The suspension of three top National Intelligence Agency officials last week highlights the disturbing prospect of South African security agencies being drawn in to the conflict within the tripartite alliance about the prosecution of former deputy-president Jacob Zuma.
Coming in the wake of the Khampepe Commission hearings, where both the NIA and South African Police Service were pitted against the Scorpions, these events also reinforce a perception of South African security agencies plagued by rivalries and deep internal conflicts.
The Khampepe Commission was set up by President Thabo Mkeki earlier this year to examine questions relating to the mandate and location of the Scorpions.
In examining the conflict between the Scorpions and the SAPS which manifested at the Commission hearings, it is important to remember that the Scorpions were set up only in 1999. Prior to the creation of the Scorpions, part of South Africa's colonial and authoritarian legacy was a highly centralised policing system in terms of which the South African Police Service monopolised the national crime fighting terrain.
The SAPS experienced the emergence of the Scorpions as an intrusion and it is not surprising that this lead to inter-agency rivalry and jealousy. This would have been reinforced by the fact that the Scorpions quickly became favourites with the public and sections of the media.
The failure of the Justice Ministry to set in place the coordinating committee provided for in legislation meant that there was also no effective channel for resolving the conflict between the two bodies.
The conflict has no doubt taken a toll on the agencies concerned, but may be seen as a necessary part of the development of the more diverse type of policing system which is appropriate to a democracy.
Without knowing what recommendations may be made by the Khampepe Commission it is still possible to see the conflict between the SAPS and Scorpions as a healthy sign. But the same cannot be said of indications that the conflict within the tripartite alliance is also beginning to impact on the security agencies.
Organisational rivalry may also have impacted on the relationships between the Scorpions and NIA, but the latest developments suggest that the attack on the Scorpions by NIA Director-General Billy Masetlha, at the Khampepe hearing, might have been more directly related to the Scorpions role in prosecuting Zuma.
At the Khampepe commission the Scorpions were not only opposed by the SAPS and attacked by Masetlha, but also repudiated in a submission made on behalf of the Minister of Justice, Brigitte Mabandla, under whose jurisdiction they fall.
This was interpreted by some as proof that senior members of the ANC had decided to abandon the Scorpions, as a means of pacifying sections of the tripartite alliance who are hostile to the Scorpions and National Prosecuting Authority, for the prosecution of Zuma as well as other popular ANC members for fraudulent or corrupt activities.
Whether such a decision had in fact been made was however cast into doubt shortly afterwards when the Minister of Intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, openly attacked Masetlha, and expressed his support for the continued existence of the Scorpions.
Kasrils' denunciation of Masethla's input at the Commission has now been followed by the announcement that Masethla, and two other senior NIA officials, have been suspended for allegedly authorising an illegal surveillance operation against businessman Saki Maczoma, who is seen to be aligned with Thabo Mbeki.
Rather than highlighting tensions between different state agencies, the latest developments appear to highlight differences within the NIA, apparently related to the divided loyalties of members in relation to the Zuma matter.
If rather than focusing on state security, these NIA members have been involved in activities designed to promote factional interests, it is appropriate that they be suspended, and may be appropriate that they resign their positions in the NIA. Section 199(7) of the Constitution forbids members of the security services from furthering or prejudicing political party interests.
The Zuma affair represents a serious crisis for the ANC and its allies and for South Africa as whole. In so far as it serves to drain the energies of senior state officials it probably undermines the functioning of government, but it has thus far has remained with the domain of democratic politics. It is only in so far as it may lead to violence or the direct disruption of the activities of state institutions that it may be regarded as an issue of state security.
In so far as there is a risk of this kind the matter may therefore be said to be of concern to the NIA, and other security agencies. But if they are to concern themselves with it then it is of paramount importance that they adhere strictly to standards of political neutrality, and refrain from taking sides in the current political battle.
David Bruce is a Senior Researcher in the Criminal Justice Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in Business Day, 26 October 2005.