Thami Nkosi: Oral Histories of Surveillance
And the complexities then therefore with this work is to be able to draw those parallels and simplify them for people to understand, to say the fact that you can’t go to Tokai, for example, without somebody sitting in some control room, and watching your movement is the similar thing as having to have pass access and have a stamped pass to say right, you are allowed to enter this space. They may not prevent you from entering that space, but what they’re essentially doing is to say, you don’t belong here so as a result, we’re going to be looking at your every movement. And that’s the same thing. So I think the complexities with mobilizing around this is essentially how you generate the ability for people to understand the parallels that are inherent in the apartheid system in the current dispensation. So this is digital apartheid, quite frankly. It’s digital apartheid, and it’s a digital dompass. —Thami Nkosi
Our Data Bodies (ODB) is excited to present a series of oral histories from organizers, writers, and cultural workers whose work has been steeped in resisting discriminatory surveillance technology and racialized surveillance capitalism, and has illuminated strategies for abolition and abolitionist reform. This oral history features Thami Nkosi (he/him), activist and civil society worker based in Johannesburg, South Africa. The transcript, which has been slightly edited for clarity, follows below.
Kim M. Reynolds: So, you can just start with the first one, which is introducing yourself- anything you want to mention – home, age, ways of knowing/education/canons you see yourself a part of, the work you do now.
Thami Nkosi: So this is Thami Nkosi. I’m way up the age line now [laughs]. I’m 37, I’ve been a social justice activist primarily, say, for the past 15 years. I started very early, from high school. I think I have always been a Che Guevara scholar who essentially trembled with indignation any time I saw any form of injustice happening in any shape or form. And having been introduced to kind of Marxist readings at the time, I couldn’t help but notice all the kinds of imbalances of the world, instead being curious about what’s the best way to go about bringing the necessary change so that humanity can be able to move forward. So yeah, I have been doing social justice work for about 15 years, it cuts across. It has been stuff around HIV prevention, it has been stuff around access to housing, it has been around land, all kinds of things. But the one thing that I’ve prided myself in doing is working with a cohort of activists in Cape Town, young people in Cape Town who are specifically around the Reclaim the City movement. Nkosikhona Swaartbooi, who’s at SJC [Social Justice Coalition] now, used to be my fellow. So we’re doing a South African political history, looking at when apartheid became law and some of the different laws that were essentially passed by the apartheid regime back then that put in place the conditions that we eventually had to suffer from.
So yeah, I’m curious and a bit of a rebel, well, went as far as doing political science at UWC but dropped out in second year because I had a problem with conventional education and its [in]ability to fully liberate a person. And yeah, I got introduced to the Paulo Freirean approach to liberation education so became a very big popular education subscriber, having to go through stuff like the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and really understanding what it takes for one to be able to fully liberate themselves and not depending on systematic change that’s not necessarily going to have a long term effect on humanity. So yeah, that’s me in a nutshell. I’ve been in the social justice sector for about 15 years and a college drop out. Am I going to finish my degree? Perhaps, I don’t know [laughs]. I may eventually, just as a bucket list complete my political science thing [laughs].
I’m currently doing a lot of work around protecting the right to assemble, petition, and protest in the country as an important tool for political participation for the poor and disenfranchised and the workers. I’m also doing work around looking at surveillance technologies and how they infringe on people’s abilities to exercise their rights, and how essentially, we’ve become targets of a concerted effort from Capital to monetize our lives and our privacy. I’m taking a keen interest in working around securocrats, looking at the securocrats and how that essentially is a covert way in which the state goes about imposing martial law that is unspoken and imposing, more or less, a surveillance state, a military state on surveillance. And I think we learned that from different so-called liberation movements across the world, that over time, they become a dictatorship. So yeah, that’s where I am now.
Kim M Reynolds: Cool. And when did you start working with Right2Know (R2K)?
Thami Nkosi: I’m still a newbie. I started working with R2K in 2018. Fifth of March to be precise—a day after my birthday. I remember I had a massive hangover when I was appointed from a night of partying the day before [laughs].
Kim M Reynolds: What is the work you do in your specific appointment within R2K?
