Activist David Webster stopped to chat while I was sitting on the pavement with a journalist colleague Jo-anne Collinge. We had been hanging around after a tea party arranged for families of detainees had been rudely interrupted in Braamfontein. Armed security police, in heavy gear, had stormed the hall soon after proceedings had begun. The low-key tea party had been declared an illegal gathering under State of Emergency regulations. The hall was cleared out, rows of teacups and saucers left untouched, neatly lined up on the table.
A rookie reporter, this was the first time I had met Webster. He was annoyed, agitated and showing strain. He complained about the irritation of yet another heavy-handed disruption of a tea party that he had helped organise with the Detainees’ Parents Support Committee. On a personal level, he was also fed up with being harassed by security operatives who were monitoring his every move (details which were later partially documented in the Hiemstra Commission that investigated apartheid-era spy rings).
Now, 26 years on, I have been reminded of our conversation while reading the activist handbook, Big Brother Exposed, by the Right2Know Campaign http://bigbrother.r2k.org.za/. Scandals involving surveillance of high-ranking politicians and even some journalists have been uncovered in recent years. But the handbook reveals anecdotal evidence that, 21 years into the new SA, state security agents are increasingly monitoring grassroots activists and organisations, including R2K, National Union of Metalworkers of SA, United Front and Abahlali baseMjondolo. Suspicious phone calls, attempts to recruit informers, phones being bugged and cars with no number plates parked outside activists’ homes are recorded. In one case, a State Security Agency (SSA) official tried to recruit a local government employee to spy on United Front activist Brian Ashley who they said “wants regime change”. Attempts were also made to recruit Bhayisa Miya, a leader of the Thembelihle Crisis Committee, under the pretext of looking for criminals and in the interests of “national security”. Miya was offered R40 000 for information on community leaders “that are causing problems”.
R2K also raises a red flag about Crime Intelligence’s increasing involvement in the policing of protest actions in the form of information-gathering which have no clear limits or guidelines. Extra funds have been spent on surveillance equipment such as long-range “listening devices” without public debate or buy-in.
Surveillance is necessary for the genuine interests of national security – ie to fight crime, clamp down on xenophobia and as pointed out by R2K, to tackle the worrying trend of political assassinations. But when sinister intelligence-gathering activities are used to serve an ulterior political agenda, it is unconstitutional and a misallocation of much-needed crime-fighting resources. It sows distrust and paranoia and impinges on the freedom to campaign.
We are a very long way off from the dirty tricks unleashed on activists by shady security operatives who killed and maimed in the name apartheid. The SSA has also been quick to respond to the R2K handbook by requesting complainants to come forward so claims can be investigated.
But the rise of the securocrats is cause for concern, brought into sharp focus with the notorious “accidental” signal jamming incident at parliament in February. So R2K should be commended for interrogating the intent and tactics employed to monitor activists. The country is on a dangerous trajectory – with dire consequences - if abuses and manipulation are overlooked and constitutional rights trampled on.
I never got the privilege of meeting Webster again after our first interaction. Shortly afterwards, on Workers Day in May 1989, the 44-year old university lecturer was gunned down outside his Troyeville home, a few hundred metres from where I lived.David Webster remembered