When politi­cians are only as se­cure as their in­boxes

Finweek English Edition - - Contents - By Lloyd Gedye

Politi­cians have been run­ning smear cam­paigns against ri­vals for cen­turies. But as re­cent email leaks and hacks show, they have caught up with the times and are now sim­ply em­ploy­ing new tools and tac­tics in this cen­turies-old prac­tice.

the sea­son of “dirty tricks” is upon us, head­lines across South Africa screamed re­cently. Deputy Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa’s emails had been hacked and The Sun­day In­de­pen­dent be­gan print­ing al­le­ga­tions about nu­mer­ous ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs on 3 Septem­ber. On the same day, Ramaphosa ad­dressed an ANC Women’s League rally in Jo­han­nes­burg. “We should not al­low face­less provo­ca­teurs to de­ter­mine who should lead our move­ment. We are go­ing to re­new this ANC. It is not the front pages of news­pa­pers that will choose the lead­er­ship of the ANC. It is these branches,” he de­clared firmly.

“Claims have been made against me. This hap­pened through state or­gans. I think we are go­ing to see more of this. I am able to say that this is not go­ing to de­ter me. Where I have made mis­takes, I will take full re­spon­si­bil­ity […] I will not be de­terred.”

Ramaphosa’s as­sump­tion that we are go­ing to see more of this is cor­rect. It will def­i­nitely oc­cur in the buildup to the ANC na­tional elec­tive con­fer­ence in De­cem­ber. But don’t for­get that this is a global phe­nom­e­non. Email hacks are the new po­lit­i­cal tool, the con­duc­tor’s ba­ton in the shap­ing of pub­lic opinion. If you don’t be­lieve me, ask Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Over­worked South African jour­nal­ists in un­der­re­sourced news­rooms are go­ing to be pushed to be at the front of the pack as the South African po­lit­i­cal cri­sis lurches to­wards De­cem­ber. Their ed­i­tors will de­mand that they break newsagenda-set­ting sto­ries, which will no doubt be fed by po­lit­i­cal and in­tel­li­gence sources and their arse­nal of “dirty tricks”.

As jour­nal­ists fo­cus on be­ing the first to break news, de­ci­sions are go­ing to be made un­der ex­treme pres­sure and with great haste. Peo­ple are go­ing to make mis­takes, rep­u­ta­tions are go­ing to be dragged through the mud and agen­das will be served. I’m sure those who leaked the in­for­ma­tion about Ramaphosa’s al­leged af­fairs had no con­cern for the women who have be­come col­lat­eral dam­age in the process.

What’s also cu­ri­ous when it comes to politi­cians and their dirty tricks is that there has been much less out­rage about the swathe of re­cent po­lit­i­cal killings in KwaZulu-Na­tal than about Ram­phosa’s hacked emails. Ramaphosa has said that this dirty tricks war is sim­i­lar to the one waged in 2007 dur­ing the build-up to the ANC’s elec­tive con­fer­ence in Polok­wane and that the emails were il­le­gally ob­tained from his pri­vate email ac­count.

It has been re­ported that the hacked email saga is af­fect­ing Ramaphosa’s abil­ity to trust his body­guards and ANC col­leagues. Re­ports that he no longer eats food at pub­lic events for fear of be­ing poi­soned are tes­ta­ment to the sever­ity of his para­noia.

The Mail & Guardian has quoted “in­tel­li­gence sources” who al­lege that the State Se­cu­rity Agency (SSA) has a covert support unit that is tar­get­ing Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents ahead of the ANC’s elec­tive con­fer­ence. SSA has de­nied the ex­is­tence of the unit.

The M&G also re­ported that ANC and govern­ment sources al­leged that this unit was con­duct­ing il­le­gal sur­veil­lance and in­ter­cept­ing phone calls and emails of ANC politi­cians, in­clud­ing Ramaphosa. Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, hu­man set­tle­ments min­is­ter Lindiwe Sisulu, ANC trea­surer gen­eral Zweli Mkhize, min­is­ter in the pres­i­dency Jeff Radebe and higher ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter Blade Nz­i­mande are all be­ing tar­geted.

As I con­tem­plated these lat­est devel­op­ments in the South African po­lit­i­cal cri­sis, I asked my­self whether the dirty tricks cam­paign had re­ally started with the hack­ing of Ramaphosa’s emails. Isn’t it com­pletely my­opic not to see the hack­ing of the Gup­tas’ emails as part and par­cel of the same war?

Let’s leave is­sues of pub­lic in­ter­est aside for a minute; an il­le­gal hack is an il­le­gal hack. Yet de­spite the sala­cious head­lines de­tail­ing al­le­ga­tions of state cap­ture that have been ap­pear­ing for months, we are no closer to un­der­stand­ing who hacked the Gup­tas and what the hacker/hack­ers’ mo­tives were.

Any­one who be­lieves that it is un­usual for in­tel­li­gence agen­cies to play a role in pol­i­tics is ei­ther clueless about how the world works or has in­ter­est in point­ing out just one side’s com­plic­ity in the dirty tricks de­part­ment.

Politi­cians have al­ways been sus­cep­ti­ble to re­sort­ing to dirty tricks. One only has to do a lit­tle read­ing on the his­to­ries of Western in­tel­li­gence agen­cies to know that such shady deal­ings have been with us a very long time. What is new is the role that leaked emails are in­creas­ingly play­ing in po­lit­i­cal life.

Nowa­days it seems that a politi­cian is only as se­cure as their in­boxes. Many po­lit­i­cal play­ers in South Africa must lie awake at night, fret­ting about the day that their se­crets may make head­lines and they will be­come the lat­est ca­su­alty of this new tool – the email hack – in this age-old game of dirty tricks. ■ ed­i­to­rial@fin­week.co.za

Email hacks are the new po­lit­i­cal tool, the con­duc­tor’s ba­ton in the shap­ing of pub­lic opinion.

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