State Security Minister David Mahlobo has defended the ministry’s intervention in #FeesMustFall protests, but activists believe he is doing so based on little evidence. The minister also said that he knows Wits #FeesMustFall leader Mcebo Dlamini,and that Dlamini has visited his house on several occasions.
— Jameel (@indie_impimpi) November 14, 2016
A member of the Right2Know campaign, which advocates for freedom of information, asked Mahlobo if state security had been involved in the arrest of Dlamini, a Wits #FeesMustFall student leader. Mahlobo answered no, saying that he had met Dlamini at his home “several times”.
“I don’t do the arrests. Mcebo was brought and arrested by the police. I happen to know Mcebo. He has been to my house several times,” Mahlobo said.
Dlamini was arrested in October and his lawyer argued in court that the arrest was politically motivated and formed part of the state’s effort to target student leaders and clamp down on #FeesMustFall protest action. In the past, Dlamini has fervently condemned the use of police violence against protesting students, blaming the state for the injuries of students and unlawful arrests.
On Monday, Dlamini told the Mail & Guardian that he knows Mahlobo as a fellow member of the ANC.
“He knows me because I am a member of the ANC, but can that stop him from arresting me?” Dlamini said.
“We know each other because we are from the same organisation – I am a member of the ANC and he is a member of the ANC, so I know him as a minister and as a member of the ANC. Our relationship is that of members of the ANC, and nothing much and nothing less,” he added.
When asked if he had visited Mahlobo at his home, Dlamini replied: “I don’t remember”.
State security and the student protests
Mahlobo made his remarks while speaking at a panel discussion hosted by the Institute of Security Studies. The discussion centred on whether state security can prevent violent protests. But while Mahlobo defended his ministry’s role, activists argued otherwise.
Jane Duncan, a journalism professor at the University of Johannesburg and a media activist, said that state security has increased violence within student protests rather than quelled it.
“Approaching the problem of violence in protests increasingly through a security lens, especially a national security lens, is likely to pour oil on the fires that have been lit in our communities and on our campuses,” Duncan said.
Duncan said that violence in the student movement had been a reaction “to state and police escalations”. She said that the climate in many universities now meant that negotiations had become impossible and that students had been prohibited from gathering as result of violence, which prevented them from discussing proper strategies and tactics.
Mbalenhle Matandela, the regional coordinator for Right2Protest, which advocates for protesters’ rights, has provided students with legal assistance during the protests.
She and Duncan both re-iterated that state security can only intervene when there is a threat to constitutional order and they both agreed that while there is unrest in the country, the constitutional order is under no threat.
“The courts are being used to punish students. A lot of unlawful arrests take place,” Matandela said.
“If state intelligence is to act [it must be in] a justified way with evidence and the approval of courts,” she added, saying that there should be caution with regard to the courts because students across the country have been unjustly denied bail.
Mahlobo, however, said that he was sympathetic with the student demands, but that state security was necessary.
“I served in three SRCs. The issue around higher education and education in general is an important issue that society must discuss,” Mahlobo said.
“But if there are people involved in regime change … in South Africa we can’t be naïve.”
Mahlobo acknowledged economic inequality in South Africa and the importance of fighting it, but said that around the world economic issues had led to the destabilisation of countries.
There have been increasing concerns among NGOs and interest groups around the use of state security in creating a climate of fear and intimidation to discourage protests. Student leaders at various universities have been arrested, while others have been intimidated in their residences. Matandela said that violence in student protests needed to be addressed through a broader lens and not through the burning of property or by throwing rocks.
“In terms of Fees Must Fall, the demand is legitimate and the demand comes from an experience of systemic violence, which the majority of South Africa experiences,” she said.
“The demand is looking at the cycle of poverty in South Africa and stating that the cycle is unjust, and that there’s no way to get out of the cycle except education, which in this country has become ecxlusive.”
Mahlobo: I must be held to account
Matandela raised a concern that institutions meant to serve citizens – such as the courts – are no longer trusted. Mahlobo countered, saying that accountability mechanisms are in place for citizens who feel they have not been treated fairly. If there are concerns about the South African Police Service, Mahlobo said, citizens could lodge a complaint with the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.
Although the minister admitted that accountability mechanisms in the country face challenges, he said that no one faces exception when it comes to being held accountable.
“Government must be held accountable. Those who occupy these offices, including myself, must be held to account,” he said.
The minister, who was linked to illegal rhino poaching in a documentary by Al Jazeera over the weekend, denied the allegations, saying the news network did not supply evidence to back up its allegation. A rhino horn trafficker told Al Jazeera that Mahlobo visited his spa.
“If you read that thing yesterday, the man never said I’m a friend. He said he knows me. How does he know me? I visit a spa treatment. Is it a crime to visit one? It’s a big no,” Mahlobo said.
“I’m not actually above the law, I’ve said let them investigate.”
The minister appeared at the panel on violent protests shortly after the allegations him were spread across South African news and social networks.
On Wednesday, Mahlobo told members of parliament that Dlamini had never visited his house. Mahlobo made the comment two days after he had said that Dlamini had been to his home on several occasions.
“I am not his spokesperson,” Mahlobo said.