What it’s like to be spied on by the Intelligence Minister

Journalism professor Anton Harber said being illegally spied on by former Intelligence Minister David Mahlobo infringes on your sense of security, privacy, and dignity.

Harber commented on the issue following media reports that Mahlobo was facing a police investigation over illegal spying activities on critics of former president Jacob Zuma.

The City Press reported that the Hawks were closing in on Mahlobo and have already interviewed key witnesses in the unlawful spying case.

A state security operative, who was part of a team manning a small communications centre, said they monitored high-profile people.

The people they targeted included Harber, former Sygnia CEO Magda Wierzycka, and finance minister Tito Mboweni.

The spying activities included listening to conversations, summarising transcripts, and reporting real-time locations of people under surveillance.

The operative also wrote reports based on the recordings and alerted people about impending meetings based on cellphone triangulations.

Wierzycka said she was aware she was followed and that her phone was tapped. She said the spying was “so obvious” and that she was even harassed at airports by State Security ladies.

Anton Harber
Anton Harber

Professor Anton Harber has now shared his experience about being spied on by Mahlobo, saying he is in a “state of disbelief”.

According to Harber, he lives a dull life without many secrets. “I wish I had more secrets, but I don’t,” he said.

He said the spying started around the same time he started to write his latest book which had a section on the State Security Agency (SSA) corrupting journalism.

“I was asking questions about what has happened at the SSA and speaking to people who were involved in the enquiry into the SSA after Ramaphosa took power,” he said.

“That is the only link I could see. I was looking into them, so they looked into me.”

Harber said it was the second time this has happened to him in the democratic era.

The first time was under former Minister for Intelligence Services Ronnie Kasrils, who personally apologised to Harber for his organisation spying on him.

Intelligence Service agents sat outside Harber’s home and photographed his family as well as everyone coming in and out.

“It has often happened to me in the pre-democratic era, but that it continues to happen in this era is just mind-blowing,” he said.

Harber said it is a gross invasion of privacy and South Africans should be enraged that the security services waste their resources and abuse their power to interfere with the work of journalists.

“Illegal surveillance is a big, important, and growing issue and we need to work out how to stop it,” he said.

Commenting on the latest spying incident, Harber said it upset his family and children as they feel spied on.

“They start to question what of their personal life is now known to other people and how far did it go,” he said.

“It really infringes on your sense of security, privacy, and dignity.”

He said wasting resources on spying illegally on journalists raised the question – do the security agency actually do anything else?

“If we close them down tomorrow, will we be any less safe? My suspicion is that we will save a lot of money and we would be no less safe,” he said.

Journalism professor Anton Harber interview

Now read: Former intelligence minister illegally spied on Sygnia founder Magda Wierzycka – report

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What it’s like to be spied on by the Intelligence Minister