Thembelihle’s stories

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Photo by Kate Stegeman

How intelligence officials have tried to recruit community activists in Thembelihle

Bhayiza Miya is a leader of the Thembelihle Crisis Committee (TCC), a community organisation in Thembelihle informal settlement in south Johannesburg.

Bhayiza is known for being the person that police tried to hold personally responsible for a days-long protest that happened in Thembelihle in September 2011. After incidents of violence and property destruction during the protest, Bhayiza was charged with intimidation and public violence, though at his trial it emerged that he and other TCC leaders actually helped to restrain residents and subdue any violence. The state’s case fell apart and the matter was eventually struck from the court roll.

Unlawful and brutal behaviour of police in Thembelihle has continued to make news – most recently in March 2015, when residents’ protest against the housing MEC was violently suppressed. Police used rubber bullets and teargas on protesters and arrested residents indiscriminately.

But one part of the story that hasn’t been told is the evidence of Crime Intelligence’s involvement in community politics in Thembelihle. In fact, on two separate occasions Crime Intelligence operatives have approached Bhayiza to become an informer – as recently as December 2014.

Bhayiza’s first encounter

Bhayiza says he was first approached to become an informer as early as 2005, although he isn’t sure about the date. A single Crime Intelligence officer, wearing plain clothes, came to his shack to talk with him. “He said, ‘Bhayiza, we want you to work for us, because it seems as if you are famous or popular within this community,” says Bhayiza. The officer told him they wanted help to “arrest criminals”.

Bhayiza says he would have no problem with helping efforts to fight crime in the community. But during this discussion at his shack, it became clear to him that the Crime Intelligence officer was more interested in political activity in the area. “Within the very same talk,” he says, “they changed it to say: we want people who are involved in political activities.”
The official said he wanted help identifying “people who want to kill the councillor or overthrow the government.”

But who was it in Thembelihle that wanted to kill councillors or overthrow the government? There is no credible reason to believe that this has ever been a risk in the area. To Bhayiza, it seemed that the officer was interested in getting information on whoever was helping to organise residents of Thembelihle to demand better services and more accountability from local government. In other words, in the view of the Crime Intelligence officer, the work of Thembelihle activists was a potential risk to state security.

“Talking about criminals was the entry point,” he says, “but the aim and objective was to target the so-called [community] leaders that are causing problems.”

The official were offering money – about R40,000, according to Bhayiza.

Siphiwe’s first encounter
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Photo by Kate Stegeman

Siphiwe Segodi, another Thembelihle Crisis Committee leader who now works at the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), remembers getting a phone call in about 2008 from a person who turned out to be a National Intelligence Agency officer. The caller wanted to meet at a nearby petrol garage. Although he was suspicious, Segodi decided to go meet him. “I remember he had a white Corsa bakkie,” says Segodi. It was in that bakkie that the two sat and talked.
At that time, Segodi and the TCC were planning a march in Pretoria with the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF).

“What he wanted to know was more about that march, which communities were going to be involved, details of the march, and so on,” says Segodi, “But he also was saying he wanted a relationship going forward.”

“He was saying if I buy into this idea [of giving information], they will take care of me,” says Segodi – he believes this was an offer of money. Segodi did not take him up on the offer – instead he reported it to his organisation. Since then, Segodi agrees with Bhayiza that there have been several other attempts to recruit TCC leaders as informers – though it is not always clear which intelligence structures were involved.

Bhayiza’s second encounter

Just before this handbook was printed, Bhayiza reported that a Crime Intelligence official had tried to recruit him once again – in December 2014.

A man called, saying he was from “Gauteng Intelligence”, to request a meeting at a nearby mall; they met at Steers. “He took out a recorder like is normally used by researchers, so he was recording the conversation,” remembers Bhayiza.

“He went direct to the point to say that he was informed that I was [approached to be] recruited and I declined. He said there are a lot of benefits and I should take the job.”

The Crime Intelligence official apologised to Bhayiza about the incidents surrounding his arrest in 2011 and promised that it would not happen again if Bhayiza became an informer.

Compared to the 2005 encounter, Bhayiza remembers that the official was even more upfront about wanting information about lawful political activism. “He wanted to know anything that deals with politics, about the protests, the service delivery protests that are normally happening in Thembelihle,” says Bhayiza. “He wanted any information concerning political activism that is in the area.”

Though Bhayiza turned down the offer – again, involving large amounts of money – he says he was not angry or concerned about the experience. After everything that he has experienced, “It comes in this ear and went through the other ear. I don’t consider these people as seriously as I might.”

Use of local information networks

Though Bhayiza may have turned down these requests, it is clear that police are getting information from somewhere. Some months ago, Bhayiza reported getting a call from a local police official who he says is sympathetic to his organisation.

“He told me, ‘We have heard you are having a protest tomorrow,’” recalls Bhayiza. “It was not a protest; it was a meeting with the MEC for housing. So I said, ‘Where did you get that information?’ And he told me, ‘I got that information from the intelligence.’”

The call ended with a warning: “He said, ‘Bhayiza, whatever you are doing tomorrow, be careful.’”

So where are intelligence structures getting this (sometimes wrong) information?

Bhayiza reports that TCC leaders have long believed that Crime Intelligence uses local ANC members to report on TCC’s activities. “They [Crime Intelligence] could see that they could not get into us as comrades – they are now using ANC members… They normally come to our mass meetings with a recorder – you know, a phone – and they record.”

This suspicion was underscored when police charged Bhayiza in the aftermath of Thembelihle’s September 2011 protest – he discovered that the police statement included information from two local ANC members.

The use of local informers could explain why TCC members are finding that SAPS appears to have prior knowledge of TCC’s meetings, even when they haven’t been publicly announced.

TAKE AWAY QUESTIONS

• Why are intelligence officials viewing the expression of community grievances as crimes and threats to public safety and “national security”?
• How common is it for intelligence officials to recruit community informers, and for what purpose?
• Such actions create division and sow mistrust within communities and organisations – is this intentional?

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