The secrecy to do with governing state security makes assessment of this portfolio perennially problematic. It must be judged by the visible part of the intelligence iceberg, which in this financial year is a wallowing R4-billion behemoth. What was visible this year is pretty alarming.
There were several significant intelligence failures, including the tragic debacle in the Central African Republic, where 13 South African soldiers were killed in a skirmish with rebel soldiers. Questions also remain about the South African sojourn of “White Widow” Samantha Lewthwaite, the Gupta wedding jamboree at the Waterkloof Air Force Base, and the way in which a whole range of shady characters are given access to President Jacob Zuma, from Libyan bounty hunters to German con men.
The saga of the intelligence service`s interest in the Gupta family, and the minister`s intervention therein, has never been explained. All the minister has said is that he intervened to stop “illegal activities”, which apparently included intercepting Gupta conversations without a warrant.
Given that intelligence structures are open to abuse by the powerful, it is of particular concern that the limited oversight and accountability mechanisms in place seem to be treated with disdain. As of 20 December 2013, an annual report for the intelligence service had not been provided to Parliament since the 2009-2010 financial year.
Cwele`s tendency to regard policy critics with suspicion is unfortunate, given that he has resolutely defended each new iteration of the Protection of State Information Bill notwithstanding the fact that it has undergone profound changes driven by those critics.
His participation in ill-advised attempts to throw up a barrier of secrecy around the fallout from the security upgrade at Zuma`s Nkandla homestead is problematic. The tendency to look for short-cut security solutions to political problems is of potential concern, especially given that the minister has signalled that protest action, specifically violent protests, is to enjoy greater attention by the intelligence services.
On the plus side, the minister has finally made new permanent appointments to the leadership of the State Security Agency and has promised a public process to define a new national security policy for the country.