Post-Sona blues: five notes about Parliament’s security situation

    Between the signal jamming and the forced removal of the EFF from the House, the State of the Nation Address (Sona) on Thursday has brought into sharp focus the growing trend of the securocrats’ involvement in Parliament. MURRAY HUNTER outlines a few points South Africans shouldn’t lose sight of.

    1. Thursday’s “security measures” are the new normal
    Parliament wants to assure us that the kind of “security” that we saw on Thursday is here to stay. “Improved security at Parliament will continue – not only for special events but for the general functioning of the national legislature,” reads a statement issued by Parliament on Friday. Forgive us if we’re not feeling reassured.

    2. Parliament is not giving straight answers
    This is an obvious point but it’s worth exploring in more detail. Few people who were in the press gallery have any doubt that there was use of a cellphone jammer in Parliament. People even photographed what appeared to be the device itself.

    There were several tacit acknowledgments of this on Thursday – when the signal came back on, Speaker Baleka Mbete even said: “The issue of the scrambling has been unscrambled.” But by Friday afternoon Parliament itself was referring to vague “problems with mobile-phone connectivity”, as if it may have been a mere technical problem. The secretary of Parliament, Gengezi Mgidlana, has been tasked with investigating this mysterious problem. However, the secretary of Parliament is responding to this crisis more like a political spin doctor than an impartial civil servant (which is what he is meant to be). In a radio interview Mgidlana spent nearly six minutes refusing to confirm or deny that the white-shirt security were actually police officers. (In case you were wondering, yes – they were.) What kind of message does it send when senior Parliamentary administrators are actively spinning in this way? In truth the public has been given little reason to trust the official information coming out of Parliament right now. Don’t forget: Mgidlana was also tasked with investigating the “mysterious” cutting of the feed in November 2014, when police were called in to remove a rowdy EFF member. If this investigation were ever conducted or concluded, no public announcement has been made.

    3. Cellphone jamming is still illegal – but Icasa has muddied the waters Since 2002 the Independent Communication Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has maintained that signal jamming is illegal – even for our security cluster. Icasa issued a statement on Friday morning maintaining that jamming is still illegal, but it then contradicted itself, stating: “The national security cluster departments may, where supported by relevant security legislation, deploy the use of jammers in relation to, amongst others, state security functions.” However, as far as we know, there is no such security law that supports the use of jammers. Icasa spokesperson, Paseka Maleka, confirmed to me via telephone that, to his knowledge there is no such law. He added that if the State Security Authority (SSA) wanted to jam signals they should make sure there’s a law. So jamming is STILL illegal, even for security bodies.

    4. It is virtually certain that state security was behind the (illegal) use of jammers For starters, several eyewitness accounts note that the signal returned immediately after state security minister David Mahlobo left the chamber (shortly after receiving a written note from deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa). This is extremely sensitive technology – this appears to be its first known use in South Africa, but internationally it is mainly used by the military during invasions and by repressive governments to shut down cellphone access during protests and civil unrest. It beggars belief that this technology would have been acquired or installed without the involvement of the SSA. And, of course, there is the SSA’s evasive response to the direct question:

    5. Parliament’s new security procedures remain secret
    At the heart of this is a serious secrecy problem. Parliament has adopted new and much stronger “security” measures, which appear to have been overseen by the security cluster. These procedures remain secret: they were never formally announced, debated, or adopted by the National Assembly. No office bearer will discuss them. So, aside from the fact that these security measures appear to be extremely heavy-handed and undemocratic, there is also the problem that nobody seems to know what they are – not even MPs.

    When a legion of what appear to be cocktail-waiters come storming into the National Assembly to drag MPs away, the entire nation is in the dark as to who they are, what plan they are meant to be following, and who they answer to. We are in the dark as to whether the illegal use of cellphone jammers is part of the official plan or an action by a rogue element.

    It is clear that the securocrats are deeply involved – but we are left to guess to what extent Parliament as an institution has retained (or even fought to retain) any autonomy. On reflection, it becomes difficult to trust the information that comes out of Parliament, because there has never been greater confusion over who exactly controls it.

    So now what?
    The untethered involvement of securocrats in Parliamentary process should be deeply worrying to all democrats – as should their broader involvement in public life outside of Parliament.

    In Parliament, we can certainly worry about a cycle of violence. Parliament, under Speaker Baleka Mbete and with the assistance of state-security structures, has adopted harsh administrative measures to deal with what is essentially a political problem. The EFF is certain to respond with continued disruptions; the speaker is certain to respond with the self-same force that we saw on Thursday – and possibly add new measures to boot.

    The secretive and mendacious approach by all office-bearers is completely unsustainable: if anything this securocratic approach is a flashpoint for greater conflict.

    Perhaps I am naive, but I believe it is possible to insulate Parliament now from the worst effects of the securocrats’ involvement. Doing so requires Parliament to open itself completely to scrutiny on all the issues above. And that requires the ANC in Parliament to recognise that in the long term it has as much to lose as anyone else from involving the securocrats.

    If these steps are taken, it is possible that the ANC can create the space to resolve the most immediate political crisis that is causing all of this (you-know-who and his need to pay back the you-know-what.) If they are successful, then they – and we – can start working on the hard stuff. I am not hopeful that they will do it, but I believe it can be done.

    20140614_124245Murray Hunter is a researcher on secrecy and spokesperson for the Right2Know Campaign​.

    – Featured image: By Ossewa via WikiMedia Commons.