The Sunday Times and that spy satellite: Very old news (with a new twist)

Project Flute: wheels within wheels.

In what appeared to be the first piece of credible investigative journalism published by the Sunday Times in a long while, its front-page lead revealed yet another embarrassing government secret:  Project Flute, which involved commissioning a spy satellite from a Russian company for R1.2bn. Cheekily, the Sunday Times headed its report with the question: How much intelligence is there in defence intelligence?

“The whereabouts of [the] spy satellite ...­ remains a mystery, eight years after the deal was struck. There are doubts whether the satellite even exists,” said the paper, adding that the issue was secretly causing tension in the cabinet, while, publicly, current and former ministers are still frantically denying any knowledge of it, or claim to be suffering from senile dementia.

The trouble is, it was not a new story. The Mail & Guardian had told the same story, in far more detail and with a lot less mystery way back in 2008. The key to why the story was being published now in the Sunday Times, and perhaps who had instigated it, lay in that first sentence: How much intelligence is there in defence intelligence?

Equally significant, perhaps, was the bit about tension in the cabinet.

At Noseweek stories like this immediately raise the question: What exactly had the South African government wanted to use a satellite like that for, other than to generate another kickback for the ANC and some of its members?

But in the Sunday Times, Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier is quoted asking the less cynical,  more practical questions about foreign control and systems to protect the privacy of our own citizens.

By Noseweek’s reckoning, however, the satellite is largely irrelevant from the cabinet’s point of view. The cancellation may still cost us a billion or two in damages claims, but when have such things troubled our President and his cabinet? No, the real cause of secret stress is the man who happened to be the SANDF’s head of military intelligence at the time the Russian satellite was ordered:  Lt Gen Mojo Motau,  a man who still for some reason terrifies the hell out of all the politicians in the cabinet.

(OK, politicians everywhere have the same problem with intelligence chiefs: they know too much.) In this case, so terrified of Motau are our cabinet, that when he retired, they immediately made him head of Armscor, where Project Flute once resided. In the past two years however, two ministers of defence have bravely tried getting him fired from there, but here’s the final clue: he has fearlessly and successfully resisted both those attempts and remains put.

Astute observers would long ago have noted that the media are routinely used as troops in South Africa’s spy wars.


In the Nasty Neighbours stakes, it would be hard to beat Sean Wisedale’s set-to’s with his neighbours in Glenwood, Durban (see update in this issue), but the ding-dong battle being waged by Dr Jules Lusman with his neighbours in their fashionably conservative Sea Point beachfront block called Alphen House (see Dr Feelgood in this issue) poses a serious challenge to the warring factions of Glenhof Gardens in Joburg’s Riviera (see update in this issue) for second place.


In January 2011 Noseweek reader Jaron Tobias lodged a complaint with the Johannesburg Bar Council (see nose153) concerning the alleged serious misconduct of Advocate Nigel Riley, who appeared for him as the Plaintiff, and Advocate G D Wickens, who appeared for the Defendant, in a case heard in the South Gauteng High Court. The words “rape” and “blackmail” feature in the charge sheet.

Three years later, the Bar Council’s ethics committee (chairman: Advocate Fred Snyckers SC) has yet to arrange a hearing and make a ruling on the matter.

Anyone who feels up to defending the Council’s position on this one should please write to Noseweek and do so.

The Editor

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