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Fighting for the Right to Know in South Africa

Interview by Wendy Trott, Associate at Luminate, with Ghalib Galant, Deputy-National Coordinator of the Right2Know Campaign

Since 2009 – and particularly over the last few years - it has become increasingly clear that the apartheid-era security apparatus has not been truly dismantled in South Africa. In fact, many would argue that in recent years it has actually been expanded and solidified in a process known as securitisation. The term defines a system in which security agencies have growing influence over the governance of the state, and civil and social freedoms are infringed upon in the name of national security. All-powerful security agencies have shown themselves to be particularly vulnerable to corruption and criminality as a result of the secrecy and lack of oversight under which they operate, resulting in extensive abuses of public funds and human rights, such as surveillance of activists and journalists on the instruction of political parties, and a failure to implement financial controls in the State Security Agency, resulting in losses of millions of Rands to the fiscus. 

At the same time, it has become increasingly obvious that the potential for citizens to leverage technology to organise and hold their government accountable is being stymied by high call and data costs, driven by concentration in telecoms ownership and a lack of regulation. This means that South Africans are feeling the brunt of the abuse of technology while simultaneously being prevented from taking advantage of its opportunities. 

Growing securitisation was poignantly illustrated when the so-called ‘Secrecy Bill’ was introduced to Parliament in 2010. It would have undermined basic rights protected by the constitution by giving state officials wide-reaching powers to classify public information; to implement severe criminal penalties for whistle-blowers or anyone handling classified information (including journalists); and to draw a complete veil over the workings of the intelligence services to hide them from the public eye. If passed, the Bill would have had widespread effects on the ability of both Parliament and citizens to have oversight over government activities and spending, and a deeply chilling effect on independent media and free speech.

The Secrecy Bill spurred a wave of vigorous opposition from citizens, activists and the media. One of the central leaders of this movement was the Right2Know Campaign, a broad network of individuals and organisations across the country that organised to successfully oppose the Bill’s passage. Since then, Right2Know has grown into a leading voice of criticism against securitisation, government opacity, surveillance, and various other challenges to the rights to freedom of information and expression in South Africa and beyond. 

Luminate is proud to announce a new grant of $240,000 over two years to support Right2Know’s continued advocacy against public and private sector abuses that infringe on peoples’ right to know and participate. We spoke with Ghalib Galant, Deputy-National Coordinator at the Right2Know Campaign, about the organisation’s upcoming priorities and what it has learned since the Secrecy Bill in 2010.

Tell us about more about how you continue to see securitisation threatening social justice and the fulfillment of human rights in South Africa today?  

Ghalib Galant (GG): The so-called ‘nine wasted years’ of the Zuma presidency saw the hollowing out of important state institutions defending democracy. It also involved the targeted capturing of the criminal justice system - from crime intelligence through to the National Prosecuting Authority, the State Security Agency and some would even say the Office of the Public Protector. We have seen the ongoing flouting of the legal framework that regulates surveillance and the mass gathering of data of and on citizens and especially of activists. There have been many recent revelations about the surveillance of journalists, political opponents, and activists, as well as the spreading of disinformation about law enforcement officials trying to do their jobs of preventing and combating crime. The challenge that confronts us is that, notwithstanding the change in the leadership at the presidential level, the damage done to our institutions, the lack of trust in processes, and the continued practice of extra-legal targeting of activists is continuous. The Right2Know Campaign and other social justice organisations critical of government were named in a High-Level Panel report into abuses at the State Security Agency (SSA) as organisations that were under surveillance and/or infiltrated by the Agency. Without the proposed remedial action and a radical transformation of the SSA, we fear that dissenting voices will continue to be viewed as dangerous and a threat to national security - rather than a celebration of our diversity of opinions and an invitation to participate in building our democracy. 

How does Right2Know operate? 

GGRight2Know works best when we bring together technical and policy experts with the grassroots and other affected communities with a view to making the most meaningful difference in people’s lives. We do this through the three lenses of our focus areas: Participating in Democracy (looking at meaningful citizen engagement, transparency and good governance and open processes), Securitisation (including surveillance, the right to protest and walking the fine line between privacy of private information and access to public information) and giving expression to people’s voice (freedom of expression, digital security and a free and secure internet). All three of these focus areas are critical to a thriving democracy. 

