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Spy saga exposes cracks
Peter van der Merwe
Published: 08-JUN-06

Things are getting decidedly messy in South Africa’s halls of power, where different factions within the ruling African National Congress are waging a battle to the death over who will control the future direction of this party.

It hasn’t quite got to men in dark suits roaming the corridors of parliament armed with spears and traditional weapons, but there have already been several casualties of the internecine fighting. Chief among these is former spy boss Billy Masethla, who was unceremoniously axed by President Thabo Mbeki last month in a palace purge.

Masethla was one of the key figures fingered in a bizarre email hoax saga, which involved supposedly fabricated e-mail messages and chat-room exchanges between senior ANC politicians, members of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and media personalities and opposition figures.

The exchanges are supposed to be evidence of a conspiracy by a powerful cabal to destroy former deputy president Jacob Zuma and other leaders, including Masetlha and ANC Secretary General Kgalema Motlanthe.

A government-sanctioned investigation found the emails to be false, but it is understood that top members of the ANC remain deeply divided over the issue.

If anything, the so-called e-mail spy saga has highlighted the yawning chasm between President Mbeki and Motlanthe as they battle for control of the party. Mbeki says the government’s probe into the issue, which was accepted by Cabinet, is the final word. Motlanthe says more independent investigation is needed, and some ANC insiders believe the whole issue is being exploited by ‘Team Mbeki’ to impose its presidential agenda.

What seems beyond dispute is that the emails formed part of Project Avani, a top-secret National Intelligence Agency (NIA) operation that was created to monitor threats posed by the succession battle within the ANC. Quite how the emails found their way there is less clear. Why the project was being run at all is anybody’s guess.

The government investigation into the sordid affair lays the blame squarely on Masetlha, who was the driving force behind Avani. It says he was behind the faked e-mails, and subjected people to unlawful surveillance and illegal interception.

That may be so. But Masetlha says that if he is charged criminally, the president will have to resign. This suggests that he has an ace or two up his sleeve that President Mbeki is either not aware of, or is prepared to risk facing in public.

In court papers, Masetlha says he presented a report on Avani to Mbeki on August 19 last year, the day before he was suspended. It is understood that the government investigation did not see this report, which makes its finding dodgy in itself. Many believe it contained substantive evidence of a conspiracy behind the ANC succession battle.

If there was a conspiracy against Zuma, it seems to have worked. Right now the man is fighting for political survival – and his freedom - as he faces separate charges of rape and of fraud and corruption. Zuma’s backers, including the Young Communist League and the ANC Youth League, are now firmly in the Motlanthe camp, and are looking increasingly anti-Mbeki.

Zuma has since been acquitted of rape charges.

Until now, Motlanthe has been seen as a largely neutral figure. But he took a decided political risk by asking National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi to investigate the emails when they first came to light, thereby lending them some substance.

Selebi declined, but if the ANC’s investigation finds any hint that the emails are real, Mothlanthe will emerge stronger. Conversely, if the ANC confirms the government finding that they were false, it will be a severe body blow to his political aspirations.

So who are we to believe in this strange affair - the politicians or the spooks? Politicians are notorious for being economical with the truth when it suits them. Secret services are taught to lie convincingly for a living. It’s like the leopard and the fox blaming each other for killing the chickens – we know both could have done it, but if neither have blood on their paws, it’s tough to prove.

Either way, there’s dirty business happening. If the emails are true, it suggests a conspiracy against Zuma. If they are false, it would make a case for a conspiracy against Mbeki. We can only speculate while our leaders play their Byzantine games of Spy vs Spy.

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