Wednesday, March 29, 2023

From Tergos to DIS: Trends in Botswana’s Intelligence and Security Services

Barry Gilder, once the African National Congress’s Regional Political and Military Council (RPMC) chief in Botswana, and who later served at senior levels in various South African intelligence and security organs until he retired in 2007, tells a story about his encounter with Botswana Police’s Special Branch during the days of anti-apartheid struggle. This was at a time when Botswana’s existence as a nation-state was perhaps most at risk and the Special Branch was the leading organ of intelligence and security in Botswana..

In his book, Songs and Secrets Gilder remarks that one evening in the 1980s they arrived at a Mogoditsahe hotel for a rendezvous with two MK operatives who had just arrived in Gaborone and were due to be infiltrated into South Africa. According Gilder, he and a colleague of his went straight to a room they had earlier booked for the operatives, and gave the prearranged coded knock at the door. But, lo and behold, when the door opened, out emerged from the room, not the MK operatives they had come to meet, but two members of the Special Branch. As they say, the rest is history. Gilder and his colleague were detained and later deported to Zambia. Other stories about the Special Branch are about how they somehow managed to be just a step ahead of South African apartheid forces in warning the MK cadres to run for their lives. One such cadre was Nathan Serache, who was operating under the cover of a BBC correspondent. His house in Ginger was blown up a few hours after a tip off from the Special Branch.

I remember one incident in the mid-1980s at the then Mahaplaye Chase Me Inn. It was a Friday evening and we were chilling out, many of us BNF cadres. In came Superintendent Gotlop of the Special Branch. As usual the BNF boys started passing remarks (but jocularly) about how he was wasting his time following us around. Supt. Gotlop just laughed at the snide remarks, and concentrated on his beer and cigarette. At a corner table sat this white guy who looked very much like one of the farmers from the nearby Tuli Block. We did not pay much attention to the ‘farmer’. After sometime the ‘farmer’ had disappeared. So had Supt. Gotlop. Many years later I bumped into Supt Gotlop, now happily retired. He reminded me of the incident, which I remembered alright. Then came the bombshell: you guys almost jeopardized an operation by your silly noises, I was actually following that ‘white famer’ because he was an apartheid security agent, Supt. Gotlop politely rebukes me, to my utter embarrassment and shame. In another incident, again in the mid-1980s, I met with this Special Branch officer, call him ‘Motso’, in Kasane. He was driving their trade mark Toyota Hilux with a cage like canopy.

In the back was a white man in handcuffs and leg irons. Motso informs that they had nabbed this white ‘mercenary’ and he was taking the guy to Francistown, alone! I was however able to see the not so concealed standard issue 9mm pistol in his hip holster. My recollection is that there was no drama, like armed guards, sirens, cars taking off at high speed and screeching to a halt. Contrast this with what I saw the other day at the Village Magistrates’ court. A bunch of guys, carrying assault rifles, pistols in their hip holsters, bullet proof jackets, and baklavas to boot. When I asked a bystander who these urban cowboys were, I was told that they were the boys from the DIS bringing in some criminals for mention. I asked myself, but where the heck are the police? One day I was driving along A1 heading north, just after Rasesa Lodge junction. In my rear view mirror I could see a fast approaching black sedan, which turned out to be one of these fancy looking Audis.

SEABELO bus was on the left lane heading south, The driver of the Audi flashed blue lights and turned on the siren, forcing me to drive on the hard shoulder! Such exhibitionism and showmanship by an intelligence organization was unheard of and unknown during the days of the Special Branch under David Mophuting (1973-1978) Adolf Heisrchfelt (1978-1992) and Harold Mogale (1992-2008). Those days people did not even know the difference between a Special Branch officer and a regular plainclothes CID officer! I know all this because we also had our own ragtag counter-intelligence, although very much limited to identifying the Special Branch officers. My recollection of how the Special Branch worked was that they were always discreet, laid back, subtle, and used the most unobtrusive methods. They must have taken very seriously the maxim see everything, hear everything, and say nothing! from their British mentors. Don’t even admit you exist! was what my uncle, Superintendent Dingalo (now retired) tried to do in the witness box during the trial of Clement Gofamodimo, if I remember correctly. My recollection is where Adolf Heirschfelt was debonair and gregarious, Harold Mogale was laidback and self-effacing, a real spy if ever there was one.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, the DIS is not Botswana’s first intelligence and security organization. This is confirmed by Col. Isaac Kgosi when he writes: When the DISS was established in 2008, it took over some of the functions and ongoing operations, personnel, and suppliers of the Botswana Police Security Intelligence Service, formerly the Special Branch. The old Special Branch was a handover from the departing British colonial state. According to the doyen of Botswana’s history, Professor Neil Parsons, the Special Branch took shape in Bechuanaland in the early 1950s. At first intelligence information was collected through an informal network referred to as Tergos (Territorial Gossip) but later the collection became more systematic and organized, through the District Intelligence Committees (DIC) for onward transmission to the Central Intelligence Committee (CIC) in Mafikeng for further analysis and action. The Special Branch was reorganized in 1998, and renamed Security Intelligence Service and its head, Harold Mogale, who was one of the three Deputy Commissioners, was given the new rank of Director General. In 2008 Mogale retired, at the same time that Botswana’s intelligence and security organ was being reorganized yet again. This time around national security mandate was removed from the Police and transferred to the stand alone DIS.

