South Africa


Intimidation, interception and break-ins: SA security forces and the threat of accountability

Intimidation, interception and break-ins: SA security forces and the threat of accountability
Former South African president Jacob Zuma. EPA/DIEGO AZUBEL / South African Prime Minister B.J. Vorster. (Gallo/Media24/Die Burger) / Former apartheid President P.W. Botha (Gallo SA Editorial/Oryx Media Archive)

Just as in the old South Africa, a murky world of secret operatives still does the bidding of its political masters who want to maintain their grip on power.

The report by the high-level review panel into the State Security Agency has revealed that South Africa’s intelligence services were employed to promote the personal and political interests of former president Jacob Zuma and his associates.

Using the intelligence services to protect your political interests is nothing new to our history. During BJ Vorster’s rule as apartheid prime minister, it was the Bureau for State Security that backed him up. For his successor, PW Botha, it was military intelligence.

But, apart from spies working at the behest of powerful politicians, there’s another chilling similarity between the new and old regimes — one that enjoys far less attention in the press, yet is an open secret among activists: The use of intelligence agencies to undermine and intimidate citizens trying to hold government accountable for basic service delivery.

Springs, 1961-1974

The newly built Springs civic centre was, arguably, a work of art. In the mid-70s, the Springs Advertiser recorded its creation: The building site spanned 7.5ha.

A top South African artist designed a mural of massive bronze panels (several metres in length and breadth) to decorate the building’s façade. The theatre, with special acoustic panels covering the walls, could accommodate 750 people and 500 more in the gallery.

None of this happened by accident. First conceived of in 1952, the town council approved the site in 1963, according to the Advertiser. In 1964, the council approved draft plans for the project. The centre was opened a decade later. The final cost estimate reportedly stood an R6.66-million.

Today, that’s a close to R300-million.

While the Springs town council pondered the civic centre in 1963, another elaborate, multi-million-rand apartheid project started sprawling. But this one was highly secretive, and its cost — paid with tax money and human lives — remain incalculable. It was the start of what historians view as apartheid’s first effective intelligence apparatus.

None of this happened by accident either.

In 1963, a security unit named Republican Intelligence (RI) was quietly birthed on the orders of justice minister BJ Vorster. It was an offshoot of the South African Police’s Special Branch (also known as the Security Police, or Security Branch). Leading RI’s growth was Special Branch head and Vorster’s trusted adviser, Hendrik van den Bergh — aka Lang Hendrik, named thus for his tall stature.

Throughout the 50s and 60s, the apartheid government introduced legislation that made it near impossible for those opposing apartheid to do so legally. Opposition parties were banned, newspapers could be closed down and prison sentences could be imposed on those standing against apartheid. In the 60s, the main driver behind these laws was Vorster. In time, it became the police and the intelligence forces’ legal mandate to protect the apartheid regime.

Meanwhile, as the Springs town council was still looking over the civic centre sketch plans, the apartheid resistance was gutted. In June 1964, Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were imprisoned for life following the Rivonia Trial.

17 June 1972. South African Prime Minister B.J. Vorster.

This massive blow to the ANC did nothing to stymie the growth of the security apparatus. By 1969, led by Lang Hendrik, RI would change into the Bureau for State Security, known by its inaccurate acronym, Boss.

The bureau would prop up the National Party for almost a decade. Until his (and Vorsters’) forced retirement in 1978, Van den Bergh would reign supreme. As head of Boss, all other intelligence divisions, including the Directorate of Military Intelligence and the Special Branch of the Police, reported to him. When Vorster became prime minister in 1966, Lang Hendrik remained his close and trusted adviser.

Thought to have more than 1,000 agents in its employ by the late 70s — many posing undercover as students, journalists and activists — Boss would also spawn the diabolical Z-Squad. It remains unknown just how many political assassinations this special unit carried out.

But you didn’t have to be plotting a violent coup to irk the Van den Bergh troops.

During the 60s and 70s, Elizabeth Stiekema, a 30-something mother of five, was living in Selcourt, Springs. She and her husband, Bill, opposed apartheid and were members of Helen Suzman’s Progressive Party. Bill was a founding member of the Springs branch in 1961.

We were definitely noted as political no-nos,” recalls Elizabeth, now in her 70s. “We were a small group, but very vocal.”

They were particularly vocal about the civic centre, and the party thought it an unjustifiable expenditure, especially when considering the abysmal conditions of a local informal settlement, Payneville.

