The shadowy R2,6-billion private army at the heart of government

22 March 2018 - 07:59 By Dave Chambers
Former president Jacob Zuma.
Former president Jacob Zuma.
Image: Reuters

Jacob Zuma’s legacy includes a 6‚600-strong private army that costs R2,6-billion a year and is accountable to no one‚ according to new research.

In a report entitled “South Africa’s Secret Police”‚ researcher Gareth van Onselen says spending on VIP protection “exploded” during Zuma’s presidency.

In nine years under his predecessor‚ Thabo Mbeki‚ it cost R4.3-billion. Over the next decade‚ that rose to R18,2-billion.

“If Cyril Ramaphosa is elected president in 2019‚ just the first two years of his new administration ... will cost R5,8-billion in VIP protection‚” Van Onselen says in the new South African Institute of Race Relations report.

The document bristles with statistics‚ yet Van Onselen says the budget for VIP protection is “shrouded in bureaucratic obfuscation”.

Some of the figures the report reveals include:

- 6‚585 people work for VIP protection;

- 4.4 guards are allocated to each of the 450 South African and foreign dignitaries they protect (2012/13 figure);

- 24.6 protectors guard each of the 137 residences and locations they are assigned to (2012/13);

- 47 guards are assigned to each of the 18 dignitaries covered by presidential protection services (2012/13); and

- 88 protectors are assigned to the president.

Van Onselen points out that these figures are in sharp contrast to the one police officer for every 346 citizens revealed in a parliamentary reply in 2014. In other words‚ the president’s level of protection is 30‚448 times what is available to each ordinary South African.

Presidential blue-light brigades of up to 20 vehicles‚ usually forcing their way through traffic at high speed‚ mean the activities of VIP protection are “blatant and visible”‚ says Van Onselen‚ yet the organisation is “secretive and shielded from accountability”.

“Quite who these people are‚ what they do‚ how they do it and who they report to is next to impossible to determine with any certainty from the public record‚” he says.

“And yet they have grown exponentially‚ year-in and year-out‚ both in terms of budget and personnel. Today they constitute a veritable army of people. A private army‚ seemingly accountable to no one.”

Van Onselen says VIP protection will cost R2,6-billion this year‚ compared with R234-million when it first appeared in the estimates of national expenditure in 2001. That is an increase of 1‚011%‚ almost four times higher than the 254% increase in inflation over the same period.

“The reasons for this growth are not known. And we have no idea how well the protection services are actually performing‚” he says‚ admitting that his report “is‚ in the end‚ an attempt not just to document the little we do know‚ but to map the vast chasm in the public record that constitutes those things we do not know”.

The biggest gap in knowledge relates to the cost of air travel‚ he says. Piecing together fragments of information‚ he provides a “deeply conservative” estimate that from 2009 to 2011‚ VIP flights cost R108-million a year.

“It is far more likely ... that the true‚ total figure is in excess of R250-million annually. And even that is probably conservative.”

Van Onselen says the secrecy surrounding VIP protection is a serious problem.

“There are few component parts of any constitutional order for which transparency‚ oversight and accountability are more important‚” he says.

“The national security forces wield great power‚ are funded by significant amounts of public money and‚ by their very nature‚ generate an insular and self-contained organisational culture.

“To ensure they operate always in the public interest a constant vigilance is required. Failure to do so can‚ very quickly‚ result in a culture of secrecy and unaccountability taking hold.”

He is critical of the parliamentary portfolio committee on police.

“The relevant chain of command is not called to account‚ budget increases are not interrogated against performance‚ accountability for security breaches is not cross-examined ... and meaningful details of equipment and personnel not demanded or provided.

“Vetting remains mysterious and unexamined ... The relationship between the intelligence services and the SA Police Service is unexplored.”