‘Bugging of phones is lawful if there is a reason’

Blade Nzimande
Blade Nzimande

State Security Minister David Mahlobo says the interception of citizens’ phone calls is lawful and South Africa’s intelligence services can only bug people when there is good reason to do so.

Mahlobo recently met with SA Communist Party (SACP) general secretary and Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande to discuss concerns that unknown people were illegally listening in on his phone calls.

Mahlobo told City Press on the sidelines of an ANC event in Rustenburg last week: “It is simple. Interception [as I understand it] is governed by law and we will not bug any person without a reason.

“If an interception is to happen, we will go to the judge and outline the reasons. In this case, we will investigate and give him the outcome of our investigation,” he said.

Rumours in the SACP were that Nzimande’s colleagues cornered President Jacob Zuma at the Cosatu national congress in September to warn him about the illegal tapping of the SACP leader’s phone, which subsequently saw Nzimande securing a meeting with Mahlobo after weeks of trying.

Mahlobo promised that the inspector-general would investigate the complaint. It was not clear how this would happen, as the position is currently vacant.

The bugging claims within the ANC alliance, made as the battle to succeed Zuma in 2017 heats up, echo those made in the run-up to the Polokwane conference.

During late SACP leader Joe Slovo’s commemoration rally in Soweto last week, Nzimande said that it appeared communist leaders were always targeted during the ANC’s succession races.

Mahlobo said it was not the first time that people claimed their phones were being bugged.

“You will have something like a noise – you hear noise on your phone – [and] you assume your phone is bugged. If a phone is bugged, [you] will not allow noise because you are not going to hear the conversation,” he said.

However, he said: “One of the things we are dealing with is interceptions that are actually done by other private individuals, whether security companies or foreign agencies.

“But when the investigation happens, we will then be in a position to know who authorised that particular interception.”

Meanwhile, Mahlobo would not be drawn on reported security threats that allegedly led to Zuma cancelling a trip to Marikana in North West. Marikana is said to be a no-go area for the ANC since the August 2012 massacre of mine workers by police.

Mahlobo said the security-threat reports were mere speculation, despite claims that he called off the visit after an on-the-ground assessment.

Mahlobo visited Marikana three times last week in the build-up to Saturday’s main celebration at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium. He was among ANC leaders who went to face Marikana residents and hand over houses after Zuma cancelled his trip.

Asked whether Zuma would ever feel safe enough to travel to Marikana, Mahlobo said no part of the country was a no-go zone for the president.

Mahlobo said the community of Marikana was undergoing a process of healing and reconciliation, and eventually people would again warm to the ANC.

When the time was right, government would make a determination on when Zuma could visit the area.

Mahlobo also spoke about concerns about an intelligence minister being as visible as he was.

“Why not? I’m a politician; I’m a public representative. Am I an operative? Must I hide?

“If people are concerned that there are terrorists here, who must say they are safe? Who must assure you this place is safe?”

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