Thami Nkosi: So, I’m tasked with doing three things. Oone of the major things that I’m tasked with doing is what we call policy advocacy. So, essentially, my role involves kind of interacting with the bureaucratic system, so interacting with the different ministries—well, maybe not even interacting— antagonizing different ministries in this country, the police, and everyone else who we deem as an opponent to the people. Because when you’re thinking about people’s power, then you’re thinking about systematic oppression, and you then need to engage with those state organs that are essentially perpetuating that. So it’s a kind of policy research and policy advocacy.
The other is to kind of do a popular education across the campaign, so essentially working with the different communities to build popular campaigns from the ground up. So we’re essentially bridging the gap between grassroots and bureaucrats to simply say, our democracy demands that grassroots communities be heard, find their voice in particular spaces, and that their voices actually find expression in the public discourse with regards to saying no decisions will be made for them about them without them. So yeah, I’m tasked with also doing popular education for different struggles and communities across the country and building capacity of communities to understand how democracy functions and how best they can find their foot insofar as influencing the decision-making processes is concerned, but more specifically with the idea of bringing some political education with a view of building popular uprisings. And I’m not apologetic about it, it’s political work. You do popular mobilization for an uprising against the system and that’s what it is.
And the other one is perhaps kind of doing things like strategic litigation that would be put together with communications as well. So having to defend the face of the organization with regards to some of the contributions we’re making in the different subject matters. So mine specifically is around the issue of the right to protest, but wholly the right to assemble protest, and petition, because I think we miss the point; half the time, people have a conversation about the right to protest but in fact, it’s not the right to protest, it’s the right to assemble, protest and petition as well. So I do that, and ultimately, it’s going to do shadowing of the securocrats and law enforcement in this country. So, looking at the State Security Agency, for example, the South African Police Service (SAPS), working with the office of the Inspector General, working with the office of the Police Ombudsman, working with IPID [Independent Police Investigative Directorate] well, and yeah, so it’s a three-legged thing for me.
And then ultimately looking at surveillance capitalism. And I call it surveillance capitalism. R2K may not conceive it that way because there’s a narrow focus on it to simply look at, you know, surveillance, but for me, it’s about surveillance capitalism, because you cannot detach the fact that surveillance is in fact, a capitalistic model. And perhaps that’s the work that lies ahead for me, at least in the next couple of years, to be able to conscientize our comrades to understand the whole realm of surveillance, to say it’s not surveillance in isolation with capitalism, it’s surveillance in connection, in fact, it’s a manifestation of capitalism. So yeah, that’s my three-pronged role. We’ll do a lot of media campaigning as well, so my responsibility is to draft the organization’s position insofar as perhaps looking at police brutality, looking at the securocrats, and the right to protest, so I would have to design or define the position for the organization. So, through the research, I need to say to the organization, here’s what the facts are, here’s where the state may be in cahoots with certain sections of oppressive forces, or this is how the state is in contempt of the law, and how can we take that forward. And then having to kind of be the face of the organization insofar as speaking on those three different things is concerned.
Kim M Reynolds: It’s so important this analysis comes from a place of knowing because this knowledge production is always coming from such elite, and Global North places.
Thami Nkosi: It’s capitalism paranoia. What it essentially does is to try and secure itself, so it’s the few elites trying to secure themselves, because they’re paranoid to say that, you know, the resistance of these unknown quantities is a threat to their ability to generate income, to generate profits. As a result, they want to put a stranglehold on our ability to fight back.
Kim M Reynolds: And I mean, it requires, like the surveillance state and the surveillance industry requires customers. It requires products. So they always have to kind of be inventing more and more threats that people need to be able to protect themselves from or buy into in that way. What underpins your work? And you’ve kind of spoken about this, but what underpins your work, and what are the complexities to understanding and mobilizing around surveillance in South Africa given the superstructure of apartheid, neocolonialism, neoliberalism?
Thami Nkosi: What sort of underpins the work, I think one [of the things] is, I mean, we often have these conversations, these superficial conversations about, quite frankly a liberal constitution that we presume will protect everybody else’s rights and assume that everybody is equal. The truth of the matter is that’s not what it is. So what underpins the work is to simply say, self-determination is the key to self-liberation. So ultimately, what we then need to be in a position to do is to define what becomes of our own lives and be in control of what we give and what we get, and be able to influence what then happens insofar as our lives taking a particular direction is concerned. So at the foreground of that is the ability to have free flow of information, access to information, and participating in the democratic dispensation— as superficial as it is— but at least having a voice to be able to be heard. And then ultimately partaking in the decision making. So it’s active citizenry, in fact. At the crux of it is just active citizenry—to say how do you work within the system that perhaps may not necessarily be perfect, but how best do you then function within that system and push the boundaries to ensure that you are taken into cognizance, you are heard, and your voice is actually mainstreamed into the decision making process. So it’s active citizenry that foregrounds itself in citizen participation, in access to information demanding greater transparency and accountability from state institutions or from the state in itself, in its entirety. And that kind of foregrounds our work.
