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Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

[Source: Daily Maverick by Heidi Swart.]

Cyberspying. Hackers. Drones. Mass interception devices. Row upon row of servers storing millions of conversations. High resolution cameras, and uniformed personnel in war rooms watching our every move on an array of obnoxiously oversized screens. This is what comes to mind when one hears the phrase “government surveillance”. The astounding advances in surveillance tech mean that the all-seeing eye of Big Brother has never been more powerful – or more difficult to regulate. But the biggest threat to our privacy may lie in something completely unglamorous, old school and low-tech: phone bills.

[Heidi Swart is a journalist who has extensively investigated South Africa’s intelligence services. This story was commissioned by the Media Policy and Democracy Project, an initiative of the University of Johannesburg’s department of journalism, film and TV and Unisa’s department of communication science.]

It’s not his finest hour. Senior magistrate of the Cape District, HJ Venter, is in the witness box of the Western Cape High Court. The success of a serious criminal case over which he presided may be in jeopardy, and he has some serious questions to answer.

It all started mid-2003. In just over three months, three cigarette trucks belonging to the British American Tobacco Company of South Africa (BATSA) were hijacked – two in the Western Cape, near Rawsonville and Darling, and a third outside Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape. Armed men disguised as police and traffic officials pulled over the trucks at mock road blocks, and stole their cargo. After the first two robberies, police were clueless.

Fortunately, an informer identified five suspects, and provided law enforcement with the numbers of the cellphones they allegedly used during the heists.

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South Africa at a Glance
58 780 000 (mid 2018 estimate)
4.5% y/y in June 2019 (CPI) & +5.8 y/y in June 2019 (PPI)
-3.2% q/q (1st quarter of 2019)
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