South Africa’s Intelligence Services - A Transition from Apartheid to Democracy

Miss Singh
10 min readFeb 21, 2021
F.W. de Klerk shakes hands with Nelson Mandela. The two men made history by ending apartheid. Image courtesy: Wikimedia


This article explores the fundamental contrasts between South Africa’s intelligence agencies before and after the transition to democracy. The former was under the control of the Afrikaner National Party during the implementation of apartheid in 1948, while the latter was led by the African National Congress after the democratic shift in 1994. This paper emphasizes the divergence in the intelligence agendas of these two governments: one aimed at upholding white minority rule, while the other focused on achieving majority representation within a multi-racial democratic system. Additionally, the article highlights the new objectives and frameworks put in place for the reformation of the country’s intelligence services after apartheid.

The Early Beginnings of South Africa’s Intelligence Architecture

Before the formation of the South African union in 1910, the country’s intelligence structure was influenced by British colonial policing practices aimed at controlling the domestic environment. While a special police branch was established in the 1930's for domestic intelligence gathering, a comprehensive security framework did not materialize until the early 1960s with the creation of the Republican Intelligence (RI).

The RI evolved into the Bureau of State Security (BFSS) in 1969, and in 1978, it was rebranded as the Department of National Security (DNS). In 1979, this agency transformed into the National Intelligence Service (NIS), which was dissolved in 1995. Following the transition to democracy, a new intelligence system was established with heightened oversight, resulting in the creation of two new agencies: the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and the South African Secret Service (SASS). The intelligence apparatus, known as BOSS to the outside world, underwent numerous name changes during this period of development until 1995.

Underlying Requirements of the Intelligence Services During Apartheid

Since the emergence of early states, intelligence has been utilized to achieve diverse objectives, contingent on the “nature and character of the state.” Mark Lowenthal, in his book Intelligence: from Secrets to Policy (2003), contends that intelligence “serves and is subservient to policy.” He characterizes the intelligence process as a routine function of government, which may operate effectively or ineffectively. In South Africa’s case, the persistent reconfiguration of intelligence services and policies against black South Africans were explicitly designed to counter several national liberation movements since the intelligence services’ primary role was to safeguard white minority interests.

Starting in the 1950s, anti-apartheid coalitions proliferated across South Africa, prompting the intelligence and security services to focus primarily on undermining any efforts that sustained and reinforced political organization against the Apartheid regime. This included infiltrating workers’ unions, propagating political messages via the radio, and cultivating a team of journalists to work for local anti-apartheid newspapers. One journalist, for instance, worked for both the intelligence agencies and the police, passing along information that would lead to raids on the homes and meeting places of interracial couples, who were prohibited in South Africa, the so-called “land of racial purity.” This journalist’s work established a unique arrangement wherein they reported stories in tandem with intelligence agencies, thereby gaining access to the upper echelons of the government by providing locally sourced information. The South African intelligence apparatus found it beneficial to apply the principles of MICE, recruiting agents (in this case, the journalist) who were locals with access and already embedded within the system.

Targeting State Opponents- Using Assassination as a Tool of State Policy

Keith Gottschalk, a South African political scientist and anti-apartheid advocate, notes that during the 1960s, while the African National Congress and various Black Nationalist movements were advocating nonviolent confrontation based on Gandhian principles, underground guerrilla cells began targeting the Afrikaner establishment. As a result, assassinating opponents of the National Party was developed as a tool of state policy in South Africa, leading to what Gottschalk describes as “murder becoming a form of national security management.”

BOSS, the South African Police Security Branch, and the South African Defense Forces supported and instigated the use of death squads, both within and outside of the security forces. This resulted in the assassination of numerous anti-apartheid activists, and legalized force was used to suppress protests. These units were authorized to kill unarmed civilians, including their own family members who attempted to organize legal defense against the assassinations.

White sympathizers, including those known as radicals and liberals, were also subjected to intimidation tactics such as firebombing, vandalism, and attempted murder. In 1976, during the Soweto Revolt, which was mainly led by high school students and part of the larger nationalist movement, the Joint Intelligence Structure targeted the revolt and recommended a policy of physically eliminating the student leaders by restricting them and keeping them away from circulation.

One of the most infamous death squads was a group within BOSS called the Z Squad. The first known assassination attempt by the Z Squad was carried out in the UK and made to look like a fatal fall from a high rise building. They also attempted to assassinate Onkgopotse Abram Tiro, a leader of the South African Students’ Organization (SASO), in 1974 by sending him a parcel bomb which killed him near Gaborone, Botswana.

Joe Gqabi, a member of the African National Congress and also a photographer and reporter, was shot dead in front of his residence in 1978. The New York Times described Gqabi as a leader of the nationalist guerrilla movement and reported on Robert Mugabe’s statement, in which he accused the South African government of carrying out the assassination “as part of a grand design to crush opposition at home and abroad to its racial policies.”

The South African Defense Forces had a specialized unit called the Electronic Magnetic Logistical Component that was responsible for building explosive devices, which were concealed in various objects such as briefcases, cars, boxes, radios, TV’s, and letters. Assassination missions were also outsourced to private groups and individuals. The existence of these hit squads was revealed in 1989 when Butana Nofemela, a black security-police assassin, confessed to being part of a formal political assassination group after his colleagues turned on him. In an interview with the South African Daily Mail, he implicated a secret police unit that carried out killings. Nofemela admitted to several assassinations, including that of human rights lawyer Griffiths Mxenge in 1981.

South Africa Against the Global Anti-Communist Paradigm of the Cold War: Covert Intelligence Relationships with International Partners and Ambitions of Nuclear Power

While under the Apartheid regime, the African National Congress (ANC) formed an alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP), the ruling government was strongly opposed to communism. Christopher Gauger (2017) has suggested that despite their shared opposition to the National Party, the two groups had different aims and long-term objectives. According to Gauger, while ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela were dedicated to nationalist goals, the SACP sought to establish a socialist workers’ state.

During this period, the National Party received intelligence and ideological support from various countries, such as the United States, Great Britain, Israel, and West Germany, who viewed their relationship as a means of countering communist expansion. In contrast, the Soviet Union and China purported to support national liberation movements in various African countries. One instance of this was Cuba’s involvement in Angola in 1975, in which a communist government offered substantial aid to the first post-colonial administration.

During this period, investigative journalist Seymore Hersh revealed a surprising development that Israel had promised to provide nuclear weapons to South Africa, which was later confirmed by former high-level South African naval officer Dieter Gerhardt, who was also a Soviet spy. Gerhardt stated that South Africa began seeking an independent nuclear option in 1964, likely as a suitable deterrent against a perceived Communist threat after the overthrow of colonial governments in Angola and Mozambique. The South African government saw the black liberation movements as being controlled by Moscow and did not regard them as independent or legitimate.

In 1967, the United States and South Africa entered into a bilateral agreement to promote the civilian use of nuclear energy, which resulted in the construction of the South African Fundamental Atomic Research Installation (SAFARI-1), a nuclear research reactor near Pretoria. However, increased scrutiny from the US Congress and guerrilla warfare against apartheid likely fueled South Africa’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons capability. Despite facing international condemnation, sanctions, and exclusion from various organizations, the South African government became a nuclear power by 1980.

With continuous pressure from the international community and the United Nations, and the prospect of losing power, in 1989 President De Klerk decided to destroy the South African nuclear arsenal and signed the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Receiving significant praise, this move earned De Klerk the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. The dismantlement of the nuclear program was verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and South Africa became the first and only country to have successfully developed and then voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons program. This move also helped to improve South Africa’s standing in the international community and paved the way for a peaceful transition towards democracy.

Reform of the Intelligence Services- Key Differences Post-Apartheid

After the transition to democracy in 1994, South African intelligence agencies were no longer allowed to exclusively target liberation movements and instead shifted their focus towards a broader range of threats to the state and society. As a result, several reforms were implemented in the intelligence structure, including the establishment of oversight mechanisms to increase transparency and accountability. These mechanisms include the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and the Office of the Inspector General.

Given the complexity of maintaining democratic control over the intelligence sector, it is essential to assess the efforts of the South African intelligence community. Furthermore, there is a perception that the government relies on intelligence agencies to monitor institutions, opposition parties, the media, and the judiciary, which adds to the difficulty of the task.

The introduction of the White Paper on Intelligence in 1994 aimed to reshape and transform South Africa’s intelligence services. Previously, security policy was determined by a minority government, but the new majority government sought to redefine the mission and establish a new culture of intelligence. According to the White Paper on Intelligence, intelligence refers to the product obtained through the collection, evaluation, analysis, integration, and interpretation of all available information that supports policy and decision-making processes related to the national goals of stability, security, and development.

Modern intelligence can thus be described as “organized policy related information,” including secret information.

How far have the reforms reorganized the dispensation of the intelligence services?

When the National Intelligence Service (NIS) dissolved, Nelson Mandela quickly took control of the intelligence and security functions, appointing ANC personnel to all ministerial positions. One of the most significant changes was the decision to divide the centralized national civilian intelligence organization into two separate entities: The National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and the South African Secret Service (SASS). The NIA’s mission is to conduct security intelligence within South Africa’s borders to protect the constitution and ensure the security and well-being of its citizens. The SASS’s mission is to conduct intelligence in relation to external threats, opportunities, and other issues that may affect South Africa, with the aim of promoting national security and the interests of the country and its citizens.

Internal Instability and Political Fragmentation: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who shall guard the guards?

According to Lauren Hutton, many intelligence services in African countries have their origins in the security framework established by colonial powers, which has led to the utilization of these services for oppressive purposes. The legacy of apartheid in South Africa has resulted in a lack of confidence in the intelligence apparatus, and there are concerns over corruption and factionalism among its personnel and structure. There have been numerous instances of the politicization of intelligence and the creation of parallel intelligence structures by leadership, which are still being brought up today.

In contrast, Ronald Kasrils, a South African politician and the Minister for Intelligence Services (2004–2008) has argued that “it should be borne in mind that ours is a very young democracy, with an intelligence dispensation that was formally created only in 1995. While much progress has been made, much remains to be done. It will take patient and consistent effort to secure the level of sound professionalism that we require and aspire to. I believe we have come a long way in establishing intelligence services working in defense of our Constitution and for our people. As long as we continue along these lines, we will get better still.


South Africa’s intelligence system has undergone significant changes since the end of apartheid. The nation’s White Paper outlines Basic Principles of Intelligence, which prioritize consultation and negotiation among various stakeholders. A code of conduct governs the actions of intelligence service members. However, it is important to recognize that there may be unrealistic expectations of the intelligence apparatus. The country’s primary focus is on addressing socio-economic problems, inequalities, and the enduring legacy of apartheid. While corruption and malpractices have been uncovered in recent investigations, some experts argue that the intelligence system requires time to mature, just as the new democracy of South Africa does.


Gottschalk, K. The Rise and Fall of Apartheid’s Death Squads, 1969–93. In: Campbell B.B., Brenner A.D. (eds) Death Squads in Global Perspective. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. 2000.

Hutton, Lauren. “To Spy or Not to Spy: Intelligence and Democracy in South Africa.” Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria. South Africa. February 1, 2009.

Kasrils, Ronnie. “To Spy or Not to Spy? Intelligence and Democracy in South Africa.” Institute for Security Studies. South Africa. 2007.

Lowenthal, Mark M., Intelligence: from Secrets to Policy, CQ Press, Washington, chap. 1.

New York Times. Archive. “A South African Rebel Is Killed in Zimbabwe.” August 2, 1981.

O’Brien, Kevin A. The South African Intelligence Services : From Apartheid to Democracy, 1948–2005, Taylor & Francis Group, 2010.

Republic of South Africa. Government. “Intelligence White Paper.” 1994.

Van der Walt, and Basson. “The lived experience of discrimination of white women in committed interracial relationships with black men.” Indo-Pac. vol.15 n.2. Grahamstown. Oct. 2015

Van Wyk, Anna-Mart. “Apartheid’s Bomb and Regional Liberation: Cold War Perspectives.” Journal of Cold War Studies. MIT Press. January 1, 2019.

Winter, Gordon. Inside BOSS: South Africa’s Secret Police. Published by Penguin. January 1, 1981.



Miss Singh

writes on international affairs | cyber • diplomacy • intelligence studies • statecraft • a private citizen • cosmopolitan • dedicated biryani fan