What it’s like to be spied on

Dossier dread: The police illegally gained access to Mail & Guardian reporter Athandiwe Saba’s cellphone records. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Dossier dread: The police illegally gained access to Mail & Guardian reporter Athandiwe Saba’s cellphone records. (Delwyn Verasamy)

As the amaBhungane investigative journalism unit heads to court to argue for disclosure of state surveillance, Mail & Guardian journalist Athandiwe Saba tells of finding out that she was being surveilled


Sitting outside disciplinary room 227 at the police headquarters in Durban east, different images of what the police officer who had signed off on my phone records being released could possibly look like flashed through my mind. All I knew was his surname and rank: Warrant Officer Reed.

I had never met this man and he had never met me. I first saw his name in a dossier given to me by another journalist, who had been asked to write about the corruption at the Railway Safety Regulator (RSR) under the now-suspended chief executive officer, Nkululeko Poya.

This dossier contained information about where I lived, my phone numbers and who I had contacted over a span of three months in 2016 while I was investigating Poya and how ANC T-shirts, which had been paid for by the RSR, landed up in the Free State.

Early last year when I was told about the dossier, I laughed it off, thinking it was not possible.
Many journalists have been spied on and their cars followed, myself included. But it’s rare for the perpetrator to make the mistake of leaving a paper trail. A few days later I was staring at the file about me.

My hands went cold. I was in shock. I stepped outside of our then office in Rosebank, Johannesburg, and paced and yelled and finally I sat down to figure out if it was possible to prove that Poya had paid a private investigator to put this dossier together to find out who I was talking to about the corruption at the regulator.

At the time I had two phones — one with a Vodacom SIM card and the other with an MTN one.

MTN provided information that showed it had received a subpoena in terms of “section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act 51 of 1977” from the KwaZulu-Natal police, requesting my call records.

Vodacom never responded as to how my records landed up in the email inbox of Poya or how private investigator Christian Botha, from Port Elizabeth, was able to compile this file.

As time passed, while we investigated, spoke to lawyers and tried to open a case against Poya and Botha, my emotions moved from anger to cold, creeping fear.

I had been tracked before but this felt different. These people had stepped into my psyche, into my intimate space, they had seen who I had spoken to. I kept thinking about my mother. Her number came up on the list of calls I had made and received, numerous times. I was afraid for her and for my family.

When I tried to open a case at the Rosebank police station, the officers on duty had no idea what to charge Poya and Botha with. One said there was nothing wrong with a private investigator legally getting a section 205 that would compel network providers to hand over my information. I felt defeated. How was I meant to protect my private information if it was so easy to abuse?

A few weeks later, however, an investigator from KwaZulu-Natal called me to inform me that a case against the police officer who had approached the magistrate to sign off on the section 205 notice against me had been opened. A criminal case against Botha and Poya for illegal surveillance was opened at Lyttleton, in Pretoria, as well.

The only thing I found amusing was when I looked at the section 205 signed in Pinetown, it stated that my phone numbers had been connected to a burglary and the magistrate was asked to sign it so I could be found and apprehended. The magistrate signed — it was that simple.

Six months later, I was subpoenaed to testify at a disciplinary hearing against Reed for allegedly duping the magistrate to sign off on section 205.

Sitting in a very uncomfortable chair outside disciplinary room 227, I felt isolated. I had to confront one of the cops who had helped Poya invade my privacy. When I saw him, he was not like one of the monsters I had pictured earlier.

Reed was just a greying white man with red splotches colouring his face. His labour representative was venomous and the state could not disprove Reed’s defence that he was instructed to fill in the information to get my records by a now-deceased colleague.

Reed was found not guilty. Insufficient evidence. The criminal cases are still pending against Poya, Botha and Reed, and I am a very patient person.

Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba

Athandiwe Saba is a multi award-winning journalist who is passionate about data, human interest issues, governance and everything that isn’t on social media. She is an author, an avid reader and trying to find the answer to the perfect balance between investigative journalism, online audiences and the decline in newspaper sales. It’s a rough world and a rewarding profession. Read more from Athandiwe Saba

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