Don’t worry, the government is listening to you – Surveillance in South Africa

With this final academic orientated post, I attempt to combine the different aspects learned from previous research, regarding datafication, privacy, data justice and its effect on society, in order to apply the framework on a specific situation in South Africa.

In a previous post, I pointed out that in the name of National Security, whether concerning counter-terrorism purposes or the attempt to predict fraud, unprecedented methods of digital-surveillance become negotiable and even acceptable by society. The representation of the antagonist in any particular form decides the extent of legitimate flexibility of governmental action in crossing the borders of citizens’ rights and approvals. However, governments are not the only actors making use of and benefit from advanced technology. Commercial- and big tech companies appropriate these elements even to a more extended degree to further their profitable agendas, mostly disguised by entertainment and comfort services. Those same companies are the primary supplier and executor of advanced digital infrastructures for the public sector. Consequently, when it comes to accountability and responsibility in present-day datafication, the relation between public and private begins to blur. Citizens become commodified to ‘users and markets’ or threats, and often not aware of what happens with the data surplus of their digital behaviour. This results in political and practical implications for how people are seen and treated by the government and the private sector (Taylor, 2017, p. 3,4).

Interpretations of ICT4D

Much research has been done to the positive as well as negative implications of advanced technology such as algorithms, Big Data, and AI on society. However, predominantly on digital-savvy societies and Western liberal democracies where access to and engagement with ICT is more embedded in state laws and daily lives (Milan and Treré, 2019, p 320). When discussing ICT4D, what are we exactly talking about?

The term ICT4D is used in several different contexts and may, therefore, be interpreted differently than the initial intention. Tony Roberts (2019) argued that Digital Development and the acronym ICT4D can be used as a collective term, but makes a clear distinguishment between three practices drawn from this concept;

Digital in Development means the “internal” development of digital technologies to optimize work efficiency of development institutions and actors. For example; the implementation of a health management information system.

Digital for Development refers to the realisation of digital means for specific intended development results. For example, designing an app to tackle health issues.

Development in a Digital World can be seen in the broader context of development. Roberts (2019) describes this term as “doing international development in an increasingly digitised context”. This description has my preference, as it confronts the technocentric view of data and diminish it into a part of the whole where human aspects concerning data become more important (Milan and Treré, 2019, p. 327), and covers the intention and capability of enhancing social change.

Development in a digitalized world

The possibilities of the internet are hailed as the solution to inequality and poverty. The accessibility of those means became a basic necessity for development and a way to produce a voice. However, the availability of digital means does not directly translate into development or social change, nor into an increase of access to information and resources. On the contrary, research shows that often existing discourses and the person’s social class reflect in one’s use of smartphones, the internet, and social media. Even if those means create a positive online representation, and maybe social equality, it hardly ever results in a more economic equal offline reality (Miller et. al. 2016, p 128- 131).

Numerous scholars are concerning themselves with effectuating social change and solutions to reducing the inequality gap. Bourdieu (1972) describes three different types of inequality relating to ‘capital’ and expresses his interest in how those components of inequality are exploited by elite groups to maintain their privilege position. The first type is economic capital, which refers to the possession of money and property. Secondly, social capital, meaning individual social relationships, and participation in institutionalised networks. Cultural capital is seen as gained knowledge and skills through education and cultural aspects. Bourdieu (1972) points out that those different types of inequality are interconnected and affecting each other. Another interesting element raised by Bourdieu is social mobility “which refers to the ability of an individual or group to improve their social position” (Miller et. al. 2016, p 128- 131). How can equality on every level be realised and to what extent is digitalization the answer?


South Africa, Cape Town
Half of South Africa’s society lives in chronic poverty. Photo: Imran Gozukucuk

We can’t deny that the fast datafication and digitalization has penetrated almost every aspect of our socio-economic lives, and impacts the public sphere rapidly. Advanced technology such as AI, algorithms, and big data, are increasingly used in the Global South, but the digital knowledge production and its diffusion are still predominantly coming from the Global North. This might have far-reaching implications for international development, as algorithms are hardly ever objective and merely a reflection of societal biases and injustices. These practices have the capacity to further disadvantage citizens on the lower steps of the social ladder (Birhane, 2019).

Increasingly, the South is challenging this “universal” knowledge as the unbiased answer for development. “while valuable and illustrative, it is also incomplete and problematic” (Milan and Treré 2019, p 326, Couldry and Mejias 2019). Promising results if digitalization indeed improves livelihoods and solves the inequality gap, or disadvantage the poorer populations even further, are still to be determined (Miller et. al. 2016, p. 128).


