When politicians are only as secure as their inboxes
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. ■ firstname.lastname@example.org
Email hacks are the new political tool, the conductor’s baton in the shaping of public opinion.