South Africa, the 'El Dorado of Espionage'

Secret documents from the country’s State Security Agency obtained by two press outlets reveal how important South Africa has become for foreign intelligence services. The papers contain highly sensitive information.
South Africa’s intelligence service, the SSA (State Security Agency), is facing the biggest leak in its history. Hundreds of secret documents were digitally leaked to Doha-based broadcaster Al Jazeera and to the British newspaper The Guardian. Both have started publishing stories this week taken from what they call the “Spy Cables.”
The leaked files include internal briefings as well as SSA communications with foreign intelligence services including the CIA, Britain’s MI6, Israel’s Mossad as well as other agencies from the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
‘El Dorado of espionage’
Al Jazeera and The Guardian also obtained highly sensitive documents containing information on 78 foreign spies working in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, which included the operative’s photographs, addresses and mobile phone numbers. In addition, the information also revealed the names of 65 foreign intelligence agents identified by the South Africans as working undercover. This, however, was not something they will share with their audiences, the news outlets said.
The SSA was already under fire for jamming cell phone signals in parliment during a Jacob Zuma speech
“We confronted the possibility that publishing identities revealed in the cables could result in harm to potentially innocent people,” an editor’s note on Al Jazeera’s website reads. “We agreed that publishing the names of undercover agents would pose a substantial risk to potentially unwitting individuals from around the world who had associated with these agents.”
The sheer number of spies reveals how important South Africa has become in the global intelligence game. It’s a strong player in the region and is considered to be a gateway to the African continent. ‘Africa is now the El Dorado of espionage,’ a serving foreign intelligence officer told The Guardian. China is interested in the continent’s resources and is a big economic investor, The Guardian reports on the Spy Cables, whereas the US has expanded its military presence on the continent and views South Africa as a partner in the fight against Jihadists.
An embarrassment to South Africa’s security agency
The Spy Cables include stories about the US trying to meddle with African Union meetings, South Africa’s SSA suspecting China of a nuclear break-in and the strained relationship between South African and Israeli spies. In secret cables obtained by Al Jazeera, South African agents call a Mossad agent “extremely arrogant” and Mossad itself a “difficult and insistent service.”
Phillip Dewet, associate editor at the South African newspaper The Mail and Guardian, told DW that most revelations from the Spy Cables haven’t really surprised him and his colleagues. He said a lot of the information out so far just reinforced what he believed anyway: “There’s really nothing that made our eyebrows hit the ceiling just quite yet.”
Still, the Spy Cables are a huge story, not just for his paper, but also because so much pertinent information was leaked at all. “It’s not so much the contents of the documents, as that this vast trove of documents, most, if not all of which seem to come from the South African security apparatus, is now public,” Dewet said.
The enormous scope of the leak has prompted the government in Pretoria to announce a full investigation into the “purported leakage, its veracity and verification,” said the Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo.
Seems like the latest spy leaks are primarily embarassing for South Africa – Ziya Meral (@Ziya_Meral) February 24, 2015
At first glance, the Spy Cables are reminiscent of the last big leak story that hit the world: Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA. It’s hard now to imagine a world without the NSA and associates across the English speaking world using highly developed surveillance techniques to spy on citizens. The whistleblower has collected many different privacy and freedom of speech awards and the documentary “Citizenfour” about him has even won an Oscar.
But there’s a decisive difference between Snowden’s revelations and the Spy Cables. The documents leaked by Snowden focused on intelligence related to technology, or electronic signals intelligence referred to “SIGINT” in intelligence circles. The Spy Cables reveal information about agents and direct communications between spies and agency members, known as human intelligence, or “HUMINT.”
The Spy Cables markedly differ from Edward Snowden’s leaks
But the US intelligence leak has softened the blow for South Africa’s SSA at least a little, Phillip Dewet said. “If it hadn’t been for the USA’s Snowden leaks, this would’ve been even more embarrassing,” Dewet said. “Worse has happened to other countries before, so it takes the edge off it slightly.”
Bad consequences for whistleblowers?
South African politicians take the leak very seriously. The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party has urgently called for a briefing to the parliamentary joint standing committee on intelligence. Free speech activists worry that the Spy Cables could be used as a pretense to push for harsh legislation that campaigners say could have a chilling effect on whistleblowers and journalists. A DA spokesman warned of the so-called “secrecy bill,” which has long been delayed and threatens whistleblowers with prison sentences of up to 25 years.
One thing that South Africa doesn’t have to worry about – at least according to Phillip Dewet – is that foreign intelligence agencies will now cease their cooperation with the SSA because of distrust. After all, the Spy Cables also reveal how other nations rely on South Africa to help them fight terrorism, said Dewet: “Stopping the flow of intelligence information isn’t an option, because that will be to the detriment of both sides.”
Author Carla Bleiker