Heart of Darkness: International Intelligence Agencies Eye South Africa


by Michelle Bovée

In the eyes of the West, Africa is in many ways still the Dark Continent, full of mystery and vast, unexplored territory.  As Jon Stewart deftly pointed out in a sketch with Senior International Correspondent Trevor Noah, popular perception of Africa is often warped, with the continent seen as little more than an endless stretch of poverty, violence, and Ebola, punctuated by lions.  As recently leaked documents reveal, however, intelligence agencies have long seen Africa in a different light: as the “El Dorado of espionage.”  Various countries, including the US, the UK, and India, have been sending spies to infiltrate the region, particularly South Africa, to influence policy and monitor internal activities.

That international intelligence agencies are keenly interested in goings-on in Africa, especially South Africa, one of the rising BRICS, should hardly come as a surprise.  The continent is rich in resources, for one, including a tenth of global oil reserves, a third of global mineral reserves, and two-thirds of the planet’s diamonds.  Additionally, China has been a heavy investor in many projects across Africa, from financing the reinvigoration of Sudan’s Nile Train to building a uranium mine in Namibia; in 2013 alone, it is estimated that China funneled around $200 billion into the continent, which naturally has been of interest to the US as the two nations vie for global influence.

What is surprising, though, is the extent to which these intelligence agencies have been manipulating South African affairs.  One of the documents, for example, shows that while South African intelligence agents with the State Security Agency (SSA) did not see Iran as a threat, they were convinced by US agents to surveil suspected Iranian agents.  Another states that in 2012 an SSA agent was approached and asked to connect the US to Hamas, while yet another implicates Chinese intelligence agents in a nuclear break-in.  The biggest revelation of all, though, comes not from the content of the leaked cables—double-agents, tricks, and cover-ups are the bread and butter of espionage, after all, and Snowden’s NSA documents have already raised awareness of global surveillance—but from the fact that these documents were focused on human intelligence.

Human intelligence refers to information collected from human sources, as opposed to the impersonal digital surveillance and data mining activities that have been so prominent in the news since Snowden.  In the midst of concerns about cyber terrorism, hacking, and metadata, it is almost refreshing to see that good old fashioned person-to-person, spy-vs-spy espionage is still a valued technique within the international community.  And is there any alternative?  Secretive intelligence gathering agencies play a vital role in national security, and conducting foreign policy without them would be nearly impossible.  It is only shocking when the extent of their reach is revealed.  Each leak draws international attention to a specific country or intelligence agency—in this case South Africa and the SSA—but once the furor dies down it is easy to forget that the global intelligence machine will continue to tick quietly in the background.  South Africa’s situation is hardly unique, though it does prove that human intelligence is still paramount, and this leak is unlikely to permanently damage, or even temporarily hinder, clandestine activity in the region.

Photo: Flickr/Umer Malik/Altered

Michelle Bovée is an Account Executive at a business development firm in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area and a graduate of the London School of Economics MSc International Relations program. She is a staff writer forCharged Affairs, where her focus areas include current events and international economics.