South Africa

MUNICIPAL POLITICS

City of Joburg leaders maintain anti-corruption unit had illegal spy equipment, despite SSA rejecting allegations

City of Joburg leaders maintain anti-corruption unit had illegal spy equipment, despite SSA rejecting allegations

City of Johannesburg leaders have claimed that the municipality’s anti-corruption unit procured illegal spy equipment to collect information on councillors. The opposition believes it’s playing politics.

Correspondence from the State Security Agency (SSA), dated July 2022, cleared the City of Johannesburg’s Group Forensic and Investigation Services (GFIS) department of allegations that it was in possession of illegal intelligence-gathering equipment.    

A year later, some city officials have a different view. Whether the view is substantiated or it is politics at play remains to be seen.  

This week, council Speaker Colleen Makhubele and the council’s chair of chairs, Lloyd Phillips, both from the minority coalition government, suggested there were “spies” in the City of Gold. 

The suggestion came after officials conducted an inspection at GFIS where they were pointed to equipment allegedly used for “counterintelligence” purposes, including spying on councillors and senior city officials.

The revelation came almost two months after Makhubele authorised a probe into the alleged unlawful conduct of the GFIS and former city officials, who she said sanctioned bogus GFIS investigations into councillors.

The GFIS is the city’s internal anti-corruption unit. 

The equipment in question is said to have cost the city a “significant” amount of money. During the inspection, it was stored in a safe, to which it’s believed only one or two people have access. The equipment was contained in three boxes, the size of briefcases. 

In one box, a “spectrum analyser” was found. This equipment is often used to eliminate frequencies or to sweep a room before sensitive engagements or meetings. There was also other equipment used to pick up and isolate signals using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. 

“The downside is that we were not able to get answers as to why it was procured to begin with, because to utilise this kind of equipment, as a city we would need to have state security clearance, because it is an intelligence tool or a tool to conduct counterintelligence,” Phillips said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Joburg multi-party government’s fight against corruption is under malicious attack 

However, the SSA had identified the equipment as technical surveillance countermeasures, used “for identification of eavesdropping devices and cannot be repurposed to perform any other offensive or collection functions. It is not intelligence-gathering equipment as alleged.”

Phillips could not say why the equipment was procured, given that the SSA usually conducts countersurveillance sweeps across different levels of government. 

‘We cannot account for why we have the equipment’

Asked if there had been spies in the city, Phillips responded, “Personally, I think yes, there has to be, because we have spy equipment. 

“If we are sitting with equipment that is potentially spy equipment, counterintelligence equipment, what are we doing with it? We cannot account for why we have it to begin with. That could only indicate that somewhere, somehow, somebody is or there is a certain shadow or third force that is snooping on our private spaces. That is the only speculative conclusion that I can get to.”  

Makhubele said she had been spied on. A 200-page report analysing her life, movements and cellphone records was compiled without her knowledge, she said. 

“We do not know who sanctioned that report, which machines were used and I am not the only councillor that was subjected to that without my consent, without my knowledge. 

“What is still very much concerning for us is, who has these reports pertaining to councillors, for what purpose and how do they extract this information? Once they have extracted all this information about your entire life, what happens to it and how safe are you then as a person when you are so naked to people that you don’t even know?” Makhubele asked.  

‘Misleading the public’

Daily Maverick spoke to several councillors from the Good and Cope parties who said they did not feel their privacy had been violated, as suggested by Phillips and Makhubele. Instead, the councillors accused the two of misleading the public to justify stripping the GFIS of its powers.

The DA’s Mpho Phalatse, the former executive mayor who commissioned the SSA to investigate the procurement of the alleged intelligence-gathering equipment, said: “To my knowledge, neither myself nor anyone in the multiparty government has fallen victim to spying.  

“I have never felt unsafe. The SSA response to my office did not suggest that there was anything untoward going on at GFIS.”

DA Johannesburg caucus leader Belinda Kayser-Echeozonjoku accused Makhubele of targeting the GFIS to win favour with her coalition partners, including the ANC.

In an attempt to bolster her political future, Speaker Makhubele has tried to garner favour with other parties, like the ANC, by attempting to legitimise the neutering of the GFIS in the June council sitting.

“GFIS was investigating numerous illegal activities perpetrated by members of the current administration, and … the sidelining of the entity has managed to halt all investigations into their alleged illegal activities. The way that justice has been avoided is an unacceptable way for public representatives to conduct themselves,” said Kayser-Echeozonjoku. 

The GFIS was established by the then executive mayor Herman Mashaba in 2016 and was led by former Gauteng Hawks boss Shadrack Sibiya, both of whom could not be reached for comment at the time of publishing.  

In an interview with Daily Maverick in July 2022, Sibiya denied that the procurement of counterintelligence equipment for the unit was irregular.

“There is a difference between intelligence gathering and counterintelligence equipment,” he said at the time.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Shadrack Sibiya and Mayor Phalatse hit back at claims of counterintelligence equipment purchase 

The city has asked an independent senior counsel, Advocate Sesi Baloyi, to conduct a preliminary investigation on the matter. 

Asked if she would give testimony to Baloyi, Phalatse said, “If the court subpoenas me, I will definitely cooperate and tell the truth as I know it.”

Fruitless expenditure

Following the procurement, the city admitted that it had incurred fruitless expenditure, as it had no intention of using the equipment despite large sums of money being spent on it. 

“Where I sit, I can comfortably say that we don’t see ourselves using this piece of equipment going forward, given that it requires the necessary permissions and state security clearances,” Phillips said.

The internal probe will determine what will happen to the equipment and whether it will be sold to recover some of the costs. 

“There is also the option of donating it to the State Security Agency because we wouldn’t want to further extend this kind of use to it to somebody else as opposed to just returning it to the unit that is authorised to be working with this kind of equipment,” Phillips said.  

South Africa has had several similar incidents. In 2021, the SAPS spent more than R100-million on sophisticated spying technology that they cannot use in a controversial deal that is under investigation by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, News24 reported.

On the GFIS probe, officials said several reports had been submitted to Baloyi. Makhubele said more than 4,000 pages of reports and documents had been submitted to Baloyi and at the time of ordering the probe, Makhubele had asked for the process to be fast-tracked so the matter could be ready for council at the end of July.

 This will, however, no longer be possible as Baloyi has received an “overwhelming” amount of information and reports.  

The spy equipment has been there since 2019, according to Phillips. During that period, the metro has had eight mayors: Herman Mashaba, Geoffrey Makhubo, Jolidee Matongo, Mpho Moerane, Mpho Phalatse, Dada Morero, Thapelo Amad and now Kabelo Gwamanda. DM

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