Inside Eskom’s spying

2013-11-12 00:00

AN internal Eskom investigation has revealed that cryptography, James Bond-style pen cameras and secret agents were used to spy on its own workers at the new Medupi power station.

The boss of the intelligence company hired by Eskom has also made claims to The Witness that his intelligence may have stopped saboteurs from “blowing up” a key unit at the giant R120 billion station last year.

Yesterday, Eskom’s CEO Brian Dames apologised to stakeholders on the Medupi project for “the use of private companies to gather intelligence from stakeholders”, following the conclusion of an internal investigation conducted by Bowman Gilfillan.

In June 2011, Eskom hired Swartberg Intelligence Support Services in an effort to reduce the risk posed by violent labour strikes, personal threats and arson attacks, which had dogged the project in Lephalale, Limpopo.

The energy parastatal fired Swartberg in February after reports claimed that the company had also “spied” on the environmental groups Greenpeace Africa, Earthlife Africa, and Pietermaritzburg-based groundWork, which first challenged the Medupi project in 2009.

Yesterday, the three groups — which had suspended their participation in Eskom’s NGO forum in protest — agreed to rejoin the forum.

Director of Earthlife Africa Tristen Taylor said: “We believe that our key demands, which were for a full internal investigation and a public apology, have been met.”

However, director of groundWork, Bobby Peek, said he remained “totally opposed” to Medupi — and that his earlier privacy concerns over Swartberg’s spying had moved to “the fact that it was a total waste of money”.

Although he called for the 100-page report to be made public by Eskom, Peek said he was unable to furnish The Witness with a copy due to an undertaking with Eskom.

However — in revelations independently confirmed by The Witness — Peek said the report stated that:

• Eskom contracted Swartberg to “place intelligence resources on site (at Medupi) in strategic and sensitive areas” as well as in “outlying areas of Lephalale” to provide early warning of planned violent actions;

• Night vision goggles and cameras disguised as “little pens and glasses” were reportedly among the equipment purchased for the project. However, the investigation found no evidence that electronic surveillance was used;

• Informants were used by Swartberg to “infiltrate” community meetings conducted by NGOs, while unspecified “sting operations” were undertaken by the company;

• “Clandestine operations” were undertaken by a second company sub-contracted by Swartberg, which sought to “recruit” informants within stakeholder groups; and

•Swartberg repeatedly reported its use of “cryptography” to Eskom — including “interpreting” signs of criminal activity, such as “twisted pieces of metal, flattened grass and piles of pebbles”.

Meanwhile, when contacted by The Witness yesterday, director of Swartberg, Lukas Swart, insisted the company had provided “a valuable and lawful service” to Eskom — and claimed it may have saved lives.

“We reported to Eskom that there were those who desired to blow up Unit 6 [at the power station],” said Swart. “We identified individuals who desired to carry out this action in order to work [there] longer; to work on the rebuilding of Medupi. Ours was a crucial service for them.”

However, although Swartberg liaised regularly with the SAPS, the Gilfillan report could find no evidence that any criminal plots — such as the alleged bomb plot — had been foiled.

Swart said: “Our method of intelligence gathering is unorthodox and never used before, and our philosophy is based on people being fed up with violence — but it is legal and it is not spying.”

Peek said the report found Eskom had not explicitly breached any laws, and — while some managers were aware of the use of informants — had never ordered Swartberg to infiltrate community and labour groups.

Despite some exotic methods mentioned in the report, Peek said the overall findings were that “this group largely gathered so-called intelligence which you can easily get from our websites, or simply by attending a meeting as a member of the public. It was laughable, on one level. Our chief concern with the spying is not that we have anything to hide — we don’t — but rather that it threatens the spirit of openness in the community and it scares people.”

No contract figures were set out in the report, but Peek said Swartberg “was paid millions”. He said: “Our problem is not with Swartberg’s methods but with Eskom’s inability to manage its own internal systems, and its inability to recognise that a new coal power station there is not remotely sustainable, either environmentally or financially.” publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

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