In his book, Stealing the Future: An East German Spy Story, Max Hertzberg looks at the experiences of political activists in East Germany (GDR) who had to deal with the wrath of the notorious Stasi – then the GDR secret police – before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
The book has chilling accounts of opponents of the state who were harshly dealt with, with the Stasi harassing groups and individuals to the point they abandoned their activism.
A prime tactic was to create conflict between people through infiltration, disinformation and the spreading of rumours.
Citizens were persuaded through cash, blackmail and offers of immunity from prosecution to work with the Stasi.
To supplement covert surveillance, the Stasi created a sense of insecurity and paranoia among Germans in the GDR, tapping phones and making strange noises on telephone lines.
As a young journalist, I was privileged to visit Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, criss-crossing the country, meeting politicians, academics, leaders in the media and civil society.
I got to hear first-hand about the role of the Stasi, which sounded similar to the work carried out by the security police under apartheid.
Now, 25 years into democratic South Africa, we have an intelligence agency whose preoccupation has been meddling in politics, rather than fighting crime, stabilising the country and staving off external threats.
With such high crime levels, and gangsters having taken control of some parts of the country such as the Cape Flats, as well as corruption in government, should our intelligence community not be infiltrating groupings behind anarchy and ensuring law enforcement agencies bring crooks to book?
Should they not be deployed at our border posts to stamp out corruption among officials who have made entry to South Africa easy for illegal immigrants, some of whom are wanted criminals in their countries?
The report of the High-Level Review Panel on the State Security Agency (SSA) said there has been “political malpurposing and factionalisation of the intelligence community” over the past decade, that has led to “an almost complete disregard for the constitution, policy, legislation and other prescripts”.
Chaired by level-headed political veteran Sydney Mufamadi, the panel correctly proposed the urgent development of a national security strategy to redefine the concepts, values, policies, practices and architecture involved in a state security apparatus.
The review also recommended to government to consider the separation of the SSA into two services – a domestic and a foreign service – “with prudent delineation of scope”.
The panel recommended that President Cyril Ramaphosa instruct law enforcement agencies, oversight institutions and internal disciplinary bodies to investigate all breaches of the law and regulations in the SSA.
The overhaul of the SSA – seemingly being resisted by some rogue elements within the intelligence community – is long overdue, considering disturbing allegations that former state security minister David Mahlobo was aware of clandestine and illegal operations against his own comrades in the ANC.
Under Jacob Zuma’s watch as president, spooks were never short of money, spied on almost all cabinet members, leaders of NGOs, tripartite alliance leaders and others between 2015 and 2018.
The Stasi would have been proud of that level of snooping.