When State Security calls…

United Front conference. Photo by Oupa Nkosi, Mail&Guardian

How intelligence officials see some activists as threats to national security

It’s not every day that an ordinary civil servant gets a call from government spies. But that’s what happened to ‘Themba’, a local government employee who doesn’t want his identity revealed in this report, when his phone rang suddenly one day in late 2014. The caller said he was a representative of the State Security Agency (SSA). He wanted to meet.

“I asked what is it in connection with,” remembers Themba, “And he told me it was regarding a conversation between myself and Brian Ashley.”

Brian Ashley is director of the Alternative Information Development Centre (AIDC), a leftwing think tank. He is also a prominent figure in the interim leadership of the United Front, a proposed alliance between Numsa and community organisations. Themba had recently consulted Ashley on a variety of labour issues.

Although he was very wary, Themba agreed to meet with the SSA official at his office. At the appointed time, two men showed up. They were dressed smartly, he says, in suit and tie.

The SSA officials got straight to the point.“We want to know more about your relationship with Brian Ashley,” one told him.

One of the men said that they had heard a recorded phone conversation between him and Brian Ashley about a plan to organise a general strike of workers in his sector – implying that the SSA had intercepted a phone conversation between the two.

In any case, both Themba and Ashley deny that they ever had such a conversation. “Firstly, we never discussed a general strike,” says Ashley. “Secondly – so what if we did? The last time I checked the right to strike was in the Constitution!”

Brian Ashley

Themba says he can’t understand how the SSA could consider strike action to be a matter for state security. He challenged the SSA officials to explain their interest in Brian Ashley.

One of the SSA officers replied that they see Ashley as “an activist who wants regime change”, adding that Ashley was involved with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), a bitter rival to the Cosatu-aligned National Union of Mineworkers. Ashley and his organisation, the AIDC, had given technical support to Amcu during its wage negotiations in the months-long platinum strike in 2014 – and it is hard to see how this is the SSA’s concern.

The underlying accusation, that supporting Amcu was somehow a programme of agitation, had previously been made by the ANC when they declared that the union’s platinum strike was driven by “white foreign nationals” intent on “destabilisation of our economy” – an apparent reference to AIDC staff.

Themba first got the impression that the SSA officials wanted him to simply cut ties with Ashley. However, by the end of their conversation, he got the impression that the men actually wanted him to become an informer on Brian’s activities.“They told me, ‘We’ll come back to you, to see how best we can work together.’”

After the meeting, Themba reported the encounter to Ashley, as well as two other comrades. The SSA officials never called back. He believes that if they were monitoring phone calls between him and Ashley, they would know that he was not interested in becoming an informer.


  • • How did the State Security Agency come to view a particular political activist as a threat to national security?
  • • Why is the SSA investigating lawful political action at all?
  • • What does this mean for the Constitutional rights of privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association?
  • • On what grounds could the SSA have intercepted a phone call legally?

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