Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

A few months ago, South Africa recalled its ambassador to Japan. He promptly vanished.

This was no ordinary diplomat. Thulani Dlomo, also known as Silence Dlomo in some of his several diplomatic passports, was one of South Africa’s most powerful spies – and a close ally of former president Jacob Zuma. Today, he still cannot be found, raising more questions about the illicit influence of espionage networks in post-apartheid South Africa.

For five years, until Mr. Zuma rewarded him with a plum appointment to Japan in 2017, Mr. Dlomo had controlled a “special operations” unit at South Africa’s State Security Agency. It became a parallel spy agency, operating in the shadows to serve Mr. Zuma’s personal agenda and defend his political power until he finally resigned from the presidency amid a corruption scandal last year.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Dlomo’s story – his loyalty to Mr. Zuma’s ambitions, his use of intelligence assets for allegedly illegal action against Mr. Zuma’s critics and his mysterious movements this year – illustrates the covert tactics that have helped leaders of the ruling African National Congress neutralize their opponents for decades.

In a report this year, after a lengthy investigation into the State Security Agency, an official review panel found that Mr. Dlomo’s special operations unit had secretly engaged in a wide range of rogue operations: spying on trade unions and student organizations, covertly monitoring and penetrating South African civil society groups, using disinformation to weaken anti-Zuma protests, targeting Mr. Zuma’s rivals in the ANC, setting up a fake union to undermine a large independent one and “infiltrating and influencing the media” in an attempt to prevent bad publicity for Mr. Zuma.

The special operations unit had become “a law unto itself” and “directly served the political interests” of Mr. Zuma, even providing secret parcels of cash to the intelligence minister and other beneficiaries, the report said. Many of the unit’s intelligence operations were “clearly unconstitutional and illegal.”

The high-level panel, headed by former cabinet minister and anti-apartheid activist Sydney Mufamadi, issued its 106-page report in March. It recommended criminal prosecution of those who had led the illegal activities over the past decade. But most key officials have managed to evade punishment so far – including Mr. Dlomo, who was ordered back from his diplomatic post in January but then vanished.

For months, South Africa’s intelligence agency searched for him, seeking to deliver a dismissal notice. They could not find him, even though he remained on the state payroll until October.

“We dispatched our officials to look for him, and he is nowhere to be found,” State Security Agency official Mahlodi Muofhe told a South African news outlet. “It has taken so long because he’s been evasive.”

At least seven home addresses have been linked to Mr. Dlomo in Durban, the biggest city in Mr. Zuma’s political stronghold, the province of KwaZulu-Natal. But when South African journalists visited the addresses, they found no trace of him.

Story continues below advertisement

South Africa has a long history of murky espionage, hidden informants and infiltrators. During the apartheid era, spies were a major weapon in the arsenal of the state, often leading to assassinations or abductions of the regime’s opponents. The ANC, in exile, used espionage as a way of finding targets in the apartheid system – and destroying any internal rivals to its own leaders.

It was from this internal espionage system that Mr. Zuma emerged. He was the ANC’s intelligence chief, specializing in counterintelligence against suspected spies. It fuelled a paranoia and an obsession with security that escalated when he became president in 2009.

Under the first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, in the late 1990s, the South African cabinet did not even include a minister of intelligence. But in the Zuma era, the political use of state espionage assets swiftly escalated. To head the “special operations” unit, Mr. Zuma recruited Mr. Dlomo, who had previously been implicated in a corruption scandal in KwaZulu-Natal.

The State Security Agency began insisting that a growing number of civil servants and even public-health doctors and journalists at the state broadcaster be vetted with “security” clearances. Telephone surveillance became more common and one of Mr. Zuma’s intelligence ministers, David Mahlobo, sometimes boasted to journalists that he had the ability to listen to their calls.

In early 2017, when Mr. Zuma decided to fire his finance minister and deputy finance minister, both of whom had been campaigning against corruption, he cited the findings of an “intelligence report” – which was later found to be bogus.

Later that year, when ANC veteran (and now president) Cyril Ramaphosa challenged Mr. Zuma’s favoured candidate for the ANC leadership, Mr. Ramaphosa’s e-mails were hacked and leaked, revealing details of extramarital affairs.

Story continues below advertisement

The e-mails were obtained by “state organs,” Mr. Ramaphosa alleged. South African media reported that Mr. Dlomo’s unit was conducting illegal surveillance on Mr. Ramaphosa and his allies to intercept their phone calls and e-mails.

This year, the independent investigation confirmed that the spy agency was being used in ANC factional battles.

“There has been a serious politicization and factionalization of the intelligence community over the past decade or more, based on factions in the ruling party, resulting in an almost complete disregard for the Constitution, policy, legislation and other prescripts,” the high-level panel said, noting that the State Security Agency had been turned into a “private resource.”

Mr. Zuma continues to battle for influence in the ANC today, and South African media have reported that Mr. Dlomo’s former agents – numbering more than 180 – could still be helping the former president.

In mid-October, in testimony to a parliamentary committee, State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo admitted that her attempts to reform the State Security Agency were running into obstacles. The pace of change was “a problem,” she said. “This affects the integrity of the country, it affects the lives of people.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies