YONELA DIKO: Demystify state security to build public trust

OPINION

The most important duty of any president is the protection of citizens. It is one singular task that no president can afford to fail. In many ways, citizens limit their rights and freedoms in exchange for order and protection by the state. A president who does not obsess about the security of his citizens as a constant and even a chronic preoccupation can lead to lapses and grave consequences.

The president depends on his intelligence apparatus, who must collect critical information and help the president formulate policy, strategic responses and quick interventions to protect the citizenry.

This is particularly important today when threats are largely no longer other nations and their military but more the diffused and stateless and many times, in one's own backyard.

It is therefore important that the people employed in the intelligence department have specialised knowledge in, among other things, terrorism, information infrastructure attacks, counterintelligence and even trafficking.

The failure of our intelligence apparatus to detect and prevent the July unrest and the subsequent lapses resulting in such things as burning of Parliament and military bases as well as theft of huge ammo in secured locations speak to a wholly inadequate intelligence infrastructure and inadequately equipped personnel and leave all of us vulnerable and the President looking weak.

Since in the early 2000s, when then minister of intelligence Lindiwe Sisulu along with her director-general Vusi Mavimbela decided to expand the intelligence agency and give it a broad mandate that included economic and socio-economic threats, the Farm has metastasised both in resource allocation and personnel but surprisingly has become even more ineffective. Essentially we have more muscle but little intelligence.

The consequences of a big organisation is that it can produce information all on its own and be pleased with itself without any contribution from outside, resulting in internal delusions about its own grasp of what threatens the country. Unfortunately, such an organisation always gets a rude awakening when the country gets hit as we have witnessed over the past year.

RETHINKING STATE SECURITY

The first glaring problem with our state security, and this may be overstated because of the mystery that surrounds it, is the lack of decentralisation, down to the local government and even community level. It will not be Zizi Kodwa or Mondli Gungubele sitting outside Pretoria who will detect the ground-up threat that may emerge from local discontent and catch on fire into a national crisis. Who then is watching the threats to the state at a local level, existing with the people, of the people; in order to protect the very people against influential instigators, who may for example, trigger a national xenophobic crisis.

The second challenge, tied to the first, is that the public is not fully educated about their role in state security. It is true that 80% of the information about threats to the country comes from the people, in an open fashion, without any secrecy or threats to their own lives. The very thing that concerns a member of the public about their own community, shared with the State, may go on to prevent a much larger threat emanating from a smaller threat that began formulating in an unassuming way.

This means our state security needs a huge reconfiguration that acknowledges that much of its work is open and known to the public. It has been proven that where the public knows what its government is doing, there are higher levels of trust. Our state security, therefore, needs new directorates within the larger apparatus, which have no secrecy about them, no underground recruitment, just plain skilled and capable personnel, political and economic specialists, mining experts, geologists, with all sectors that have a potential to bring our country to its knees if ever attacked fully represented.

UNPACKING THE FAILURES OF THE JULY RIOTS

The commission of enquiry into the failures of the law enforcement agencies in the July riots has not released its report yet but one can postulate the key lapses that resulted in such a poor showing of both our intelligence agencies and police force in nipping the riots in the bud before they metastasised into an uncontrollable chain reaction that threatens to move from one province to another.

Intelligence is a task of all departments and private entities but without a coordinating center that collects and collates the information and makes sense of what is looming, we will get hit again.

One of the great concerns for me in most of our departments is how little they generate useful information. This explains why most governments are not their own great marketers. There is just no information generation capacity. Departments seem to move from one day to the next trying to keep their principals busy.

The ability to generate useful information and share it with a coordinating centre in the State Security Agency is the key mechanism of detecting and preventing a security threat.

For example, the Department of Communication under Khumbudzo Ntshavheni should be able to know who are the social media trusted influencers who may be leveraged for positive narratives but must also know who are the agitators and instigators who have the power to move widely negative narratives. The people who burnt strategic infrastructure in July must have done preparations before. Did they express any of their intentions on social media? Where did these instigators go and how did they move? Is the Department of Transport under Fikile Mbalula able to share information on these select people in how they moved across the country? These people must have bought huge amounts of petroleum products, if not explosives. It may be that the Department of Trade and Industry under Patel or Stella Ndabeni’s Department of Small Business Development could provide information on where they transacted and what they bought. There is no way people planning to attack our country could not have been captured in the long value chain as they prepared for their attack.

Only if we had a functional department that values information generation could we nip these attacks in the bud somewhere in the value chain before the actual attack.

EMERGING POLITICAL THREATS

One of the clear directorates that are needed within the SSA is one that looks specifically at emerging political threats.

While the African National Congress, through the foresight of its former president Thabo Mbeki may have predicted in 1994 that new ultra leftwing organisations will emerge, accusing the very pro-left organisation that is the ANC of having been co-opted by the bourgeoisie reformists and abandoning the plight of the poor, no one would have imagined that this would actually pose a security threat to the public.

With the emergence of the EFF and now the RET faction with their exaggerated sense of grievance and their inability to win political power, a sober intelligence apparatus could have anticipated violence as their only option.

Once the EFF started bringing chaos to Parliament, state security was aware of it. What was needed was a study into what the Parliament rebellion against order and rules mean for the ordinary citizens out there drowning in one frustration or the other. It is this defiance that has resulted in such boldness and lawlessness of land invasions and destructions of retails shops with a sense of impunity. This is economic sabotage and has implications on future investments in the country, something that should be a priority for state security.

The political factions within the ruling party itself have become a threat to state security and despite the obvious conflict, with heads of SSA belonging to one faction or the other, the operational mandate of the apparatus must never be subject to such factions but must push back at any threat to the state infrastructure, private property and the people.

CONCLUSION

Since the mid-2000s into Polokwane conference, when state security found itself at the centre of political factions, into the administration that followed, there has been an erosion of talent at the SSA and the fact that for a long time it was led by an acting director-general shows this gap in the most skilled and specialised personnel. One hopes that Ramaphosa has corrected this.

The President must decentralise state security and resource the local sphere and provinces so that threats are picked up and thwarted early before they metastasise into something uncontrollable.

There must be an active sharing of information by departments that is anchored by an even more active generation and collating of information to help decision-makers, especially the President, to make informed and effective decisions. The SSA needs to be a centre of coordinating that Information.

Most importantly, SSA must be demystified and opened so that the public knows what it is doing and how citizens can help. The land is too vast, the threats too many and too diverse for any one entity to handle. This needs participation by ordinary citizens, private businesses and civil society as active and serious partners in identifying threats to our communities and to our country.

Yonela Diko is the former spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. You can follow him on Twitter: @yonela_diko