Elizabeth explains:

Payneville was a transit camp — temporary accommodation while proper facilities were built. These improvements never materialised, despite many years of promises. Payneville became a permanent township without adequate water or sanitation.”

The opening ceremony of the civic centre — attended by political dignitaries — was a golden opportunity for the party to protest. Authorities were agitated.

George, South Africa – 1998: Former apartheid President P.W. Botha addressing the media in the George Magistrate court where he was fined and given a suspended one-year jail sentence for refusing to testify to the TRC. (Photo by Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive)

A group of seven or eight ladies stood silently with posters strategically placed for maximum visibility,” recalls Elizabeth.

Police were present, keeping an obvious eye on us — such a threat to state security! Suddenly a young uniformed policeman moved toward one of the ladies — the most timid of the group — and ripped the poster from her hands. She was traumatised and collapsed in a heap. At no time did any of his colleagues intervene.”

During the protest, says Elizabeth, she became aware of a man in plain clothes photographing her and a friend from a distance. “Once he saw that we had noticed him, he actually came out right in front of us and took a photograph. He made very sure that we knew that he was taking it.”

She believes that the photographer was a security agent, and that others in the Progressive Party were also being watched by the state’s security forces.

They knew when we had meetings. There was one couple in particular — we always used to go to their house to have the meetings. They said there was somebody watching who was coming to the meetings. We all knew there was a security cop’s car or van parked down the road.”

(That couple was Dick and Angela Byrne. Angela ran as a Progressive Party parliamentary candidate, and her main opposition was fellow Springs resident and National Party member, Robert Smit. Smit and his wife, Jean-Cora, were brutally assassinated in 1977 in their Springs home. Many still suspect Van den Bergh’s Z-Squad was responsible, but the murders remain unsolved and the motives unclear. But, what was clear, was that not even the National Party members were safe.)

The harassment described by Elizabeth was not new to the Stiekemas. Around 1967, recalls Bill, a man identifying himself as a member of the security police paid him a visit at his office at a food factory in Springs, where he worked as a manager and food technologist.

He showed me a registration number belonging to a vehicle parked outside of a premises that they thought was suspicious,” explains Bill. Recognising his registration number, he remained unfazed and frankly admitted it was his vehicle. He guessed that the security forces had seen his car in front of the Byrnes’ home. But, he found the idea that their home was suspicious, ludicrous. “Please! We were social friends. We could have been having a meeting, or we could have been having a braai.”

On another occasion, says Bill, a member of the police phoned him to ask whether he knew Father Benedict Mulder, a local Catholic priest who had been advising workers of their legal rights and, according to the policeman, stirring up trouble for employers. Bill was firm and defiant. “I said, ‘Yes I know him — he’s a friend of mine.’ End of conversation.”

There was another way to use the telephone in an attempt to intimidate.

On the home telephone,” says Elizabeth, “I suddenly realised that something had changed in the sound and the tone when you picked it up to dial or answer. I’m quite sure that our phone was tapped. You could hear it was open — like a sort of vacuum. Afterwards, I never bothered to even think about it. Whatever I said could be said in an open forum, no matter who was listening. I’d just say, “If anybody wants to listen, listen! Enjoy yourself!”

The sound of the altered tone that Elizabeth describes is in accordance with the mechanics of the interception of phone calls over a copper line.

Children playing in the streets at the Cape Flats on August 25, 2013, in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / The Times / Halden Krog)

During apartheid, the state security apparatus made extensive use of wire-tapping to spy on the opposition. They were in a perfect position to do so. The national post office, a government entity, also operated the telephone network. (Telkom was only established in 1991.) Apartheid legislation was designed so that various ministers could give permission for phones to be tapped.

And, the post office would eventually have its own spook team in the mid-80s. In his extensive historical documentation titled Apartheid’s Friends: The rise and fall of South Africa’s secret service, journalist James Sanders talks about the postal services’ spy unit.

He relates how, according to a former head of the outfit, they received training manuals in “psychological warfare” (courtesy of the Pentagon). The manuals also contained instructions for creating booby traps, poisons, and prussic acid — a substance that could induce a heart attack if you inhaled it, but would not be easy to detect during a post-mortem examination.

Even after the Stiekemas moved to Sandton (Bill had a new job) shortly after the opening of the civic centre, Elizabeth remained wary. She says the home phone line had suddenly been activated, but no one from the post office had come to connect the phone, as was the usual practice.

She eventually received a bill, and contacted the post office to ask why she’d gotten it when, officially, she had no telephone connection. The response she got troubled her:

And he says, ‘Well, what about all those calls to Cape Town you made?’ As if to say, ‘We know what you’re doing.’ I just got the impression that they were saying to me, ‘We’ve got tabs on you.’”

Cape Flats, the new South Africa

Shavina September* is a 45-year-old mother of three living on the Cape Flats. In the mid-sixties, black and coloured families were forced to move out of urban areas to this windswept, barren wetland. Cities became the domain of white people.

This was part of the National Party’s forced removal strategy. Today, the devastation left by apartheid still haunts communities on the Cape Flats in the form of violent crime, gangsterism, extreme poverty, and service delivery shortcomings — including a lack of visible policing.

For years, September has been an activist. She recalls how she ran from the apartheid police at the age of 13. After a long chase, she ended up in her own back yard. The police closed in, ready to arrest her. But her grandfather came to her rescue, albeit cruelly.

He told the officers he would discipline her — they needn’t worry — and beat her with a sjambok right in front of them. The police let her go. Years later, September knows that was his way of preventing the police from taking her away — perhaps for good.

Three decades later, September is still fighting. She runs a small non-profit organisation that lobbies for increased community safety, and is outspoken about government’s failure to address gangsterism and poverty in the Cape Flats.

Her activism, she says, has not been appreciated by the post-1994 regime.

It started during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency.

Back then I was calling people to order. The ANC had a lot to invest in our community.” She says that the community had monthly meetings that various government departments would attend. Plans were made for ways to improve life for the poorest of the poor.

At the time, the ANC was in charge of the Cape Town municipality:

They came here to our community,” says September, “saying they had R180-million for urban renewal.” But nothing transpired. When community representatives went to Parliament for answers, they were told that there never was any money.

But, during her time lobbying for the cause, September seemed to have struck a nerve.

Sometime in the early 2000s, she recalls, a man pulled up outside her house in a black unmarked sedan. Dressed in plain clothes, he knocked on her door. He told her that he was from the National Intelligence Agency, aka NIA, which is today the domestic branch of the State Security Agency (SSA).

He had come from Joburg,” says September, “to tell me that there were people who didn’t like what I was doing. He said, ‘You’re doing good work here, but I just want to tell you, you’re treading on dangerous ground.’”

September was angry: “I told him, ‘If you know it’s dangerous, why don’t you do something? You have the time and money to come here, why don’t you use that to address this danger you’re talking about?’ ”

By the time Zuma became president, little had changed in September’s neighbourhood. In 2014 she participated in a week of protests in her neighbourhood, highlighting the government’s inaction against gangsterism. The people had marched for eight consecutive evenings.

At the time, the shooting was so bad that the government wanted to close the schools. I said, ‘We are not closing the schools. The police have to patrol the area and the community has to work with them to make it safe so that the children can go to school.”

At the protests, the police were there in their official capacity to protect the protesters. Every evening after the march, she recalls, they would make sure that people could go home safely.

But there was another government presence.

September says that after the last evening’s march, everyone gathered at the local community hall. As folk filtered into the building, three men driving an unmarked sedan and wearing plain clothes, approached her. They told her to get into the back seat of the car. Defiant and not afraid of a confrontation, she did. Once inside the car, one of the men climbed in the back with her, and she was effectively stuck between the two strangers on the back seat.

One said, ‘What’s your name?’ I asked him why he is asking me my name if he clearly knows who I am. He asked me about my family and said, ‘Don’t lie. We know everything. We know where you live. Don’t stress. Just answer our questions.’ ”

Then, her phone rang. It was a friend who was a police reservist who had seen her get into the car.

He said, ‘Get out of the car now! I’ll explain to you later!’ ” At her home that evening, her friend told her that he recognised the men as members of the domestic branch of the State Security Agency.

Along with the intimidation has come another fear: As was the case with the Stiekemas, September strongly suspects her communications and information are being intercepted by the state.

And, like the Stiekemas, September has grounds for concern.

Today, the State Security Agency (SSA) — the body primarily in charge of intelligence-gathering — remains shrouded in mystery, since the parliamentary committee responsible for civilian oversight (the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence) always meets behind closed doors.

The agency also operates the National Communications Centre (NCC) just outside Pretoria. Its array of massive white satellite dishes is visible from the approaching road. Here, digital communications can be mass intercepted. The NCC is not mentioned in a single piece of legislation. In 2008, a ministerial commission (ordered by then minister of intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, to investigate the NCC) released a damning report about the facility’s lack of accountability, but none of its recommendations were implemented.

