South Africa’s State Security Agency is relying on an agent in Russia for details of a secretive satellite surveillance project being developed in cooperation between South Africa’s military intelligence service and Russia, according to a top-secret spy cable obtained by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit.
The cable from 2012 says Russia and South Africa are working to develop a satellite that will place South Africa “in a position to conduct its own aerial surveillance in Africa, potentially right up to Israel for strategic military purposes”.
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Military intelligence has reportedly spearheaded the project, but appears to have kept its civilian partner, the State Security Agency (SSA) in the dark. As a result, the SSA is relying on an “Agent Africanist with direct access to the Russia government” for details.
The document obtained by Al Jazeera, dated 21 August 2012, is a top-secret memo recording information provided by “Agent Africanist”.
It says the spy identified two “key role players” in the scheme, known as Project Condor: a Russian official and the former head of South African Military Intelligence General Maomela “Mojo” Motau.
After retiring from South African military intelligence, General Motau became chairman of state arms maker Armscor, before being dismissed and losing a legal battle for his reinstatement.
The document says “there are 30 Russian technicians working in South Africa in close cooperation with South African authorities on the project.”
“In conjunction with Condor, Russia is simultaneously working on its own satellite programme to be launched sometime after Condor, the aim is to eventually integrate the two satellite systems and capabilities providing wider strategic coverage with obvious benefits for both countries.”
Research done by South Africa’s shadow defence secretary, David Maynier, has uncovered a similar programme to launch a Russian Kondor-E earth observation satellite under the codenames Project Flute and Project Consolidated Flute.
The details are very similar and may refer to the same project.
The satellite has now been launched, according to a report by Russian news agency, ITAR-TASS on December 19. It said a Kondor-E satellite had been sent into space “in the interests of a foreign customer,” which Maynier believes was South Africa.
The Democratic Alliance MP has been trying to investigate the details behind what he calls the “very murky” Kondor-E satellite programme for five years.
“It’s been very difficult given the fact that this is a top secret or secret defence intelligence project to really get any information”.
Project Flute began “some time in 2006, 2007” and had a budget in the region of $100m, according to Maynier and other reports. However, there is no publicly available accounting for how that money was spent.
“One of the primary drivers behind the lack of transparency,” Maynier alleges, “has got to do with the fact that what government are hiding in fact, is a massive procurement irregularity.”
The South African government has ducked the allegation. Defence Secretary Sam Gulube revealed to parliament in October last year that a contract for a “military satellite” existed and was “on track”.
Maynier says the deal was signed “outside all government procurement legislation and regulations,” he says.
Former Secretary of Defense, January Masilela, launched an investigation into Project Flute in December 2006. The investigation was conducted, although its results were never published. Masilela was killed in a car accident in 2008, and Maynier speculates that his death may part of a cover-up. Police did not record Masilela’s death as suspicious.
Maynier continues to press for answers from the South African government about the satellite programme. So closely held is information concerning the project that, as the document leaked to Al Jazeera reveals, one state security body is forced to rely on a Russian informant for information on a project in which a second state security structure is engaged.
“There are some big questions that need to be answered,” says Maynier. “The first is, “Was it necessary to acquire the satellite?” The second question is, “Given the fact that we’ve acquired the satellite, when the satellite is launched, if it is launched, will it work? And if it does work, given the fact that the satellite has a limited life span of five years, what is going to happen at the end of that lifespan?
“Is South Africa then going to have to fork out another 1.4 billion Rand in order to launch a successive satellite? We just don’t know.”
It is a major change from South Africa’s apartheid era for the nation’s intelligence services to be coordinating with Russia.
Despite that, Maynier sees this project’s clandestine nature as a sign of continuity in the state security sector. “Secrecy is thought to be morally superior to transparency,” he says.