It’s a spy versus spy story, the likes of which even the best crime novelists would struggle to craft. 

Four witnesses – two of them anonymous – at the state capture commission of inquiry this week exposed the rot at the heart of the State Security Agency (SSA).

A quick recap: the SSA is supposed to keep the country safe against foreign and domestic threats, much like the CIA in the US. But it has been corrupted, like so many intelligence agencies everywhere, to serve politicians.

Under apartheid, the country’s intelligence agencies were used to target anti-apartheid activists, torturing and murdering to entrench the system. The politicisation of intelligence gathering should have ended in 1994. Clearly, it did not – although President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration has done a lot to try to clean up the SSA.

This week we learned that, under former President Jacob Zuma, the SSA essentially became a private security and publicity machine for Zuma and his cronies. The SSA targeted civil society, the media and Zuma’s enemies. Plus it wasted a staggering amount of money – the agency allegedly cannot account for R9 billion worth of assets. It has denied this.

Millions were spent making sure Zuma’s food wasn’t poisoned (for real ) and providing his allies with security. Former state security minister David Mahlobo is still a member of Ramaphosa’s cabinet.

Lawyers showed how Iqbal Survé’s Africa News Agency (ANA) allegedly received R20 million from SSA to publish pro-government and pro-Zuma coverage. ANA denied that it was an SSA front – but in the same breath, said the organisation was contracted to provide “positive stories about SA and the SA government”.

It is time to rein in the spies once and for all. The commission is doing some of that work, as transparency around the SSA is desperately needed. It’s important. In this game of spy versus spy (or is that spies versus the people?), it’s the country that loses. 

This article was first published in The Wrap here.

Simplifying the news is at the heart of explain. To get more like this, sign up to our weekly news updates here.