Saturday, September 28, 2013

Terror attack - how ready is South Africa?

When America suffered the wrath of Al Qaeda on that fateful day of September 2003, CNN and other American news channels ran with AMERICA UNDER ATTACK or AMERICA AT WAR. The ensuing reciprocation by the Americans came under the WAR ON TERROR banner. So in it all, America isolated itself and became the victim and later the good guy chasing bad guys.

International war and American spying
I am reminded of this by the recent terror attacks in Kenya. Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kenyan president when addressing the people of Kenya, the African neighbours as well as the international community said something striking, "this is not Kenya's war. This is an international war" he said. Kenyatta did well by pointing out that terror attacks are not always targeted at one country and it is not a prerogative of one country and its allies to respond to such attacks. 

I am not going to go into the politics of terrorism but if we are to heed Kenyatta and if the recent terror attacks in Kenya are anything to go by then I can safely say that if we were to bring it home then no African country that is out of harm’s way and no citizen in any of the African states can claim to be safe. The biggest question however that I am asking myself in the wake of the Kenya attacks is just how vigilant are African intelligence forces and how ready are African countries at dealing with terrorist attacks?

Much criticism has been leveled at the American spying exercise since the Manning and Snowden affairs but I am sitting here thinking to myself can we really blame the Yanks? In this day and age where there are militias wanting to advance this or that course can we really blame the Yanks for their paranoia? Although no country can claim to be 100% safe from terror attacks but the investment the Americans are making into the intelligence allows them to have at least a 270° view of the situations playing out in the world.

Al Qaeda and Al-Shabaab in South Africa
Is South Africa making the necessary investments in intelligence seeing the role it is forever playing in the world, from peacekeeping interventions in Africa to its position in the United Nations Security Council. The Al Shabaab terrorist group reportedly attacked Kenya due to the dispatching of 4,000-odd Kenyan troops to the border into Somalia as part of the AU-led mission. 

If this is anything to go by then South Africa must also start looking over its shoulder and so must the rest of the countries who dispatched troops to peacekeeping missions in other African states. South African has been reported to be inflicting damage to the M23 Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic so what would stop the rebels in CAR from copying and pasting the strategy of the Al Shabaab, after all we also have a Wesgate Mall to the west of Johannesburg?

Is South Africa deploying enough personnel and resources in counter terrorism campaigns? Early this year, the Daily Maverick ran a report that the SAPS have ignored known Al Qaeda Training Camps in the South Africa town of Erasmia. In a follow up story published by the Sowetan Newspaper it was revealed that "British and US intelligence agencies reportedly pressured the South African government into acting against any possible Muslim terrorist threats emanating from within the country, and warned South Africa to stop "pussyfooting" on the issue.
"The fact that no bombs have gone off to date in the country doesn't mean that the threat doesn't exist within South Africa's borders," they reportedly warned. Despite this story breaking, no commitment came from South African authorities in dealing with any terrorist elements in the country. Now reports are surfacing that then American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned our forever giggling Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoane Mashabane about El Shabaab activities in South Africa.

News24 has quoted Clinton in 2009 saying: "the minister (Mashabane) and I are well aware that al-Shabaab is recruiting young Somalis from South Africa, Australia and the US to become suicide bombers, to participate in their efforts to turn Somalia into a safe haven for terrorism". One cannot even begin to talk about the abuse of the South African travel documents which have endeared themselves with terrorist groups.

Infighting and incompetency in the NIA
Also of concern are the reports that crime intelligence as well as the National Intelligence Agency and the State Security are plagued by infighting and incompetency (remember the report saying agents can’t even write a report) and these entities have been reduced to being pawns in the party political scene rather than serving government for the safety of the citizens. Also reports of some of the equipment I our artillery either lying gathering dust without being used or is already broken talks to our state of not being on top of our game are disturbing. 

The recent landing of a plane full of private party guests at the country’s top airbase showed our hand when it comes to protecting ourselves and worse our airspace. Must I also quote the incident of the estranged wife of the minister of intelligence dealing in drugs without the husband’s knowledge?
Yes I might be writing from an “uninformed perspective” as government spin-doctors would say but I am writing as a concerned citizen and expressing concerns of other citizens like me. Terrorism is on the rise the world over and I am afraid that our state of readiness to deal with any terrorist threat or attack has me worried. 

