How “intelligence officials” spooked an anti-crime activist
‘Miriam’ is an active member of R2K who is also very involved in anti-crime efforts in her community, where violent crime has drawn the attention of the authorities. In January 2015, men apparently representing an intelligence structure approached her three times, and she later discovered her house was under physical surveillance.
One evening while she and members of her community were doing an anti-crime walk through the neighbourhood, a white sedan rolled up and the men inside called her over. There were three men, she says – all in plain clothes.
“They asked what the protest was about and who I am, and am I the convenor of this march,” says Miriam. Assuming that they were just residents who had come to support the event, she answered all their questions. Then the man in the driver’s seat asked her name.
“My name is Miriam,” she answered.
He said, “Oh, you’re the Miriam?” He turned to the guy in the passenger seat and said, as if they already knew about her, “This is Miriam, have a good look at her.”
Miriam was taken aback, but thought it was possible they had heard her name through the grapevine.
“Why do you want to know who's my family? Why do you want to know where I stay? What interest is it to you who I am?”
Miriam’s second encounter
The next night, residents again took to streets in a peaceful march. The same car rolled up. This time only two of the men, but this time the man behind the wheel asked her to get into the car. She sat in the back seat.
This time, says Miriam, their questions were a lot more direct: Where do you stay? Do you have children? Are you married? Which organisation do you represent?
Miriam was stunned. “I’m starting to ask questions back,” she says. “Why do you want to know who’s my family? Why do you want to know where I stay? What interest is it to you who I am?”
The man responded, “It’s just part of our work,” but refused to say what sort of ‘work’ that was.
Miriam remembers feeling suddenly very unsafe. She told them, “Guys if you don’t have any more questions for me, I will rather get out of the car.”
The meeting had left Miriam feeling shaken, and she reported it to her committee the following day.
Miriam’s third encounter
That next evening, for the third night running, she joined the residents’ march through the streets. This time, as she was walking, one of the men from the car came up behind her and grabbed her. “He came up alongside me and hugged me like this,” says Miriam, simulating linking of arms, “and pulled me out of the protest and into the car.”
She was wearing a Right2Know t-shirt, and when she got into the back seat, one of the first things the men asked her was if she worked for Right2Know.
She said, “No, but I’m a great supporter of Right2Know.”
It became clear that the men had found out a lot of information about Miriam since their last meeting, including her affiliation with Right2Know. They began to list other organisations that she was affiliated with or where she had been employed. Some of the information was inaccurate, but it was clear that they had researched her.
Just then, her phone rang: one of her committee members. He had just called a local police contact to give a description of the men he’d seen accost Miriam and their car.
He told Miriam, “Make a smart move and get out of the car and don’t give them any more answers. These guys are from the national intelligence office.”
Miriam told the men that she was ending the interview and made to get out of the car, but not before one of the men said, “Okay, we know where you stay, if we need you again.”
“That made me scared,” remembers Miriam, especially after they had asked about her children. She had also not told them where she stayed.
“Currently a lot of things are happening and I’m trying to put my finger on it. I don’t know why it’s happening to me.”
The next week, Miriam noticed that a different white car had been parked on her street several days in a row. She says the car didn’t have a number plate. Two men she didn’t recognise were in the car. Several times, especially at night, one of the men would get out of the car and walk down the street, and peer into her front yard. It seemed clear that she had been put under physical surveillance.
It is difficult for Miriam to know what to make of all of this. She still does not know why intelligence operatives became so interested in her life. Even though she is involved in organising her community against crime, she feels like she is being monitored as if she were a criminal. It is possible that they believed they were protecting her, as she has received death threats from criminals in the area.
But their actions and motives lacked any transparency, and if they were trying to keep her safe, it is clear that their presence has had the opposite effect. She says she feels unsafe, and violated. She also feared that her phone was bugged.
“Currently a lot of things are happening and I’m trying to put my finger on it,” she says. “I don’t know why it’s happening to me.”
TAKE AWAY QUESTIONS
• How does an intelligence agency justify involving itself in the affairs of any community organisation, but especially one campaigning against violence and crime?
• Were the intelligence officials’ questions designed to intimidate Miriam or did they just have that effect?
• When Miriam demanded to know who they were and why they were interested, why did they refuse to give a straight answer?