There are lessons for South Africa from last week’s Al-Shabab terror attack on a Nairobi shopping mall. Unfortunately the lessons that this government chooses to draw from the tragedy are all the wrong ones.

African National Congress Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe says that the Kenyan attack ‘highlighted the need for tighter immigration laws’. There was also a need to improve the security features of the country’s identity documents.

That’s like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. No, not even the stable door – the dog kennel door. In other words, a not only pointless but also misguided exercise.

Firstly, official immigration is already too tightly controlled. That is, for the skilled professionals and knowledge workers needed to foster economic growth. However, if one is an illegal, unskilled economic refugee or a political militant seeking a safe haven, SA’s land borders are invitingly porous.

Perversely, this is deliberate. The daunting electrified fences and security patrols of the apartheid era were dismantled by the ANC in a misguided attempt at projecting to the rest of Africa the new, humane face of a post-liberation government. The result is an estimated 5m-8m illegal immigrants, spasmodic convulsions of violent xenophobia in the shanty towns, and the remorseless eradication of the rhino.

Secondly, the problem with SA identity and travel documents is not that they easily forged. Their security features are, in fact, top notch. And since their issue is supposedly controlled against a national fingerprint database – we are one of very few countries to do so – they should be among the most trusted travel documents in the world.

They are not. Because of Home Affairs corruption the SA passport has for years been the travel document of choice for international criminals and terrorists.

The Home Affairs Frequent Flyer programme counts among its recent clients: Samantha Lewthwaite, Al-Shabab’s so-called White Widow, who has an Interpol arrest warrant pending relating to earlier Kenyan terror acts; Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the United States embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania; Haroon Aswat, linked to the London 7/7 bombings; and Mohammed Gulzar, linked to the foiled plot to bring down transatlantic passenger flights.

All used SA passports. None was legally entitled to one. None of the passports was a forgery. All were ‘genuine’ passports but illegally procured from corrupt Home Affairs officials. So better security features will make not an iota of difference.

Besides stricter border controls and excising corruption, there are other lessons that the ANC are reluctant to face up to.

Kenya is investigating claims that its intelligence agencies failed to act on warnings that an attack was imminent. Although, by definition, any successful act of terrorism implies some kind of intelligence gathering failure, in Kenya the handicap was self-administered.

Farah Maalim, former deputy speaker of the Kenyan National Assembly, says that the likelihood of an attack has been a concern for years. But, he say, ‘we have an intelligence community more worried about internal party politics than threats to national security.’ It is a characteristic, too, of President Jacob Zuma’s administration that the national intelligence agencies have been distracted from their constitutional mandate and inspanned against the president’s political rivals.

Finally, the Kenyan police and military performed abysmally during the Westland Mall siege. They allowed it to drag out for four days, killed one another and some of the hostages in ‘friendly’ fire, and stand accused of causing the structural collapse of the building. They also appear to have looted extensively: hundreds of thousands of US dollars worth of expensive suits, jewellery and electronic equipments disappeared during the four days.

At Marikana there was a similarly fatally flawed performance by one of the SA Police Service’s specialised teams, its Public Order unit. Instead of restoring order, its officers precipitated a political crisis by shooting dead 34 miners. It’s difficult to be confident that the gung-ho SAPS would perform any better than their Kenyan counterparts during a terror siege.

Want happened at the Westgate Mall was a wake-up call. So at least take from the tragedy the lessons that will prevent it being replicated on SA soil at some time in the future.


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

Leave a comment