Internal probe into suspension of Robert McBride ‘going nowhere slowly’

13 September 2021 - 06:52 By Erika Gibson
Robert McBride, head of the State Security Agency foreign branch, was suspended in April. File photo.
Robert McBride, head of the State Security Agency foreign branch, was suspended in April. File photo.
Image: Masi Losi

The internal investigation into the suspension of Robert McBride, head of the State Security Agency (SSA) foreign branch, is going nowhere slowly with no conclusion after more than four months.

A seasoned former legal adviser in the former National Intelligence Agency (NIA), advocate Kerensa Millard, was roped in to handle the investigation shortly after McBride was suspended in April. She has been in private practice for some time.

Millard was appointed by Ayanda Dlodlo, former minister of state security, before Dlodlo was moved sideways as the new minister of public service and administration when President Cyril Ramaphosa shuffled his cabinet in early August.

The suspension of McBride followed a fallout between him and Dlodlo, compounded by an incident in Mozambique when an SSA team was allegedly “arrested” by the Mozambican authorities.

Millard served in the NIA in the early 2000s when Lindiwe Sisulu and Ronnie Kasrils were the respective ministers in that department. In private practice she has represented the state in a number of court cases.

The “arrest” of McBride’s team in April was an embarrassment for Ramaphosa and Dlodlo, who were intensely involved in regional diplomacy in Mozambique. That was at a time when the extremist insurgency in Mozambique reached a climax with an attack on Palma in the northern Cabo Delgado province in March which left two expat contractors dead and hundreds stranded.

McBride was suspended because the Mozambicans were allegedly unhappy with the SSA team in their midst. Dlodlo intervened by jetting to Maputo to discuss the matter with her counterparts there. However, sources close to the operation earlier told the Sunday Times that the Mozambican police were well aware of the SA operatives in the country and had shared information with one another.

The same intelligence sources indicated Dlodlo allegedly signed off the budget for the intelligence-gathering operation in Cabo Delgado. She was apparently so impressed with the performance of the team that the term of the operation was extended and the budget adapted.

The debacle was aired at an explosive and impromptu Sunday meeting in April which Dlodlo called with McBride and other senior members of the foreign service present. At that meeting, McBride was accused of using “Hollywood style” to insert a team and a drone into Mozambique. The team’s passports and the drone were confiscated even though they had at that stage been commuting between SA and Maputo for a few months without any problems.

The team even had travel permits issued by the Mozambican police to move around freely in Cabo Delgado. During the meeting an intelligence report from a source in Portugal was used against McBride even though a copy of the report later showed it was dated after the Sunday meeting.

McBride’s suspension was only confirmed by the SSA in July. According to sources within the SSA, McBride has still not received the reasons for or a letter confirming his suspension. He was appointed to the post in August last year for a term of three years, of which 22 months are left.

Dlodlo was moved from her portfolio after an intelligence foul-up contributed to the government being in the dark when Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal were targeted in rolling riots two months ago in which more than 300 people were killed. Prior to her leaving the possibility of a “political solution” to pay McBride to walk away was discussed with the SSA’s legal team.

According to the SSA sources, an intermediary apparently approached him to ask what it would take for him to settle, to which McBride responded: “The end of the world”.

Since then, McBride has not provided statements nor given evidence in Millard’s investigation.

Mava Scott, spokesperson for the SSA, early in August would only confirm that “an acting director of the foreign branch [Joyce Mashele] has been appointed and work continues at that level”.

No further response was forthcoming.

Scott also said the McBride’s situation “is being handled internally in terms of the prescripts governing labour relations. We cannot predict the exact time when the process will be concluded, but the agency is keen to expedite and conclude the matter”.

Another month later, no further conclusion has apparently been reached.

McBride did not comment when approached by TimesLIVE.

Mashele was recently criticised for deploying members from the domestic branch abroad,  despite them not being experienced in intelligence gathering in foreign countries. This list of about 23 postings was allegedly approved shortly before Dlodlo left and included a number of those who were in exile during the struggle, and some due for retirement in the near future.

Millard was one of two advocates who represented national director of public prosecutions advocate Shamila Batohi in the legal review court case between Ramaphosa and public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane over her findings about Bosasa payments to the CR17 campaign. Bosasa paid R500,000 meant for the campaign fund into the bank account of Ramaphosa’s son, Andile. The court decided in Ramaphosa’s favour.

She served in high-level positions including as the head of legal policy at the ministry of intelligence, as acting head of the business intelligence unit of the SA Revenue Service and as an adviser to the MEC for safety and security in Gauteng. Shortly after 1994 she was also a member of the Gauteng provincial legislature.

Independent intelligence experts told TimesLIVE it is imperative that stability within the SSA is reached sooner rather than later, especially in the run-up to elections.

“The agency will remain in limbo as long as most of its senior officials are acting in their posts. Gab Msimanga is the acting director-general. McBride is suspended and Mashele is acting in his post. Advocate Sam Muofhe, head of the domestic branch, left at the end of July when his contract expired, but nobody has been appointed in his place,” said one.

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