How Crime Intelligence’s interest in one activist revealed paranoia
Vanessa Burger was chairperson of the Umbilo Action Group, a small community organisation in Umbilo, South Durban, whose main activities focused on substance abuse and police accountability. (UAG closed in May 2013 due to lack of funds.)
UAG’s work in the community was wide-ranging, with public awareness and advocacy campaigns on issues such as substance abuse, advocacy for rape survivors, and sex-workers’ rights. With Vanessa as a driving force, they organised marches and protests against police corruption and poor law-enforcement.
Vanessa was also working closely with a SAPS internal investigator to probe allegations of police involvement in the local drug trade.
During this time, Vanessa became an increasingly prominent voice in local news media, with regular interviews in newspapers and on radio. The Sunday Tribune even featured her as a LeadSA “Local Hero”. But privately, Burger experienced intense harassment – often anonymously. Her home phone would ring dozens of times a day; she would pick up and the caller would just stay silent. One night two vehicles tried to force her off the road; at another point, someone left a dead rabbit on her doorstep.
Because she was both a public face for community activism, and privately involved in an investigation of organised crime with possible links to police corruption, it is difficult to assess whether these experiences related to her public activities or private investigative work – and while Burger has suspicions, it is also hard to say who exactly is behind them.
It is clear, though, that Crime Intelligence took a great interest in the public activities of her organisation.
Covert phone calls
In 2012, Burger received a call from someone calling himself ‘Malusi’, who claimed to be an Umbilo resident. “He said he wanted to attend UAG [Umbilo Action Group] meetings,” says Burger, “Every time he called he wanted to know when is the meeting happening, what is going to be discussed?”
But Burger started to get suspicious: “He kept me calling me, and he was very stupid actually because he kept using the same cell phone number, but giving a different name each time,” she says. In September 2012, during one of these phone calls she finally confronted the caller directly and he admitted that he was actually a sergeant with Crime Intelligence. (In fact, they had met: he had been present at a meeting between police and UAG organisers in the lead-up to a protest against the Umbilo SAPS station commander.)
After that, he would continue to call her to request information on her activities – this time openly identifying himself as the sergeant from Crime Intelligence. “Eventually I started SMS-ing him details of upcoming meetings pre-emptively,” says Burger: “‘Hello my friend, this is what I’m up to this weekend, will you be there?’”
Phoning around town
Vanessa was not the only person to receive calls. Between 2012 and 2013, several times she learned that Crime Intelligence had called her associates to gather information on UAG. It seems clear that this was an attempt to gather “political intelligence”.
In 2013 when the Shallcross Community Police Forum invited Burger to speak at a public awareness day, a Crime Intelligence officer called the organiser and demanded information about Burger and the Umbilo Action Group. Among other things, apparently the officer wanted to know if UAG was “starting a political party.”
The next UAG newsletter quipped, “Although we find this allegation insulting, so what if we WERE starting a political party? It IS permitted in a democracy.”
There were other, similar incidents. When Burger was invited to speak at UKZN’s Centre for Civil Society, at a meeting about housing issues that was attended by other civil society organisations, a Crime Intelligence officer called the chair of the local community watch to ask similar questions. “He (the community watch member) came to me and asked, ‘Why is Crime Intelligence calling me?’”
When Burger was to attend a housing meeting at Flamingo Court flats, some residents reported that they had received similar calls from Crime Intelligence.
The last time that Burger is aware of such a call was in January 2014. “They contacted the guy in neighbourhood watch again, to ask what I was working on, who was I with now.”
TAKE AWAY QUESTIONS
• Is it reasonable that people and organisations engaging with the State should have all their plans and movements known, but not the other way around?
• Why should the police have any interest in a potential political party?
• How does it affect Burger’s ability to organise, knowing that Crime Intelligence tried to gather information through her associates?