SA minister latest victim in bugging mystery

Spy scandal: Security agency disowns 'amateurish' snooping
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The Independent Online


Someone is bugging, tracking and, in general, snooping on very important people in South Africa.

Over the past few weeks, the country has been rocked by reports that government ministers have been tracked and senior police officers' homes and offices bugged, James Bond-style, with electronic devices attached to their telephones, ceilings and cars.

In the latest revelation, the Minister for Land Affairs, Derek Hanekom, announced this week that a sophisticated tracking device had been found in his official car in November. For weeks he kept the thin metal transmitting device in the car ashtray, thinking it was an anti-theft device. After an aide expressed concern he took it to the police, who identified it as a chip capable of transmitting the minister's movements to airborne surveillance teams.

The fact a government minister and top police officials, including provincial police commissioners, were being spied on is beyond doubt. The questions are, who is responsible, and why?

Most fingers have been pointed at the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), the new internal security body whose activities are under investigation by a judicial commission of inquiry, and parliament's intelligence committee. The NIA denies it was responsible for bugging the police and tracking Mr Hanekom, saying: "We ... would like to think that we, when necessary, do it more professionally than these obviously amateurish efforts."

A spokesman, Willem Theron, dismissed the reportsas the machinations of rival security organisations who want to discredit the agency. "The whole thing sounds strange to us. Our stated policy is that we do not spy on political parties' officials," he said.

Doubts linger about the NIA denials. Perhaps the most damaging allegations against the NIA were made at the weekend by a former municipal official. Werner van Greunen, a former secretary to a mayor north of Johannesburg, said he was hired by the NIA with the knowledge of the Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki, to spy on National Party members in local government and report on "unconstitutional activities which threatened the government".

Among those he said he was ordered to spy on were Butch Breytenbach, brother of a former defence minister, Wynand Breytenbach. Mr van Greunen said his targets were members of the the Broederbond, the semi-secret conservative society of Afrikaner intellectuals.

Mr Mbeki's staff denied all knowledge of spying operations involving Mr van Greunen. They said he approached the Vice-President volunteering information "which implicated senior government officials in criminal conduct". Because of the serious nature of the allegations, Mr Mbeki and the Safety and Security Minister, Sydney Mufamadi, met Mr van Greunen. But he had failed to back his claims with evidence.

Mr van Greunen has failed to provide proof to support his claims. There are suggestions he concocted the story to deflect attention from an investigation into financial irregularities.

Mr van Greunen insists he was a spy and Mr Mbeki and Mr Mufamadi were aware of his activities. "I am quite confident I have spoken the truth and that all the allegations made in my affidavit [to the police] can be substantiated," he said.

Whether or not the NIA was asked to spy on National Party members, there is evidence of unexplained surveillance.

Mark Shaw, an intelligence expert at the South African Institute for Defence Policy, said: "The only thing you can say for sure is that these reports will form the first test of the government's commitment to oversight of intelligence activities."