South Africa’s Covert Networks of Influence

Comment & Analysis

Dangerous, Covert Liaisons

By Sam Sole

Mail & Guardian, 21 December 2007

What a country. Both our president-in-waiting and our police chief separately face the prospect of corruption and racketeering charges; our previous national director of public prosecutions was accused of once being an apartheid-era spy and all but hounded out of office for pursuing the first investigation; our current national director was suspended by the president for pursuing the second; our intelligence service boss is put on trial for playing politics and accuses his political masters of doing the same; our dominant party raises R907-million in funding over five years, but won’t say where from and will not disclose the details of its R1,75-billion worth of investments.

South Africa’s recent history is hardly comprehensible without deconstructing the impact of covert networks of influence that find expression in the overlap of state intelligence, political funding and organised crime.

Consider the following description: “I observed a shadow area, a zone of contact between legality and illegality, between the licit and the criminal, between clean money and dirty money, between honest people and out-and-out crooks. It is a no man’s land dominated by a demi-monde of intermediaries of every kind, of corrupters and corrupted enjoying complete impunity for laundering money in investments which are clean, safe and profitable.”

Sound familiar? The words are those of French MP Francois d’Aubert, chairman of an Anti-Mafia Commission that investigated the pollution of the French and Italian political systems by an alliance of Italian intelligence, the Mafia and a secret political society.

The comment is quoted by Stephen Ellis, the former editor of the influential Africa Confidential, in his seminal study Africa and International Corruption: The Strange Case of South Africa and Seychelles.

Ellis argues that the Cold War “encouraged the development of relations between crime, politics and intelligence activity”, largely because “secret services and politicians who purported to be acting for the greater good of the West were prepared to tolerate or even promote politicians of dubious morality and do deals even with professional criminals, particularly in the Third World but also in the industrialised world”. In South Africa, the struggle to maintain apartheid — and to bring it down — produced a similar dynamic.

The apartheid security services set up hundreds of front companies as part of a “total strategy” of counter-revolution, pursuing sanctions busting, buying international influence and raising covert funding via trade in commodities such as ivory and rhino horn, among other illegal activities.

The liberation movement, evidence suggests, engaged in smuggling, car-theft and money laundering. It promoted individuals who are comfortable operating outside the law, some of whom were little more than gangsters.

The networks created on both sides during that struggle, and the liaisons they forged with the criminal underworld, have survived into the democratic era — and underpin much of the turmoil we have seen since 1994.

And now the exigencies of the National Democratic Revolution provide a similar justification for the same sorts of dangerous liaisons.

South Africa’s situation is not unique. As Ellis points out: “Political parties in modern advanced democracies, it seems, are permanently in search of funds in excess of what they can obtain from domestic party members or sympathisers. The competition for political power is such that they may be prepared to seek such funds from unorthodox or illicit arrangements with business, or with their own secret services, or a combination of the two.”

To some extent this dynamic is simply more overt in South Africa. That’s because our long history of covert activity, both by the apartheid state and by the liberation movements, has embedded such networks strongly in political and business culture — and because the demise of apartheid and the rise of conflict within the ANC have both generated greater than usual visibility of such networks and processes.

Let’s take the arms deal.

Internationally, numerous examples suggest that the defence trade is used almost routinely as a vehicle for covert party funding and the creation of unaccountable funds that can be used by political barons and intelligence agencies.

The recent revelation that BAE Systems paid more than $2-billion to prince Bandar bin Sultan as part of a British-Saudi arms deal is less about corruption than the creation of a giant slush fund.

In a tiny insight as to the kind of things that money was used for, we know from Bandar’s biographer that, on the instructions of prime minister Margaret Thatcher, he paid $10-million to an Italian political party to try to influence the outcome of the Italian elections.

The South African deal was little different. Significantly, it was managed by a combination of apartheid-era sanctions busters — Tony Geogiades, Llew Swan and the John Bredenkamp organisation, to name three — and ANC notables, including Thabo Mbeki, Joe Modise and Mendi Msimang.

The spoils that were to flow also emerged as a site of contestation between competing tendencies in the ANC — Mbeki’s alliance of technocrats and African nationalists facing off against the grouping of communists, militarists and ethnic entrepreneurs that coalesced around the figurehead of Jacob Zuma.

It is worth remembering that Zuma is fundamentally a political project of the Shaik family and his very political survival was partly built on Schabir Shaik’s corrupt relationship with the French arms company bidding for part of the arms deal.

On the other hand, it is also worth asking whether the political protection Jackie Selebi has enjoyed does not derive from his involvement in and knowledge of the funding of the Mbeki faction of the party.

The danger to our democracy is clear. As Ellis notes: “The networks thus established may become independent of their political instigators, creating power blocs with enduring interests which survive changes of regime in, for example, Rome, Paris or Pretoria.”

It is conflict within the ANC that has fortuitously exposed many of these networks. We dare not let them regain either respectability or anonymity.

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