through invoices, contracts, payment requests and much, much more.

The PAN agents had much to lose. For three years, they had almost carte blanche to throw public money at a range of gagged-up projects, which they named “Easimix” (concerned with the “old guard”), “Émigré” (concerned with immigrants), “Media Production” (the influence of the media), “Vodka” (Russian activities), “Pack” (Pakistani nationals), “Psycho” (“concerned with psychological assistance to PAN”), the ominous-sounding “Crims” (working on “political intelligence”), “Kwababisa” (Alexandra township mafia, Gauteng provincial government and corruption) and the ominous “SO” (political intelligence and organised crime).

The only project that was probably worth anything was “Mechanic”, because PAN had purchased 293 cars – ranging from BMWs, Audis and Golf GTIs to smaller sedans – for their 72 agents, which they stored in three warehouses across the country that had been leased for R24 million. They also leased and purchased properties for R48 million and imported three “technical surveillance vehicles” from the UK for more than R40 million. And this was just a drop in the ocean.

The auditors at Route 21 had hit upon enough discrepancies and scams to report back to their superiors that the PAN programme was riddled with wastage, corruption and nepotism and warranted a full-scale investigation. One of the reasons why the PAN spooks were caught with their pants on their knees was that they had done a dismal job at covering their tracks.

Sometime later, a disgruntled PAN agent handed the auditors CCTV camera footage of their audit. A PAN surveillance technician who had been instructed to plant cameras in the boardroom to monitor the audit installed them the previous night but forgot to switch them off after he’d tested the system. The footage showed how agents worked through the night in order to generate invoices and documentation for the audit the next day. They also shredded records they didn’t want the auditors to see. Agents manufactured documents by copying and pasting signatures. In their haste to deceive the auditors and with the clock ticking away, they put documents in the wrong files, accidentally shredded some of the manufactured papers and got everything all mixed up.

The auditors found devastating evidence in the files and were at the PAN offices for four days. When they left to report back to their director-general, the lid had been lifted on corruption and wasteful expenditure that far exceeded the shenanigans at President Zuma’s private homestead of Nkandla.

But this was, after all, the hazy world of smoke and mirrors that they call state security, where the Intelligence Act is manipulated to shield marauders and veil miscreants.

A few days after the audit, the SSA’s head of domestic intelligence, Gibson Njenje, called a meeting of his legal advisers in his plush office at the agency’s headquarters. The complex, known as Musanda, is top secret and the public is not allowed to know how many people work there or how much money those in pursuit of state security drain from the fiscus every year. To the public, all that is visible of Musanda – affectionately known as “the Farm” by those who have basked in her veiled glory – is a sprawl of buildings with an array of satellite ears that point skywards.

Among those who attended Njenje’s meeting were the head of the agency’s legal department, Kobus Meiring, and SSA advocate Paul Engelke.

Meiring was an intelligence old-timer with an impeccable record and more than thirty years in the service. Engelke had vast experience as a prosecutor at the NPA, was an advocate in private practice and had served seven years at state intelligence. Both Meiring and Engelke had a top- secret clearance.

Njenje had only recently assumed leadership of the domestic branch of the SSA and was largely unaware of PAN, which resided under the Covert Support Unit (CSU) and ultimately under the director of operations. The first warning that public money was being shovelled into a black hole emerged when the CSU overspent its budget and PAN agents threatened the agency with legal action for not getting paid.

The polite and reserved Njenje was an intelligence legend, albeit a controversial one. An Umkhonto we Sizwe veteran, he was appointed by President Thabo Mbeki as NIA head of operations but was then suspended, along with spy boss Billy Masetlha, in 2005. This followed an investigation by the inspector-general of intelligence, who found that Njenje had acted inappropriately after spying on Saki Macozoma, ANC National Executive Committee member and Mbeki confidant, as part of a political intelligence-gathering exercise called Project Avani. It included hoax e-mails designed to suggest a plot against Zuma to prevent him from running for the presidency. Njenje initially tried to challenge the suspension, but resigned after reaching a settlement with intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils.

When Zuma became president in 2009, it was payback time and he appointed Njenje as the director-general for domestic intelligence at the SSA. There was unhappiness in some government and ANC quarters about Njenje’s appointment. He was prior to his official posting a founder member and director of Bosasa, a facilities management company that, according to a Special Investigating Unit report, was corruptly awarded multimillion-rand tenders by the prisons department.

Njenje told Meiring and Engelke that he wanted them to investigate the PAN programme as it might have gone rogue, misappropriated millions and even endangered the safety of the state. He said that security minister Siyabonga Cwele had given the go-ahead for a full investigation.

Engelke was appointed team leader and was joined by a senior auditor and a human resources official. They in turn reported to Meiring. The investigation was top secret and on a strictly “need-to-know” basis.

The PAN programme was the brainchild of Njenje’s predecessor, the director-general Manala Manzini, and his deputy and national operations director, Arthur Fraser. Manzini was eager to expand and enhance the NIA’s covert collection capacity. He shared this with Fraser, who concocted the PAN programme.

Fraser suggested that PAN employ NIA members who would resign or take severance packages, former NIA members, members from other government departments who would resign, and new recruits from the private sector. They submitted their plan to the minister of intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, who agreed with the concept of the network as it was traditionally understood. A principal agent network is intelligence jargon for spy handlers (the principals) who engage, manage and deploy spies (agents) to perform specific services or functions on behalf of the agency. There was nothing cutting-edge about Fraser’s proposal and it should simply have meant the employment of more spies and handlers.

As it later turned out, he may have had something completely different in mind: a parallel and detached intelligence network that operated independently of the NIA. In doing so, Meiring and Engelke later found, Fraser may have committed treason.

Jane Duncan says in her book The Rise of the Securocrats that intelligence services ballooned in the early 2000s under the ministerial direction of Lindiwe Sisulu, Kasrils’s predecessor. She contended that NIA needed more resources and capabilities and should be expanded. This proliferation coincided with the issuing of a directive by the Presidency requiring an expansion of the NIA’s mandate in 2003 to include political and economic intelligence. A host of new spies and agents were appointed.

The ministry of intelligence concluded in 2007 that there were no serious threats to the country’s constitutional order, although organised crime remained a concern, as did the need to secure major events such as the upcoming 2010 World Cup. There was also no indication that South Africa was either a major target of or safe haven for terrorists or religious fanatics. Why, then, was there a need for a further expansion of the NIA? Was the PAN programme truly to the benefit of national security, or did its architects and proponents have ulterior motives?

The President's Keepers by Jacques Pauw is published by Tafelberg.

Journalist and author Jacques Pauw was a founder member of the anti-apartheid Afrikaans newspaper Vrye Weekblad in the late 1980s, where he exposed the Vlakplaas police death squads. He worked for some of the country’s most esteemed publications before becoming a documentary filmmaker, producing documentaries on wars and conflicts in Rwanda, Burundi, Algeria, Liberia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone, among other countries. When he left journalism in 2014, he was the head of investigations at Media24 newspapers. He has won the CNN African Journalist of the Year Award twice, the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting in the US, Italy’s Ilaria Alpi and the Nat Nakasa award for bravery and integrity in journalism.