“We are monitoring everything,” said the Minister of State Security David Mahlobo. He was briefing journalists before tabling his department’s 2017/18 budget before Parliament. Admittedly, a vague statement as it is unclear what “everything” entails. But the remark is equally worrying.
Mahlobo’s need to monitor all in sundry stems from his claims that the state and the South African public face a myriad of threats – both foreign and domestic. These range from cyber bullying, to cyber fraud and terrorism, to underhanded attempts aimed at unconstitutional regime change.
While the term “everything” remains undefined, Mahlobo gave some indication as to what it entails and, whether purposefully or not, whom. This was revealed when he informed the national legislature of the ‘forces’ committed to “undermine [South Africa’s] democratic and constitutional advances.” Mahlobo said these forces advance their interests through sections of the media, various organisations, the funding of “opposition activities”, and by infiltrating “key government departments” – something the Right to Know Campaign said Mahlobo needs to prove or “stop making bogus claims”.
Do the minister’s remarks imply that leaders of opposition parties are being spied on? Which media houses should take greater care of their sources? How do NGOs decide whether a pigeon is safer than a Whatsapp? And as for the government officials, it surely excludes Pravin Gordhan, as Mahlobo embarrassingly revealed he had no knowledge of the so-called intelligence report which led to the former finance minister’s dismissal. (I suspect the Gupta-owned ANN7 and Mahlobo’s Mpumalanga-based nail technician are not included in the list.)
The surveillance state
Days before the minister’s remarks, the United Nations expressed its own concerns over South Africa’s surveillance methods. “The Committee was also concerned about reports of unlawful surveillance practices, including mass interception of communications carried out by the National Communications Centre,” read the Universal Periodic Review report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
It follows submissions by the Right to Know Campaign and Privacy International in which they highlight a lack of oversight and transparency as well as “mass interception of communications” and “indiscriminate retention of metadata”.
All of this unfolded in front of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights during the Universal Periodic Review of South Africa’s policies. Deputy Minister of Justice John Jeffery gave assurance that there is adequate legislation to ensure that no person’s privacy is unlawfully infringed upon.
During his presentation in Geneva Jeffery however highlighted the growing threat of cybercrimes against South Africa. While the minister might not have known that an example would soon follow his warning in the form of the WannaCry ransomware attack – infecting more than 200 000 devices in over 150 countries – it is true that South Africa, along with many others, are at risk.
The claims by South Africa’s spy boss could also be interpreted as an excuse for government to target its opponents. Shortcomings in transparency and oversight act as approval stamps for a government dead set to cracking down on political dissent, abusing resources for its own gains – which could extend to the interests of the governing party.
Admittedly, this too sounds like a conspiracy theory, but there is more evidence behind these claims than those by Mahlobo. Cases range from individual investigative journalists’ communications being intercepted, to opposition politicians taking steps to secure their phones.
Given Mahlobo’s calmness with which he informs the public of the target on the South African flag suggest they have it all under control. There is no need to fear, at least not the threat posed by these unknown forces.
But do these threats extend to an unrelenting attempt at destroying the Rainbow Nation? Do they warrant continued surveillance of domestic institutions and possibly members of the public? Evidence of these claims would be welcomed, as it would determine the extent to which the state should go to protect its interests. But in the meantime, it seems Mahlobo is the only one who is not in the dark.