How intelligence officials have harassed Abalali baseMjondolo
Abahlali baseMjondolo (ABM), a movement of shackdwellers based around Durban, has experienced intense repression throughout its existence. This has included police harassment and brutality, veiled public threats by elected officials, anonymous death threats, and most shockingly a series of assassinations: in 2013 and 2014, several Abahlali leaders and allies have been gunned down in or near their homes. In the context of this very real, tangible violence, the issue of possible surveillance is almost an afterthought. But many in the leadership of Abahlali are certain that the organisation is being monitored. At a recent presentation to the South African Human Rights Commissions, Abahlali leaders declared: “We are under constant surveillance by intelligence. If we were doing anything illicit the government would know about it.”
Strange phone calls
S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali, became especially aware of this in early 2010. After Zikode returned to South Africa from an overseas speaking tour, he says the first call he received when he turned on his phone was from the National Intelligence Agency (now the State Security Agency). “They wanted to know, ‘Where have you been, what did you tell those people?’” he says.
“Where have you been, what did you tell those people?”
Zikode had given talks at several US universities. Firstly, this incident told Zikode that the state intelligence agency had a completely inappropriate interest in his activities, but also the timing of the call – so soon after he returned – also suggested that they may also have been monitoring his movements. At least once, Zikode believes he has been phoned by a police officer pretending to be a civilian: in August 2013 he received a call from a man identifying himself as a journalist. At some point in the interview, the ‘journalist’ tried to put Zikode on hold… “Except that it did not work,” says Zikode. “Instead I could hear them talking amongst themselves. And then I heard the sound of the police radios and realised I was actually [listening] in a police station.” Zikode could hear people talking on the other end of the line, but could not make out the words. However, he is now certain that someone from within the SAPS had called him under false pretences to get information about Abahlali. (In the next section, we will hear from another KZN activist who says a Crime Intelligence official called her to get information under false pretences.) Since about 2011, Zikode has started to receive occasional phone calls from various officers in the Crime Intelligence Division, often from a particular officer who identified himself as a Captain. “He started asking me, ‘What plans do you have as a movement?’” says Zikode. According to Zikode these calls were an almost weekly occurrence at one point – between 2012 and 2013 he says he kept a record of them in his notebook. The most recent call happened in September 2014 after the assassination of Thuli Ndlovu, the Abahlali baseMjondolo chairperson in KwaNdengezi, who was gunned down in her home after receiving several death threats. Several days after her death, a member of Crime Intelligence called Zikode to ask about the programme of the funeral and what speeches would be made. As we will see in the next section, Abahlali was also one of the groups questioned by Crime Intelligence officials in the lead-up to the COP17 climate talks in Durban in 2011.
Researchers recently uncovered documentary evidence that Abahlali is the subject of intelligence gathering. In 2010, the eThekwini municipality received an intelligence report on Abahlali which they used to ‘ban’ a protest by an affiliate organisation called the Valley View Flats Committee. According to the municipality’s records, authorities banned the protest, on issues of land and services, because:
“An intelligence report said that these were actually members of Abahlali base- Mjondolo attempting to protest under another name. The integrity of the application was therefore questioned due to the apparent misrepresentation and march was not approved.”
Aside from the fact that the municipality’s decision was not lawful, it also revealed that the state’s intelligence capabilities – presumably through the Crime Intelligence Division – are being used to gather information on a civic organisation. That such capabilities are being used against civil society at all is probably illegal, but to add an extra layer of irony, in this case the intelligence was also wrong. The Valley View Flats Committee is indeed a member organisation of Abahlali (not a ‘front’, as suggested by the official record), but the protest was organised by the Valley View civic organisation in its own capacity.
TAKE AWAY QUESTIONS
• Exactly what kind of threat does Abahlali pose to national security?
• Why are the intelligence structures monitoring lawful Abahlali activities, but failing to protect them from violence and murder?
• How much of the intelligence gathered is informed by paranoia and misunderstanding – and is therefore inaccurate and useless?