But I think ultimately, one of the biggest things for us is to be able to self-determine. To say, how do I work within the confinements of these rules, these regulations, these spaces, they may not necessarily be for me entirely, but how do I work within these systems to self-determine? And that you’re the driver to your own change, and you’re not going to sit back and essentially hope that certain people are going to make decisions that are going to benefit you. And that’s the key thing. And insofar as the surveillance angle is concerned, it’s to simply say, you cannot simply be a subject to a capitalistic system that is not benefiting you. You cannot be a data subject of a system that entrenches digital apartheid, quite frankly, because when you think about the parallels you can draw between the apartheid system and the civilian system is frankly, to simply say, this is a system that essentially looked at you as an inconvenience to the system. And the same way that our folks were expected to carry pass books, surveillance actually does the same thing. These are digital pass laws. Because then wherever you’re frequenting you are essentially under some form of surveillance. Somebody is watching over. Big Brother is watching over you. So these are unspoken rules in terms of what space you can access and what space you cannot access, because certain places require your biometrics in order to be able to make it through. Some want to scan your barcoded ID so that they have a database, for whatever reason. And we all know that, in fact, these things are sold to telemarketers but quite frankly, the parallel between the apartheid system and the surveillance system is to say, basically, you are being controlled, your access to certain spaces is actually being controlled, and this is an invisible pass that you’re carrying. Somebody else determines which area you access, which area you don’t.
And the complexities then therefore with this work is to be able to draw those parallels and simplify them for people to understand, to say the fact that you can’t go to Tokai, for example, without somebody sitting in some control room, and watching your movement is the similar thing as having to have pass access and have a stamped pass to say, right, you are allowed to enter this space. They may not prevent you from entering that space, but what they’re essentially doing is to say, you don’t belong here so as a result, we’re going to be looking at your every movement. And that’s the same thing. So I think the complexities with mobilizing around this is essentially how you generate the ability for people to understand the parallels that are inherent in the apartheid system in the current dispensation. So this is digital apartheid, quite frankly. It’s digital apartheid, and it’s a digital dompass. And as a result, it makes it very difficult to say to people, how is this harmful to you? And people innocently think, look, if I’m not prevented from entering an area, why should I worry whether somebody is watching me or when somebody is not watching me? What people don’t understand is that your ability to do anything in that space is limited to what somebody deems as ethical or not. Because depending on what you are seen to do, you may have a van stop by and actually evict you from that space. But people don’t understand things like that. So I think those are some of the difficulties that you face up with when you’re dealing with the surveillance theme primarily because people don’t see that as an immediate threat to their liberties. And there needs to be some kind of deep understanding of how these things actually manifest themselves in people’s lives, and how problematic these things are. It’s very strange because South Africans like touting the Constitution, but anytime you say, well, you have a right to privacy, and it’s enshrined in the Constitution but then people would start then wanting to make tradeoffs between security and rights and those sorts of things.
It’s an interesting conversation, I think. But also, just to say, I mean, the language around surveillance is quite elitist. I mean, I can have a conversation with you about it, I can have a conversation with a Murray [tech and surveillance researcher formerly with R2K or whoever, but how do you simplify this to a so-called common man on the ground to understand this? And I think that’s the difficulty and that’s the task for me, for moving forward to say, how do we simplify these? And how do we make them relatable to the working class, to poor communities? Because in Khayelitsha, communities are calling for cameras because they believe they’re going to deal with crime, but they’re not thinking about the ripple effects of having cameras there. So, how do you have the conversation to say it’s okay, but this is how far this thing needs to go, this is how far this thing can go, insofar as being intrusive in your own personal life, in your own personal space. So sometimes it’s a difficult conversation because you understand people’s paranoia, you understand people’s lived experiences, the dangers that they face on a daily basis, so you understand why they’re making a call for a particular system because they believe it will help them. And, unfortunately, they’ll prioritize that, and it’s understandable, but I think the huge task that lies ahead for both of us is to say, how do we simplify this? How do we move it from kind of really being a conversation with these scholars, these people who have some level of education, to a point where a six-year-old will understand that, Look, a video of me may not be taken when I’m playing in a park. That’s my private space.
Kim M Reynolds: And I really agree with you because I think I’d mentioned the gunshot detection technology that’s been deployed in the Cape flats, ShotSpotter. It’s like R12 million a year that the City of Cape Town spends to put in microphones that are supposed to pick up gunshots and have resulted in like nine arrests. And like the city spent so much money on it, to over police a community.
Thami Nkosi: Yeah, it’s an interesting thing. Are we not overly policed? I think we are. Why would we be calling for more police? Look, I think part of the problem for me is to say there’s something wrong with the social fiber, the social contract, the moral contract of a particular community, that no police are going to make better. But it’s about how we transform our lives. It’s about the lack of jobs. It’s about lack of economic opportunities. It’s about poverty. It’s about economic injustice. It’s about land questions. It’s not as simple as that. So you can bring as many police as you want, but the truth of the matter is that unless we address the underlying fundamental questions around such vast levels of inequality in this society, we’re not dealing with the problem. I’m never for police. In fact, I think we need to defund policing and use the resources for something else.
Kim M Reynolds: What are some of the most important interventions that you see as necessary moving forward as South Africa continues to develop, and all those kinds of things?
Thami Nkosi: I think the major thing would be there needs to be far much greater information available. One is perhaps a bit of investment, and it would be a time investment into doing a whole lot of research on surveillance models, and perhaps the pros and the cons because one way or the other, we need to deal with the pros the same way that we’ll deal with the cons. I mean, my view is that any surveillance dystopia is bad. My view is, even if you regulate surveillance, for me, surveillance is wrong. Finish and klaar. But because there are realities that we’re living in in this world, what you would simply say is, Okay, those who prefer surveillance there needs to be a greater body of information and knowledge around surveillance and what it means for humanity. The crisis that is systematic, a political systematic crisis that is created, or that is born out of capitalism and as a result is actually an offshoot of the crisis of capitalism as is.
I think the other thing that needs to happen, quite frankly, is a rigorous mobilization because you and I can push as much as we can. But the truth of the matter is, until you have so-called common people, from poor communities standing up and actually asking questions and mobilizing around this, and staging uprisings and popular campaigns around this, then there’s not going to be much of a change. You and I can make submissions to Parliament, blah, blah, blah. Or we can fight with ministries and do all kinds of things, but tangible change will only come if we are able to mobilize the citizens of this country behind an anti-surveillance campaign.
Kim M Reynolds: What do you think about the nature and industry of private security in South Africa?
If you’re asking me about private security, I need to light up another cigarette [laughter]. No, no, it’s a serious problem. Look let’s get the facts. One, the fact is, private security has more personnel than the police and the army of this country combined. That’s the number one problem. They’re about 200,000. I could actually be understating the numbers, I just can’t think of them in my head right now, but what is a fact is that they have more personnel than the army and the police in this country combined. So what it means is that we are outsourcing surveillance security to private security. So what we have done is that the state is outsourcing security of the citizens of this country into private hands.
The second thing is that the regulations around private security are bad. What we have is a Constitution that goes as far back as 2004 to this day. No reform, whatsoever. I’ve had my fights with the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSiRA). Their constitution is outdated, which simply means the way things are right now, private security is operating with impunity, primarily because the lines of being held accountable are very narrow. The other thing is this is a very lucrative and capitalistic business in the industry by its very nature. And the truth of the matter is that the biggest role players are actually foreign companies; G4, Fidelity, those are foreign companies. G4 is a British company, and Fidelity has its tentacles in the British colony as well. So in essence, what we have is a foreign paramilitary— in my view, these are paramilitary— function in this country with impunity. And we cannot have a situation like that. We’ve seen a growing amount of interference from them. If you think about #FeesMustFall and how they fucking got involved in policing protests in universities. And I think we didn’t take the government to task with that. I think as civil society, we failed in our task.
The second thing is the growing interference of theirs in protest, the same thing that happened in Brackenfell with the EFF there. The security personnel was there in live ammunition machine guns and all kinds of things. We’re talking about de-arming the police when they’re policing protests, but private security brings machine guns into protest. What happens if anybody irks them in a different way?
