Dr Sizo Nkala
On October 26, the US embassy in South Africa issued a terror alert claiming that “The US government has received information that terrorists may be planning to conduct an attack targeting large gatherings of people at an unspecified location in the greater Sandton area of Johannesburg, South Africa, on 29 October 2022.”
The embassy advised its staff to avoid crowded areas in Sandton and surrounding areas. With the aid of social media, the terror alert circulated widely in a short space of time as soon as it was published causing widespread public panic. The warning was relayed by other Western embassies from Britain, Canada, Germany, France, and Australia apparently intended for their own citizens.
Many believe that the target of the said terror attack was the Joburg Pride march that took place on October 29 in support of gay rights. However, the alert was greeted with dismay and disappointment by the South African authorities who felt that the embassy has breached diplomatic protocol by issuing its warning.
The Deputy Minister of State Security, Zizi Kodwa, was dismissive of the alert saying that there was no evidence for the threat, a position that was echoed by the Minister in the Presidency, Mondli Gungubele.
Kodwa went on to accuse the US embassy of acting ultra vires the diplomatic protocol arguing that its decision to issue the warning undermined South Africa’s sovereignty. President Cyril Ramaphosa also claimed to be unaware of the potential terror attack but reassured the country that the security apparatus will remain on high alert.
South Africa’s third largest political party, the EFF came out guns blazing in a statement issued on October 27. The party accused the US of having a record of taking actions based on faulty intelligence viz its invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Julius Malema-led outfit said that it rejects “these warnings as part of a self-made plot to destabilise our country and damage its reputation.
If the USA really seeks to protect lives, they must co-operate openly with our agencies and share evidence of their claims.” There have also been claims that the terror alert undermined investigations by the South African Police Service’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, the Hawks, who apparently were circling in on nine suspects related to the terrorist plot.
Nonetheless, the government seems to have taken the alert seriously as it deployed substantial police presence to the Joburg Pride march which took place without any incident.
The behaviour of the US embassy leaves one with more questions than answers. Perhaps the question uppermost in every observer’s mind would be why the embassy went on to issue a warning without clearing it with South African authorities who they had been in communication with about the same case knowing very well that it may scupper the South African authorities’ ongoing investigation.
It is standard operating procedure that investigations on terrorism are better dealt with secretly to keep potential terrorism plotters in the dark thus improving chances of apprehending them. By issuing the alert, the embassy was not only alerting its citizens, but it was also effectively alerting the terrorists themselves.
This gives them a chance to retreat, regroup and possibly plot another strike again. Is the alert a demonstration of the US lack of faith in the competence of South Africa’s security apparatus? The US embassy issued a similar terror alert in 2016 which triggered a diplomatic fallout as the South African government was aggrieved by the fact that a foreign government would make sensitive security statements on its territory without liaising with it.
Secondly, one wonders how the US gets hold of information about a planned terror attack in South Africa. Indeed, how else other than monitoring and eavesdropping on South Africa’s communication networks? Could this be the latest evidence of the US-run digital panopticon which was brutally exposed by Edward Snowden back in 2013?
If that’s the case, then this is a wake-up call not only to South Africa but to other countries as well to assert their sovereignty over the information infrastructure in their territories. This would ensure that their data is not exposed to foreign governments or other actors who can use it to undermine their sovereignty and independence.
The US actions are tantamount to a violation of South Africa’s Minimum Information Security Standards (MIMS). Under this framework, information on terrorism is classified as secret if its compromise can disrupt effective functioning of an institution, disrupt diplomatic relations between states, endanger a person’s life.
Thirdly, this blatant undermining of South African authorities cannot be divorced from the broader context. South Africa has firmly resisted toeing the US line on the Russia-Ukraine war as well the blacklisting of Chinese technology. Is the alert a way of letting the South African government know that the US has access to the country’s sensitive information? Whatever the case is, I cannot, for the life of me, imagine a US embassy behaving in the same manner in a country like Germany, Canada, or the United Kingdom. This latest terror alert was issued not in a spirit of solidarity but in a transparent attempt to undermine South Africa’s sovereignty.
* Dr Sizo Nkala is A Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies