Housing activists want probe into City of Cape Town ‘spying’

Social justice organisations want an investigation into why the City of Cape Town holds files on their members, and why it conducts what it calls “surveillance”, stepping beyond its constitutional mandate.

Two weeks ago, while briefing the Western Cape’s human settlements portfolio committee, the city’s mayoral committee member for safety, JP Smith, said the instigators of land occupations are “well known and documented”, and that the city is “increasingly building files on them”. 

These are activists mainly connected to social justice groups Ndifuna Ukwazi and the Social Justice Coalition

“We see them at every land invasion. We see their social-media utterances. They’re funded by international funding organisations whose South African representatives are former political figures,” Smith told members of the provincial legislature. 

In recent months there has been an increase in illegal occupations around the city. In a statement in August, Cape Town Mayor Dan Plato said the city has responded to more than 100 land occupation incidents, in 30 different parts of the metro. Plato said more than 50 000 illegal structures had been removed. 

But activists who said they had been “suspicious” of the surveillance for some time said they now want an investigation into whether the city has acted illegally. 

“We’ll be filing a complaint with the information regulator. We’ll lay the complaints by the end of the week,” said Buhle Booi of Ndifuna Ukwazi. Booi said the city and its law-enforcement officials were acting illegally because the only body with constitutionally mandated investigative powers is the South African Police Service (SAPS). 

Complaints about the city’s investigative powers are similar to an issue flagged in an internal police memo, reported by the Mail & Guardian, in which the SAPS raised issues with law enforcement conducting investigations outside their constitutional mandate. 

The activists said they also want access to files containing the details and social-media history of activists. To this end, they will file promotion of access to information (Paia) requests with the city. 

“We are going to make a point of acquiring these files that they supposedly have on us. It is unconstitutional for them to be keeping files on anybody. We want to know why they are keeping files, and what is their purpose. We had suspicions that they were [conducting] surveillance on us. There have been bizarre activities on our social-media accounts. Also, there is evidence that people have tried to hack into our accounts,” Booi said. 

But in explaining his remarks made to the provincial portfolio committee, Smith said the activists had made their movements and plans known on their social-media accounts. He does not consider the City’s actions as spying.  

“We don’t have to monitor them: they self-report. Social media is a public space, and you have to be blind not to observe what is happening. We can see the land invasions are co-ordinated. We can see the tape used to demarcate is consistent. People arrive with new equipment and large vehicles with building materials,” Smith said. 

Asked whether he believes the city is overstepping its constitutional mandate by doing the work of police investigators and national intelligence bodies, Smith said he could not ignore plans to occupy public and private land and that law enforcement was obligated to act. 

“You have to be obtuse, deaf or blind, not to see what is happening around you. You don’t have to be an intelligence gatherer. If you open up your ears and eyes, you are observing information,” he said.

“So we are entitled to gather information, and we do. Everybody does it. It’s an inadvertent action of the police. You can’t police without becoming aware of the information.”

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Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit is a Reporter, Journalist, and Broadcaster.

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