So for me, the private security industry in this country is unaccountable, primarily because it is a multibillion-dollar industry that essentially is politically motivated. The majority of these smaller security companies that are mushrooming are actually owned by former MK [uMkhonto we Sizwe] cadres. And some of them are actually linked to ANC folks. So as a result, they will not have an interest in regulating that shit in any way. I mean, we have over 500 security companies in this country and it’s abnormal. You think about the role that the Red Ants [Red Ant Security Relocation & Eviction Services], for example, are playing in the inhuman eviction of our poor communities from the land. So what you have is the state also outsourcing their ability to interact with their citizens and using the Red Ants to actually go in there and evict people.
The worst thing is when you have a City, or a government entity in the form of a City, employing private security to conduct land invasion exercises. We know, for example, the Red Ants are notoriously known, people have lost their lives at their hands. They’re thieves. They’ve stolen people’s goods, they’ve killed people, they’ve done all kinds of things. We wrote to PSiRA [Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority] and we had a fight with them, and they [the Red Ants] got deregistered. But because they’re big muscle, they were able to pay a particular fine and they were back in business. What we’ve taken to task is the City of Joburg to say you cannot continue to use the Red Ants who inhumanly treat your citizens in this manner.
So no, I don’t think we were doing enough. I’ve interacted with that a couple of times. But my view is I’ve not done enough. Because the PSiRA, in fact, reports to the Ministry of Police that in itself is corrupt as it is. So even that in itself is very problematic. It feels to me that we need a private security ombudsman. Will it make a difference? I don’t think so. But perhaps we need an independent body to oversee the conduct of private security. We can’t leave it to the regulator to do that when the regulator is in bed and is in cahoots with the South African Police Service and is in cahoots and in bed with the ruling party [ANC], primarily because these are beneficiaries. Some of the private security beneficiaries are, in fact, former cadres. So no, my view is that this is a paramilitary that is just instituting all kinds of terror in our society. And for me, we need to do something about that. I think that private security is far more problematic than the police, in my view. They pose a much greater danger.
Also, the illusion in this country is to say the Black middle class are those folks that stay in Sandton and are heavily indebted. So capitalism has them by the balls, quite frankly. And they think they’re better off than everybody else, so what they want to do as a result is to protect the bloody plasma screen in the house, but they’re not thinking about the ripple effect of this human being who’s wielding a machine gun around impacting everybody else to protect you. But I think by design that’s what capitalism seeks to do. Capitalism thrives on class politics. You describe one person as being different from the other, you give the other a tiny amount of privilege and they think they’re better off than the other, and as a result they see the other as a danger to them and they want to protect their little privileges when in fact they don’t have as many privileges as they think they have. Because what they’re essentially doing is feeding into the capitalistic machine. So the truth of the matter is that there isn’t such a thing as a middle class in this country. But quite frankly, the debate in this country is framed around “private security will keep you safe from these poor people who want to come and steal your plasma in the house.” And that’s the narrative that’s been sold. So even the narrative in itself is demonizing of the poor and the working class.
Kim M Reynolds: The next question I wanted to ask you was about the campaigns that you’ve done in the work you’ve been involved with that deal with resisting surveillance, and surveillance technology?
Thami Nkosi: I’ll start from the end and go back to say in a small way that one has done some little work. I mean, I call it little work because I understand the biggest scope of what still needs to be done. And sometimes one does not necessarily take compliments pretty well[laughs]. So I always think of anything that I do as small. So I was invited by Build Up, and I’m not sure whether you know them, but they’re looking at world peace strategies type of thing. So I was invited by them to do a keynote speech on surveillance capitalism, in recognition of the little work that one does. And the little work that one does is essentially work with one, private security and problematizing the use of surveillance, how invasive that is, and how that infringes on people’s rights.
What I’ve done is engaged with PSiRA, for example. There’s a company called Vumacam here in Gauteng, who laid out fiber in the past couple of years, you know, under the radar. And there were, in my view, some corrupt dealings that happened at the City of Joburg because they have what they call Elvex that they signed. It’s a 30-year-old lease that they signed with the City of Joburg to lay fiber across the country. So we always saw, at least in the past five years, the streets getting dug up and all kinds of fiber cables being laid. We never understood what the fuck was going on. But now, it’s dawning on us to say fuck, in fact, we’re preparing for a surveillance city, because they started talking about these smart cities, blah, blah, blah. So I’ve interacted with the process like that, trying to hold Vumacam accountable in their use of surveillance in our cities and what that means in public spaces, particularly to say you cannot, with impunity, use surveillance cameras in public spaces and actually gather people’s data without having sought consent and those sorts of things.