Inequality, poverty, and ICT

The “Global South” is often defined as one entity that needs digitalization for effective development. The same generalization occurs when discussing ‘Africa’, which is often represented and spoken of as one country. The Global South, similar to the Global North, is not one unified block. Therefore its challenges cannot all be answered with a “universal digital” approach (Milan and Treré 2019, p 326, Couldry and Mejias 2019).

Behind both terms manifests a diversity of cultures, histories, and political structures, a richness of knowledge, and different socio-economic challenges, which need to be taken into account when talking about ICT4D.

While in every country inequality occurs, the above-mentioned structures determinants how inequality is expressed (Miller et. al. 2016, p 128). South Africa is presented as one of the most developed countries of Africa, with the second-largest economy of the continent, and is unofficially included in the acronym of the -so-called- emerging national economies, BRICS. With promising digital projects arising, such as SADA (South Africa in the Digital Age), the country is determined to create the next African start-up hub. However, South Africa is undeniable still struggling with its colonial past and has the highest level of income polarization of the world.

Income inequality per country

The reproduction of privileges between elites in the post-apartheid era induces the historical cycle of marginalisation of groups already disempowered through colonial and apartheid regimes. Segregation still rings through educational, economic, and social systems and is motivated on the bases of race, location, and social class (Mare, 2015, p. 62, Padayachee and Desai, 2013). Half of the South African, foremost black, community live in chronic poverty, without any perspective to improve their social position (SA Poverty and inequality assessment report 2018). To compare, a demographic breakdown estimated that in 2020, 94% of all wealth in the country is owned by the white population (Chatterjee, A. et. al. 2020, p 4). The so-called “Born-Frees”, makeup for 40% of the population and are born after the apartheid regime and the profound political and social changes. Even though they never lived under the apartheid regime, this generation is confronted with a neglected educational system that is built on the foundation of former practices. The majority of schools don’t possess the knowledge or tools to prepare youngsters for the high digitalized world, which weakens their global position and derogates opportunities for social mobility.

It’s not Mobile-first, it’s mobile-only. -Toby Shapshak, Writer Forbes

However, that doesn’t mean that the entrance of technology has been on hold completely, although the country has to catch up on policies regarding the fast ICT environment. One-third of South Africans owns a smartphone (Statista), which is often their primary access to the internet (Walton, M., and Donner, J., 2011) and with over 90 million mobile phone connections in the country, mobile is the most popular communication device.

Communication surveillance in South Africa

South Africa is third on the list with the highest crime rates in the world. Unprecedented action, for instance violating one’s privacy to solve crime, is, therefore, more acceptable than in most European countries. During the apartheid regime, governmental surveillance on individuals was a well-known fact (Report Spooked, Surveillance of journalists in SA, 2018). However, twenty-six years after the first democratic elections in South Africa, the deeply rooted systematic urge for control is finding itself again at the intersection of human rights.

New technology creates opportunities for public and private sectors to makes the invisible (citizens), visible, and monitor the population and organize interventions on a mass scale, without the awareness of citizens (Taylor, 2017, p.13).

In 2005, the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-related Information Act (RICA), came into effect. This entails South African legislation that enables the government to intercept and monitor paper-based and digital communications from individuals. Throughout the years, different sections of RICA got approved and implemented by the government. In 2010, the obligatory registration of personal details, such as ID, full name, proof of residence, and bank account number, for every new and exciting mobile phone number, internet account, and landline in the country, came into effect. In order of the government’s endeavours to regulate the communications sector, every mobile phone needs to be linked to an individual. In colloquial language; it is compulsory and unavoidably to “RICA” your SIM card (Shanapinda, S., 2019).

The government justifies the activation of the RICA act as one of the necessary measures in the fight against crime and claims to protect citizens’ privacy by only granting surveillance permission with a warrant from a RICA judge. With an approved warrant, the agency is able to force any telecom company or internet provider to intercept limitless communication. Another path for law enforcement officials of any rank is to intercept communication via Section 205 of the Criminal Procedures Act. This allows officials to bypass the RICA judge and access phone records as far as when, where, and who the person has communicated with. Even when officials unrighteously used a RICA or s205 warrant, there haven’t been individual consequences. In the name of national security, the person under surveillance doesn’t know that her/his data has been taken (Hunter, and Smith, 2018). The research report Spooked from Right2Know Campaign (2018) reveals that every year, law enforcement agencies send the s205 warrant as often as between the 25,000 and 50,000 times to telecom companies, and 500 to 600 requests on the bases of a ‘RICA’ warrant. Those numbers are a serious threat to the right for privacy. What happens with the gathered data can only be surmised. Where do legitimate actions in the name of National Security start and human rights end?

Undermining Democracy

Many South Africans are not aware of the private data they provide when purchasing a SIM card and the possible access to phone records and online communication exchange by the government. For this reason data activists, media outlets, and journalists collaborated to start the Right to Know campaign against the RICA legislation and to inform the public about the consequences.

The Spooked report explains that arbitrary communication surveillance violates every citizen’s privacy and is an immediate threat to media freedom. Activities such as; surveilling journalists, identifying their sources, and find incriminating practices to justify the surveillance, is effectively an attempt to silence the media. Those acts can bring whistle-blowers, researchers, political activists, and journalists, but also attorneys and judges at risk. Media has an obligation to serve the public’s right to know, to challenge the actions of politicians, and present truths in order for the public to make considered decisions when electing politicians.

Murray Hunter (Right2Know researcher) points out that South Africa is still dealing with a huge corruption problem and misuse of power, which compromises citizen’s trust and interest in politicians and law enforcement. It creates a discourse of secrecy and suspicion that is enlarging the gap between citizen and government. Another point is the increasing use of big data and the implementation of surveillance possibilities by the public and private sectors. This calls for data justice to establish ethical paths in a datafying world (Taylor, 2017, p 2) and complementary legislation for the protection of individual’s data and privacy, e.g. citizens need to be actively informed about the consequences of their offered data when making a purchase.



However, since the implementation of RICA in 2005, there is no decrease in crime rates, nor are South Africans dismissing mobile use because of it. ‘Privacy’ and ‘surveillance’ are invisible concepts, which makes the implications difficult to understand. Thereby, for the majority of the population, the mobile phone is their primary access to the digital world. Especially youngsters demand access to the internet and consider this as a fundamental right (Third, et al. 2014).

New data technologies offer governments the potential to improve analysis of national and local issues for the benefit of development and bring representational opportunities for marginalized communities (Taylor, 2017, p 13). But it also proves not to be the holy grail. Institutionalized inequality and marginalization can’t be solved with “just” digitalization, but asks for a systematic change of the historical embedded power dynamics that have the capacity to confront injustices of the past (Milan and Treré 2019, p 326, Mustafa 2014). In both the offline and online spaces.

With this blog page, I attempted to learn and share my interest and findings regarding the consequences of online surveillance by the private and public sectors. I used different sources such as academic literature, news articles, public videos, and webinars to structured my work. For this blog, I experimented with publishing a voice recording of a face-to-face interview, which got me confronted with completely other difficulties than text-based blogging. Therefore, I experienced the creation of this blog as valuable learning for future pursuits. However, the process left me with unanswered questions from Taylor (2017, p 13, 16). Who should be determining the fundamentals for good governance about how to use big data in a democratic context? And how can we effectively ‘do’ development and accomplish social change in an increasingly digitalized world? Taylor argues that innovation and evolution in technology are constant and desirable, but that we, the people, should be in charge of negotiating the terms in which ways technologies and big data are used by governments to serve the public. The way towards the ideal situation is still debatable.


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Birhane, A. (2019) The anchoritic colonization of Africa: Real life Mag
Viewed on 28 Feb 2020.

Chatterjee, A. et. al. (2020) Estimating the Distribution of Household Wealth in South Africa: Southern Centre for Inequality Studies and The World Inequality Lab

Hunter, M., and Smith, T., (2018) Spooked, Surveillance of journalists in South Africa, Right2Know Campaign Report 

Mare, A. (2015) Facebook, Youth and Political Action: A Comparative study of Zimbabwe and South Africa: School of Journalism and Media Studie, Rhodes University 

Milan, S. and Treré, E. (2019) Big Data from the South(s): Beyond Data Universalism: Sage

Miller, D. et. al. (2016) How the world changed social media: UCL Press

Roberts, T. (2019), Digital Development: What’s in a name?: Appropriating Technology
Viewed on 15 March.

SA Poverty and inequality assessment report (2018): International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank

Shanapinda, S. (2019) Asymmetry in South Africa’s Regulation of Customer Data Protection: Unequal Treatment between Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and Over-the-Top (OTT) Service Providers: University of the Witwatersrand

Taylor, L. (2017) What is data justice? The case for connecting digital rights and freedoms on the global level:  TILT, Tilburg University

Third, A, et al. (2014), Children’s Rights in the Digital Age: A Download from Children Around the World: UNICEF

Walton, M., and Donner, J. (2011), Read-Write-Erase: Mobile-mediated Publics in South Africa’s 2009 Elections, (eds.),: Transaction Publishers

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