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3 Jun 2022

Naledi Sikhakhane, New Frame (South Africa)

S. Africa: Activists say technology is a double-edged sword as it is useful for communication & organising but exposes them to danger through surveillance

‘Activists under threat from surveillance’ 3 June 2022

Abahlali baseMjondolo land and housing rights activists say they have become digitally savvy to protect themselves from alleged state surveillance. For more than 17 years, the movement has endured relentless armed, violent and unlawful state-sanctioned evictions; violent rebuttals of peaceful protests; and push back from local ANC politicians. The leadership of the 100 000-strong organisation has been under siege, and with the rise in communication technology and advances in surveillance, Abahlali’s deputy president Mqapheli Bonono says the movement is being closely monitored. “Some of us are not highly educated, but we have had to learn things such as Signal,” says Bonono. The communication platform’s end-to-end encryption does not even allow Signal to read people’s messages, and it has no data tracking.

…“It’s been difficult for us to protect ourselves against digital surveillance because remember we are just people fighting for rights to land, housing and dignity. We haven’t been exposed to information on advanced technology, so just imagine a person suddenly having to expose themselves to all this because of the nature of our work. Even if you didn’t do a digital course you have to know you can’t click on any link, you can’t log into any Wi-Fi, and so forth.” Human rights organisations and lawmakers have suggested that “safe cities” and cyber laws could pose a new threat to activists. They suggest that there should be reviews and reforms to protect human rights defenders from undue interception of communication, social media monitoring and location tracking through camera surveillance analytics technology.

…Environmental activist Robby Magkala, who has led actions against mines polluting, expanding, and unfairly buying out people, says feeling exposed and insecure wears down activists. “The threats diffuse the people’s courage and passion,” says Makgala, the coal campaign manager at environmental justice organisation Groundwork. “There are people, especially the leadership, who say I don’t care, I can die for the truth…“The police are the first to criminalise activists and protect institutions. They quickly break up a protest but they do nothing when activists who oppose mining are threatened. I don’t know of a single case that has been properly investigated. Not even when people were killed. Take the case of Sikhosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Rhadebe, the chairperson of a community-based organisation in Xolobeni, Eastern Cape. He had raised concerns about a titanium mine that Australian company Mineral Commodities Ltd had proposed. More than three years after his murder, no one has been arrested.”