We do this through activist-led structures in three provinces - Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Western Cape. These structures bring together activists interested in the focus areas around possible actions. The provinces have relative autonomy to shape the actions and activism to the local realities under the broad priorities set by our Annual National Summit - the highest decision-making structure within the Right2Know. This has been an experiment in participatory democracy - not merely representative democracy (as achieved through elections only). We have worked - and are still working - at bridging the challenges of creating the maximum space for everyone’s voice while still effectively implementing targeted programmes and action. One thing that we have learnt is that where we can tap into the passion and interest of activists - and their willingness to bring that passion and interest - the collective can achieve much. This is true within Right2Know as well as in the broader community

What are some of the biggest challenges to your work? What have you learnt over the past nine years of operation that informs how Right2Know operates today?

GG: We have learnt that the strength of our collective action depends on the contribution of everyone. And that where those contributions are diverse and different, we are able to do more. It is important that activists are motivated by the cause and not by the economic pressures of the day. It is really easy for subsistence issues to cloud the purpose of our campaigning. 

Activism is alive, and ever-evolving. As the political, social, economic, and environmental landscape shifts and changes, so too must our activism. Many of the analogue strategies from a few years ago are less useful in an increasingly digital world, for instance. 

Right2Know is a collaboration - as the issues change or are dealt with, some people may leave and new partners join in. It is in this dynamic process that our activism moves forward. 

Perhaps the greatest challenge we have faced is helping grassroots communities and activists understand how policy challenges affect their lived realities. Accessing information about housing seems less important than getting an actual house or housing opportunity. And yet the information could be crucial in shaping a strategy to get the ultimate demand. 

For this reason, much of our internal activities are focused on popular education on the relevant issues - and developing greater awareness and consciousness about the choices that need to be made. 

It seems that many members of the public today don’t fully understand the need for updated laws and regulations to protect privacy, such as data protection, appropriate oversight of surveillance practices, etc. Why do you think we should all care about privacy in this day and age? What can people do about it? 

GG: The internet has opened a whole new world for us - instant connection to others, access to untold amounts of information, transactions that can take place at the speed of light. And yet the promise of the world in your hands - or smart device - also comes at a price: an always-on connection and the inability to set boundaries on virtual ‘relationships’; the vulnerability to those followers who seek to benefit/profit from our information or identities at our expense; the openness of the platforms also means we are even more at risk of untoward or even criminal behaviour. And of course the ever-present eyes of domestic (and foreign) government and of exploitative commercial interests. 

Tell us more about Right2Know’s #HandsOffOurPrivateInfo campaign?

GG: As communication moves increasingly onto data-hungry virtual platforms, digital and cyber security become more and more important. Governments in Africa, including in South Africa, have used the twin spectres of terrorism and cyberbullying to introduce legislation that seeks access to private communication in the ‘interest of national security’. Intelligence-led policing and crime prevention have utilised wholesale and widespread online surveillance of journalists, activists and persons of interest (often for narrow political goals). In large part these activities have been in breach of the regulatory framework found in the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act (RICA) legislation. The current trade war between the US and China, the banning of Huawei products, and the hacking of WhatsApp by an Israeli tech firm have highlighted just how rogue governments have leveraged technology for spying and persecution. Civil society organisations, human rights defenders, activists, and journalists need to become more aware and have to implement greater digital protections.

The #HandsOffOurPrivateInfo campaign seeks to protect citizens from the abuse of their private information by State and corporate entities. To this end we need the implementation of a robust legal framework (Protection of Private Information Act or POPI) and the activation of a strong regulatory body (the Information Regulator) to ensure that breaches by State and corporate/private entities are appropriately dealt with. In addition we will build on our work in getting the security agencies to cease their unlawful surveillance practices. Lastly, we will be promoting digital self-defence mechanisms that everyone can implement to better secure their virtual - and real - information. 

What are they key objectives Right2Know hopes to achieve in the coming two years?

GG:  In the area of Communication Rights, we intend to:

  • Challenge the profiteering by the big telecoms companies (especially Vodacom and MTN) and to break their domination of spectrum – and to resist their demands for a bigger chunk of the spectrum. 
  • Campaign for Wi-Fi in communities and public spaces and institutions that is provided as a free basic service by government. 
  • Campaign for a safe and secure internet free of censorship and surveillance where our privacy and personal information is protected. This will include how multinational corporations like Facebook, Amazon, and Google (#HandsOffMyNet) use, abuse, and monetise user information.

We will continue our campaign against overreach by State (and private) actors in their unlawful surveillance of activists in particular and of people in general without good cause. 

Lastly, we will be campaigning for greater participation of active citizens in the day-to-day operation of democracy by ensuring that: (1) processes are open and transparent, (2) the institutions are trustworthy and regain integrity, and (3) that information is more freely available - especially about decisions that impact on the people’s lives.