The SSA also runs the Office for Interception Centres (OIC) in Sandton, to which all telecoms service providers are obliged to connect and send, when ordered by the court, copies of a surveillance target’s digital communications to the various intelligence agencies.

Unlike the NCC, the OIC is legislated. However, over the past decade, there have been numerous accounts in the media of journalists, activists, and members of opposition parties having their communications intercepted illegally through the abuse of the state’s facilities.

September says her mobile phone constantly heats up, and the battery runs down quickly. “I’ve had to buy a power bank,” she says. A few weeks ago, she explains, a gig of data — which usually lasts her 10 days — disappeared within a day, despite her not using data to up- or download information. She says that this happens even though there are no apps running, location services are turned off, and there is ample free memory — all potential causes of battery drain, a heated device or the sudden loss of data.

Such occurrences, cybersecurity professionals will tell you, are possible indications that your phone is being hacked, and that spyware (software that allows a third party to download files from your phone and peruse your messages) has been installed on it.

There are other signs that September has reason to worry about the interception. In 2018, she went to a community meeting where an organisation gave a presentation almost identical to one that she had put together, but had revealed to no one.

In that organisation, she says, are old comrades who had contacts in the security police during apartheid. Some of these security policemen are still working in the state’s intelligence services. She fears that they may have electronically accessed her files and stolen her presentation.

September cannot know for sure if her phone is bugged — it would cost her a few thousand to pay a professional to establish if it has a virus, and that’s money she doesn’t have. But, what she does know, is that her hardcopy records were stolen.

Someone broke into my house in 2017. I keep a record of all incidents relating to violent crime in a book so that I can analyse it and explain to people what’s going on. My files were gone.” September says nothing else was stolen.

The parallels with the Stiekema’s experience four decades ago are striking. The question is, why? Because, after apartheid, there seemed to be a genuine intent to reform the intelligence agencies.

A white paper on intelligence was published in 1995, stating that “a new mission is being set for the South African intelligence community in line with the new, non-racial, democratic order, in which much weight is given to the rights of the individual.”

New legislation (including laws meant to curb the practice of communications interception for political or personal gain) was drawn up.

But September’s experience suggests these intentions paved a road straight to hell.

There are different possible explanations for this. After apartheid, some agents from the regime remained in the intelligence forces, and could therefore still be exerting their influence.

Another possible explanation could be seen in the nature of Operation Vul’indlela, the ANC’s former underground intelligence unit that is better known as Operation Vula. In the late 80s, it was established to operate according to its own rules without reporting to the ANC’s political leadership. This protocol was approved by the National Executive Committee.

Jacob Zuma, who was at the head of the ANC’s intelligence forces, drove the creation of the operation. Many of Operation Vul’indlela’s members occupied top political posts after 1994. For instance, Mac Maharaj was Zuma’s spokesman and adviser from 2011 to 2015, and Charles Nqakula, who became the Minister of Safety and Security from 2002 to 2008, also became the adviser to the presidency in 2009 when Zuma took office.

But that is theoretical. However, there is another factor at play — one that’s official. During Zuma’s presidency, the ANC had an openly declared policy of viewing non-profit organisations, journalists, and activists as agents of a darker force hell-bent on overthrowing the ANC-led government. (This is perhaps not surprising, since that’s how apartheid intelligence services spied on them.)

And so, September is vigilant, in the same way anti-apartheid activists had to be:

The people who come and warn you, they look like ordinary people. You don’t know who to trust.” She recalls the words of an old friend who served both in the police and the State Security Agency, and who recently died:

The last time I saw him, was at the police station. He still warned me: ‘Be careful. You think the gangs will kill you, but the cops could kill you just as easily.’ ”

Yet she remains hopeful, even though she believes that the current regime has failed its people.

The government is not prepared — it’s so long after ’94 and they still don’t have the right policies in place. But they are too arrogant to admit it. Why? Because a politician feels, ‘I’m going to lose my accountability.’ At the cost of the lives of millions! But it’s not cast in stone. We can still turn it around.” DM

* Not her real name

Heidi Swart is a journalist who has extensively investigated South Africa’s intelligence services.

This story was commissioned by the Media Policy and Democracy Project, an initiative of the University of Johannesburg’s department of journalism, film and TV and Unisa’s department of communication science.


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