Are we ready to counteract any form of attack? Do we have a surveillance programme, is it working, how good it is? Do we know of any terrorist cells in our shores or any South African organisations or groups with terrorist links?

Is there a counter terrorism plan?
The assault in Kenya did not happen overnight and the footage of Kenyan police scrambling at the scene and the time it’s taking to bring the situation under control does not paint a very good picture on the Kenyan state security and intelligence, if any. I am afraid that if African countries, and South Africa in particular, do not put in counter terrorism plans in place they will find themselves being a playing ground for these terror groups. 

We cannot rest on our laurels and say we are immune from terrorism, our wake-up call will be a very deadly one. I’m afraid, very much afraid.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Please Sir, can we have some more news

I have accepted the fact that having three local 24 hour news channels does not give manna of news from South Africa and the rest of the African continent.
Much has been written about the growth in numbers of the 24 hour news channels in South Africa. Many pundits are saying the growth will bring about diverse news content and other programming. I disagree with those who see 'growth', 'diversification of news', and all the bells and whistles touted. Instead I see all three news channels reporting on the same thing and using the same method in gathering their stories and recycling content all day long.

When the SABC News and more recently ANN7, bar the launch glitches, launched and joined the existing eNCA it was seen as a step in the right direction, however strategically the channels have failed to capitalise on the most important aspect of a 24 hour news channel, that of capturing impactful events as they happen. Simply put, a 24 hour news channel should give viewers relevant and current news content. Let me take you back to two recent incidents I have observed and how our news channels failed. These are the heroic salvaging of the Costa Concordia as well as the tragic Kenya Westgate Mall shooting.

A South African led the salvage operation

The salvage of the Costa Concordia, which was wrecked off the coast of Isola del Giglio in Italy last year, was an international news spectacle. Although this being an incident in one of the European countries it was even more interesting and relevant for Africans, in particular South Africans because a South African was leading the salvage operation. None of the three channels dedicated a segment to this operation. Where we were lucky we would have one channel running bits of the story on every half-hour bulletin. No one capitalised on the angle of a South African leading this operation. Even in this age of technology, a simple thing such as a time-lapse video couldn't be shown. Lack of coverage by South African news channels led to people who were interested in the story streaming live from international news channels.

The current terrorist attack and ensuing standoff at the Westgate Mall in Kenya has most people worried, praying, in a state of panic and hoping for some resolution... The Kenyan president said, "this is not a Kenya's war, it is an international war" so the international community is sitting and waiting for up-to-date news on the play of events in Kenya, Every report out of Kenya is lapped up. However it seems that even when we are under attack as Africa we still can't lead from an African source. African news channels are conspicuous by their absence. 

They do it differently overseas... Well!

Closer to home we have Sky News providing a feed as well as commentary for one of the channels and a four-hour-old banner scrolling what it calls BREAKING NEWS. This banner is repeated in every news bulletin throughout the day. If we are lucky we will get an "East Africa Bureau Chief" giving a report over the phone. The other two channels would give a report that seems like it's been copied from a BBC website. Of the three 24-hour news channels we have, not even one has been able to put a crew on the ground in Kenya with an OB van for a minute-by-minute run down. It seems we have forgotten that South African is in Africa and that our news channels need to give us current news from the rest of Africa.

Our news channels have a long way to go to catch up to their international counterparts. A classic case in point, when Nelson Mandela was in hospital and everyone was talking about his demise, I received an email from journalist in Sweden telling me their bags are packed and they are on standby to come down with 24 hours. See how international players do it? There is always a plan and turnaround time to getting a firsthand report to viewers and readers. If Nelson Mandela were to just blurt out one cough, throngs of international journalists flood our shores and OB vans line up. Our response to that? Cry foul and accuse the international media of being insensitive. We say this because we have taken the backseat in leading with news that talk about us and we have outsourced that part to SKY; CNN and Al Jazeera. 

Meanwhile the news consumer is left standing hands out looking to the international channels asking "please sir, can we have some more news?"
NOTE: This article first appeared on an online marketing communications news portal: