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

F.W. de Klerk shakes hands with Nelson Mandela. The two men made history by ending apartheid. Image courtesy: Wikimedia

This paper examines key differences between South Africa’s intelligence services during the implementation of apartheid by the Afrikaner National Party in 1948, and after the democratic transition led by the African National Congress in 1994. It focuses on key differences in the intelligence agenda of two different governments: one whose aim was geared towards preserving a white minority rule, while the post-Apartheid government focused on moving towards a path of majority representation within the framework of a multi-racial democracy.

Post-apartheid, this paper highlights the new objectives and frameworks which were created for the reform of the nation’s intelligence services.

The Early Beginnings of South Africa’s Intelligence Architecture:
Prior to the founding of the South African union in 1910, the intelligence structure of the country reflected British colonial policing for controlling the domestic environment. Although a special branch of the police was established to gather domestic intelligence during the 1930’s, a comprehensive security architecture did not develop in South Africa until the early 1960’s with the founding of the Republican Intelligence (RI). A few years later in 1969, the RI became the Bureau of State Security (BFSS) which in 1978 became the Department of National Security (DNS). In 1979 this agency developed into the National Intelligence Service (NIS), but became defunct in 1995.

After democratization, a new dispensation to intelligence was formulated with considerable oversight and two new agencies were created: the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and the South African Secret Service (SASS). During this period of development, and all too frequent name changes, the intelligence apparatus until 1995 had been known as BOSS by the outside world.

Underlying Requirements of the Intelligence Services During Apartheid:
Since the formation of early states, intelligence has been employed to pursue various objectives depending on the “character and nature of the state.” In his book, Intelligence: from Secrets to Policy (2003), Mark Lowenthal writes that intelligence “serves and is subservient to policy.” He describes the intelligence process as being a normal function of a government which sometimes works well, and sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of South Africa, the continuous reform of the intelligence services and policies against black South Africans were shaped directly in opposition to several national liberation movements since the main role of the intelligence services was to protect white minority interests.

From the 1950’s onwards as anti-apartheid coalitions gathered across the country, the principle goal of the intelligence and security services was to subvert any activity which sustained and strengthened political organization against the Apartheid government. This included infiltration of workers unions, creating political propaganda through the radio while also forming a cadre of journalists to work in local anti-apartheid newspapers. A good example is that of a reporter working for the intelligence agencies who also passed information to the police. The police would then proceed to raid the homes and meeting places of interracial couples, as these relationships were banned in South Africa (the land of ‘racial purity’). These actions positioned the said reporter (perhaps also a former BOSS agent) in the unique arrangement of reporting stories in cahoots with intelligence agencies to gain access to the top brass by passing locally sourced information. Using the principles of MICE to recruit agents (in this case a reporter) was helpful to the South African intelligence apparatus, as the reporter would be a local with access, and was already in the inside.

Targeting State Opponents- Using Assassination as a Tool of State Policy:
Assassinating opponents of the National Party was developed as a tool of state policy in South Africa. While the African National Congress and various Black Nationalist movements had begun their struggle with nonviolent confrontation based on Gandhian principles from the 1960’s onwards, underground guerrilla cells started to target the Afrikaner establishment. During this period, according to Keith Gottschalk, a South African political scientist and anti-apartheid advocate: “murder became a form of national security management.”

The use of death squads both inside and outside the security forces was sponsored and initiated by the Bureau for State Security, infamously known as BOSS, the South African Police Security Branch and the South African Defense forces. Thousands of anti-apartheid citizens were assassinated under the use of legalized force to suppress riots. The assassination units also had the authority to kill unarmed civilians, even their next of kin who might intervene by organizing a legal defense against the assassinations.

Even white sympathizers (known as radicals and liberals) were intimidated by firebombs, vandalizing of their property and attempted murder. In 1976, during the Soweto Revolt which was largely led by high school students, (part of the larger nationalist movement), the revolt became a target for the Joint Intelligence Structure, which recommended a policy of eliminating the student leaders by restricting them “physically to such an extent that they are removed from circulation and kept away.”

The most notorious of the death squads was a BOSS unit known as the Z Squad whose earliest attempt at assassination occurred in the United Kingdom. This hit was disguised as a fatal fall from a high rise. Other Z Squad assassination attempts included the death of Onkgopotse Abram Tiro, a leader of the South African Students’ Organization (SASO) who was killed by a parcel bomb near Gaborone, Botswana in 1974.

In 1978, Joe Gqabi, a photographer, reporter and member of the African National Congress was gunned down in front of his home. The New York Times called Gqabi a nationalist guerilla leader and even reported Robert Mugabe’s statement which accused the South African government of the assassination “as part of a grand design to crush opposition at home and abroad to its racial policies.”

The South African Defense Forces even had a special unit known as the Electronic Magnetic Logistical Component, whose job was to construct all forms of explosive devices which were then built into briefcases, cars, boxes, radios, TV’s and letters.

Assassinations were also subcontracted to private groups and individuals. Many of these hits came became public in 1989, when after being jailed for the murder of a farmer, Butana Nofemela, a black security-police assassin admitted to being part of a formal political hit squad after his colleagues betrayed him. He told his story to the South African Daily Mail, implicating a secret police unit which conducted assassinations. Nofemela also confessed to killing human rights lawyer Griffiths Mxenge in 1981, amongst several other political dissidents.

South Africa Against the Global Anti-Communist Paradigm of the Cold War, Covert Intelligence Relationships with International Partners and Ambitions of Nuclear Power:
During the Apartheid regime the African National Congress (ANC) became allied with the South African Communist Party (SACP). This relationship did not escape the ruling government which had always positioned itself fiercely within the global anti-communist paradigm. Christopher Gauger (2017) has argued that although both were partners against the National Party, both groups had different ideologies, interests and long term objectives. Gauger asserts that while Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were dedicated to nationalist goals, the SACP sought for the creation of a socialist workers state.

Several countries including the United States, Great Britain, Israel and West Germany supported the National Party with an intelligence relationship primarily against the bulwark of communist expansion, while the Soviet Union and China claimed to support national liberation movements in several African countries. The intervention of Cuba in Angola in 1975 was one such example in which a communist government provided significant support to the first post-colonial administration.

One of the most surprising revelations of this period was from the investigative journalist Seymore Hersh, whose book The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy (1991), reported of promises made by Israel to furnish nuclear weapons to South Africa. Hersh’s claims were later corroborated by a former high level South African naval officer named Dieter Gerhardt (also a Soviet spy) who relayed that South Africa had begun to seek an independent nuclear option in 1964.

It seemed that with the overthrow of the colonial governments in Angola and Mozambique, South African leaders were convinced that they needed a suitable deterrent against a perceived Communist onslaught. It was also obvious that the South African government did not regard the black liberation movements as independent or legitimate, seeing them as being controlled by Moscow.

By 1967, the United States and South Africa signed a bilateral agreement on the civilian usage of nuclear energy which had been followed with the construction of a U.S.-supplied nuclear research reactor (the South African Fundamental Atomic Research Installation, or SAFARI-1) at Pelindaba near Pretoria. Unfortunately, a few years later, with additional US congressional scrutiny of South African policies and nuclear development, guerrilla warfare against apartheid possibly contributed to Pretoria’s resolve to obtain nuclear capability. Despite international condemnation, and getting barred from several organizations, besides being sanctioned; by 1980, the South African government became a nuclear state.

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).

Reform of the Intelligence Services- Key Differences Post-Apartheid:
Since the transition to democracy in 1994, the South African intelligence agencies have lost the dispensation to focus on liberation movements and have taken on the traditional role of focusing on a wide range of threats the state and its society. Post-apartheid, various reforms were implemented into the intelligence architecture along with the introduction of various oversight mechanisms to create a degree of transparency and public accountability. These mechanisms included the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and the Office of the Inspector General.

Since its a difficult task even for mature democracies to maintain democratic control of their intelligence sector, its important to evaluate the complexity of the task and the efforts of the South African intelligence community. There’s also the added perception that the government relies on the intelligence community to spy on institutions, opposition parties, the media and the judiciary.

In 1994, the White Paper on Intelligence was introduced to reshape and transform the intelligence services of South Africa. Since prior to democratization, the security policy was introduced by a minority government, the new majority government aimed towards redefining the mission and to “focus on priorities of intelligence in order to establish a new culture of intelligence.” The White Paper on Intelligence defines intelligence as referring to the product resulting from the “collection, evaluation, analysis, integration and interpretation of all available information, supportive of the policy- and decision-making processes pertaining 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?
After former President De Klerk lost the upper hand of the now defunct National Intelligence Service (NIS), Nelson Mandela moved in quickly to gain control of the intelligence and security functions. All ministerial positions were given to ANC personnel. The most significant departure from the old dispensation is that instead of one centralized national civilian intelligence organization, there would be two: 1) The National Intelligence Agency (NIA) whose mission is to conduct security intelligence within the borders of the Republic of South Africa to protect the Constitution. The overall aim shall be to ensure the security and stability of the State and the safety and well-being of its citizens. 2) The South African Secret Service (SASS) whose mission is to conduct intelligence in relation to external threats, opportunities and other issues that may affect the Republic of South Africa, with the aim of promoting the 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?
Since most African countries intelligence services have their roots in “the security architecture established by colonial rulers,” Lauren Hutton argues that its not uncommon to find intelligence services that are used to oppress the people. The legacy of apartheid has imparted a lack of trust in the intelligence disposition, along with corruption and factionalism in its structure and personnel. Several cases continue to be recalled which adhere to the politicization of intelligence, and of the leadership developing parallel intelligence structures.

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.

Post Apartheid, South Africa has opened a new chapter in its intelligence disposition. According to the Basic Principles of Intelligence, as described in the nation’s White Paper, the process of consultation and negotiation between various role players has been initiated. The code of conduct makes provision to govern performance and activities of individual members of the intelligence services. At the same time unrealistic expectations must be acknowledged. The first priority of the country are its pressing socio-economic problems, extreme inequalities, and the troubling legacy of apartheid. Although recent investigations have unearthed corruption and malpractices in the system, several scholars suggest that the intelligence apparatus requires as much time to develop as does South Africa’s fairly new democracy.


Gottschalk, K. (2000) 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.

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.

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