I am raising these issues because as a citizen and a tax payer, I am alarmed and dismayed by the stories of abuse and mismanagement at the DIS, an otherwise crucial national institution. Since its formation, the DIS has fast gained notoriety and has been associated with extrajudicial killings and general harassment of civilian population. In its short six (6) years of existence, the DIS has attracted more public attention and controversy than in all the years of the Special Branch and SIS put together. In recent weeks the newspapers have been awash with exposes’ of DIS’s DirectorÔÇôGeneral businesses and financial transactions. These revelations are an embarrassment to the country and an indictment against the DIS. Some people have even argued that the DIS is Batswana’s first intelligence and security organ and that we should learn to live with it because that is how intelligence and security organizations operate. I have done some research on national security and gained sufficient background information to comment on the DIS. I strongly disagree. Because of the level interest and the heated debates that the creation of DIS has aroused, I decided to place my paper in an open access source, as part of my service to the community. For the full text readers are kindly advised to visit website:

It is common cause that traditionally national security threat was understood to mean threats posed by other states, of which the military invasion was the most preeminent. The Special Branch, the DIS predecessor, weathered Botswana’s national security storms emanating from South Africa and Rhodesia, when Botswana as nation-state could have easily been dismembered by these powerful militaries; this was the time when Botswana’s national security and sovereignty were most at risk. Thus whenever I meet Adolf Heirschfelt, I picture him and President Masire, heads together in the Office of the President or at the State House, plotting how to support the liberation movement and avoid the humiliation of Inkomati Accord type of situation. Maybe these two should consider co-authoring a memoir on what must have been a very delicate balancing act, of preserving Botswana national sovereignty on the one hand, and on the other supporting the national liberation movement. Many years later I met with ‘Motso’ also retired, and we go down the memory lane. He remembers Oupa Mokou, an MK operative, who was apparently very fond his red car. According to Motso, the Special Branch warned Mokou that his car was sticking out like a sore thump, making it easier for the apartheid agents to follow him around. Mokou was advised to spray paint his car white, which he did, and he lived to see South Africa free. Considering that President Masire allowed the MK to continue to operate in Botswana, and at the same time avoided Inkomati Accord type of deal with apartheid South Africa, I believe that the old Special Branch, with its faults, such as domestic spying, must have been more efficient, and needless to say more cost effective.

Another misconception is that the DIS was the creation of President Khama. But long before Khama became President in 1998, there was a realization that the Special Branch and its successor, the SIS were not getting the necessary cooperation of other intelligence security organization because they were ‘hamstrung’ by the Botswana Police Act. This point is confirmed by Lesego Tsholofelo in his MA dissertation from Brunel University, who posits that, ‘The discomfort of sharing intelligence which was likely to be used for policing or prosecutorial purposes, and in the process compromising sources, meant that the SB’s partners were reluctant to share [intelligence information] and collaborate” Perhaps it will be more accurate to say Khama hijacked the process when he became the Vice President, knowing that he was the next President. As we are all aware the DIS came into existence on April 1 2008, the same day that Khama was sworn as the President. On the same day, Khama named his most trusted confidante Isaac Kgosi as the Director General of the DIS. Isaac Kgosi was promoted over Tefo Kgothang, who was the Deputy Director General of SIS under Harold Mogale.

I will be the first to concede that non-traditional national security threats, such as the Al-Shabab terrorist attacks at a mall in Nairobi, can emerge and necessitate changes in national security priorities. The question that arises, however, is whether or not the strategic repositioning of Botswana intelligence and security services alluded to above, mean that the national security threats that have emerged since 2008 have been so far reaching to the extent that the costs of running Botswana’s intelligence and security organization have risen so exponentially in such a short space of time?

I wish to dispute this, much as I remain an outsider looking in. It must be noted that national security threat does not necessarily exist in any objectives sense, but is social construction of securocrats, who can securitize issues and activities by just declaring them a national security threat, not because these issues or activities pose any threat in any objective sense, but are presented as such by the securocrats. The reported harassment of journalist, the continued intimidation of Outsa Mokone, and round the clock surveillance of trade unionists and political activists is a case in point. But intelligence and national security matters are too important to be left in the hands of intelligence and security managers, some of whom might be delusional and think they have a monopoly wisdom and patriotism. What this country needs badly is a National Security Policy to provide clear parameters for operations of the country security forces. Such a policy will hopefully give national security a limited narrow and unambiguous interpretation to prevent the abuse and misuse of national security organs by insecure leaders when they realize that they are facing political threat from the opposition or civil society.

Every citizen must be alarmed when intelligence and security officials’ murky secrets are presented as official secrets, and met with securocratic ‘no comments on the grounds of national security. More importantly it will be the urgent task of the next Parliament to ensure that both the Intelligence and Security Committee and the DIS Tribunal are legally capacitated to ensure that the DIS, this crucial national institution is insulated from political interference and manipulation, and does not degenerate into something akin to Haiti’s feared and hated Tonton Macoute, a regime security agency which DIS seems to have become.’

*Monageng Mogalakwe is Associate Professor of Sociology. His area of research is State-Society Relations.


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