Public concerns about the invasive General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill, 2023 (aka the “Spy Bill”) are growing as the Government’s deadline for public comment approaches on Thursday, 15 January 2024. Many fear that the Spy Bill could establish a surveillance state operating out of the Office of the Presidency. It grants the State expanded and almost unrestrained power to spy on almost every area of personal, civil, or business life – without any obligation to inform, obtain permission, or allow a mechanism for objection or recourse by the one being investigated.
In its current form, the Spy Bill’s provisions and definitions are so vague and open-ended that anyone and everyone can potentially be targeted as a "threat to national security". The "relevant" data that can be gathered would include financial and medical records, as well as the interception of electronic communications such as internet browser history, emails, WhatsApp and Facebook posts, Zoom calls, and recordings of phone conversations.
“This Bill represents the death of any meaningful form or right to privacy, and births a surveillance state”, says Michael Swain, Executive Director of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA). “The religious community is especially concerned about this Bill because although the revised version no longer specifically mentions churches, religious organisations and NGOs, its new expanded definitions still include them”.
The Spy Bill leaves undefined the consequences of failing the mandatory security test. However, considering the overall tone of the Bill, it is likely that persons and institutions who fail the test will no longer be allowed to continue their operations within the country. This inadvertently opens the door for the State to control religion by selectively targeting religious organisations and leaders who may be seen to oppose government policy (even if through lawful political activity, advocacy, protest or dissent).
The government’s trajectory away from democratic practices has also raised concerns internationally. A Bill proposed on 6 February 2024 by the US House of Representatives to review America’s relations with South Africa specifically mentions the South African Government’s ongoing cooperation with China and its technology sector. It states that this is placing South African sovereignty at risk and facilitating the Chinese Communist Party’s export of its model of “digitally aided authoritarian governance, underpinned by cyber controls, social monitoring, propaganda, and surveillance”. While currently prevented by clear Constitutional safeguards, the Spy Bill could erode these and usher in a new era.
“Despite its drafters’ intentions, the current version of the Spy Bill signals a return to a pre-1994 surveillance state”, says Swain. “It should have no place in our constitutional democracy.”
The Ad Hoc Committee dealing with this Bill has stated that no further extensions for comments will be granted because they have to meet their requirement to revert to the National Assembly by 1 March 2024. The Government has stated its intention to fast-track the Spy Bill into law before the current Parliament dissolves in May 2024.
For more information, contact:
Executive Director, FOR SA
Tel: 072 270 1217
Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) is dedicated to protecting and preserving the freedoms and rights that the South African Constitution has granted to the faith community. If you have found this helpful, please consider supporting the work of FOR SA to protect our constitutional right to enjoy the freedom of religion by: