Fraser’s fight for cold facts

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New correctional services director-general Arthur Fraser in Parliament on Thursday. PHOTO: Chantall Presence/ANA

A new parliament, a new president and a new promise. These are the direct results of the democratic elections held earlier this month. The new legislature and new executive, democracy once again affords us the opportunity to correct the errors of the past and address those issues which need attention.

It is probably with this in mind that before the elections former President Thabo Mbeki could point out the lingering legacy of apartheid twenty five years into democracy. While this legacy may well pertain to racialised poverty, unemployment and inequality that exists within our country, the legacy of apartheid could also exist within the state. We must understand this if we were to move forward as a country. 

Since the days of Émile Durkheim, especially in his treatise The Rules of Sociological Method, the study of institutions has been core to the social sciences. In this work, Durkheim defined sociology as the “science of institutions, their genesis and their functioning”. More recently, South Africa had the privilege of hosting the American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama. In his book, Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama reminds us that in order to understand the current political economy within a particular country, society or organ, one has to investigate the political history of that country, society or organ.

Put differently, the historical development of institutions, he asserts, is indispensable in appreciating any current political order and the future trajectory of that order. At the same time, Fukuyama goes on to point out, in the  same book, that institutions may be understood as ‘rules of the game’ which are “…stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour…” and which persist “…beyond individual leaders …”. They are ‘persistent rules which shape, limit and channel human behaviour…”.

As a result, it may be useful to consider two elements of institutions. Firstly, they may be either be formal or informal. For example, while the law, as a formal institution, protects sexual orientation, homophobia, an informal institution, persists. Secondly, their strength or test comes in their longevity. As a result, according to Fukuyama, in order to understand institutions, the bulwark of the social sciences, one cannot ignore history.

If Arthur Fraser, the former head of the State Security Agency, is flabbergasted that two former intelligence professionals could be party to producing such a High Level Review/Advisory Panel on the State Security Agency, then as an academic one joins him in being flabbergasted that there were no less than five academics, all with a social sciences background, that completely ignored the idea of institutions in their Report.    

In his Response to the High-Level Review Panel’s Report on the State Security Agency, Fraser pokes holes into the methodological as well as conceptual framework on which the Report is based. One is distressed to think that senior academics could have accounted for half the Panel’s membership.

Take for example the chapter on the politicisation of state security. An incontestable illustration of this would be former top apartheid spy, Neil Barnard, in his books, Secret Revolution: Memoirs of a Spy Boss and Peaceful Revolution: Inside the War Room at the Negotiations, explaining explicitly the role played by the National Intelligence Service not only in undergirding the apartheid project at home and its propaganda abroad but also ultimately in the transition to democracy. Anyone who has a cursory understanding of the history of the transition would know the political role played by the NIS and how utterly politicised it was. 

Consequently, the politicisation of the intelligence services in South Africa today, if it were to exist as an institution, albeit informally, did not come about in 2005 as the High Level Report wishes to portray. This institutionalisation of the politicisation of the service would have come about during the days of the apartheid regime and, as Fraser correctly points out, would have perpetuated itself primarily through the structures and agents, pun intended, brought from the old regime into the democratic dispensation. 

Fraser is correct when he says that this High Level Panel has done our country a high level of disservice. They, especially the five academics in their number, follow the academics who authored the document Betrayal of the Promise: How South Africa is Being Stolen, who suggested that state capture and the shadow state are institutions which only emerged during the days of the Guptas.  

A response to that document was written titled: In Defence of the Academic – State Capture and the Failure to Deconstruct Apartheid’s Shadow State in which this author warned academics of presenting research primarily based on hearsay, media reports and secondary research. Even more so, this author cautioned academics getting into factional battles in the governing party and pursuing research projects which fundamentally lack the rigorous tests of a solid conceptual foundation, which then sadly prove to be ahistorical, and a credible methodological framework. Fraser’s criticisms of the High Level Report mirror these warnings. 

The High Level Panel, with its five academics, was ahistorical in their approach and as a result one cannot disagree with Fraser when he suggests that, like the Betrayal academics, these academics were also party to a factional battle within the ANC.

On 8 May 2019, South Africa was given a new chance. South Africans went to the polls to give a new government, a new mandate to try and correct the legacy of apartheid still lingering within our land. The new President of the Republic must therefore seize the opportunity to interrogate this High Level Report and judge whether it passes the test of the basic pillars of social science. If not, he must give South Africa another chance and seek an alternative way to address the issues within our security cluster. 


Wesley Seale taught South African politics at Rhodes University and is currently pursuing his PhD in China.