And that has led me to therefore interact with the regulatory body, PSiRA, to then ask questions about what legislative framework they have in place to hold private security companies accountable for their use of surveillance cameras, for example. And PSiRA does not have even a single line, not even a single sentence on how they regulate private security companies using surveillance. You would be horrified if you were to read that code of conduct. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen. And I’m not even talking about drone use. I’m not even talking about drone use yet. So these folks are 20 years behind.
So it has been at the level of kind of policy and legislation and interaction with the regulatory board… as a form of security provision of security. In fact, I had to flag that Vumacam was not registered with PSiRA. They were providing a security feature, but they were not registered with PSiRA until I wrote to PSiRA to lodge a complaint against them [Vumacam]. Only then did they know that there’s a security company called Vumacam! So, yeah, that’s one. And then going in as far as going… to ask questions… in place for the use of surveillance cameras in the city. The city has none. Absolutely none. So what it means right now is that everybody can set up a camera anywhere. There’s no legislative framework in this city. City of Joburg has absolutely nothing. So also interacting with the government given that this thing is happening.
Cape Town has one, but it was drafted in 2014… In 2014, they gazetted a surveillance policy for the city. So what they looked to do was to regulate the use of surveillance in the city, which was pretty progressive at the time, but that’s as far as it went. It never went any further. Really what they did was they had a discussion at the provincial legislature, but yeah, that’s as far as it went. But there is a draft policy that was not formally adopted or whatever. The same way that they’re the only province in the country that has a police ombudsman at the provincial level. So one of them is to protect people’s personal information, and that’s kind of working with, or rather antagonizing the office of the Information Regulator to essentially ensure that the POPI Act [Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013] is actually implemented. Well, we still have issues with them. I think we’re late with our policy, but the least we could do is to try and implement before we even try and reform or change anything on it. I think the first thing that we need to try and do now is to make sure that we implement first.
And then the other one [campaign] is working with the office of the Inspector General to essentially look at how the securocrats or the spooks conduct themselves insofar as state surveillance is concerned. So what we did was to file about 15 complaints that were submitted to us, by journalists particularly, as far back as 2010 with the corrupt tender scandals with the building of the 2010 World Cup stadia. So some of the journalists’ phones were tapped and all sorts of things because we all know the corruption that was with the political figures in there and those sorts of things. So yeah, we filed a complaint with the Inspector General of Intelligence. In fact, we fought for the independence of the office of the Inspector General, because at the time it was, well, it’s still housed within the State Security Agency, but what we fought for was the security clearance of the current incumbent, as well as supporting that office to actually fight for his independence to play the oversight role of the securocrats in this country. So insofar as state and surveillance is concerned, that’s as far as we’ve gone. And also making submissions with the joint Standing Committee on Intelligence in Parliament, so kind of working at the legislative level to ensure that we bring about the lived experiences of the people into these policy discussions to take cognizance of the fact that, in fact, it makes no sense to develop certain policies that are not going to address the concerns of the people if you don’t understand what’s actually happening at the ground level. That’s the other one.
And then the other thing is building a campaign in the City of Joburg to push back against what they call public order policing. So here’s what happened; the Johannesburg Metro Police Department started a partnership with an American company that sells drone technology. So the idea is to use drone technology for— they say— effective public order policing. But we all know what that shit is because what it simply means is that public order policing has to do a lot with protests and those sorts of things. So what they, in fact, are going to be doing is to be surveilling activists to a large extent. So yeah, I’m in the middle of starting a campaign to actually push back against that. And also pushing back against the City’s own rollout of CCTV camera networks. What eventually is going to happen is that the City does not have the resources nor the knowhow to maintain a system like what Vumacam is doing. So what is going to happen eventually, and that’s the big fight that’s going to come, the City is going to opt into peeping into Vumacam’s system because it’s going to cost them less since they don’t have to maintain their own cameras and their own software and those sorts of things. So that’s going to happen. I spoke to one of the guys at the City of Joburg and he said to me, listen, you can fight all you want, but the truth of the matter is that is what is going to happen.
So eventually, Vumacam is actually going— I think they were prophetic in how they developed their own business model. They knew that the state is incapable of building a complicated system like that, and ultimately their business model is aimed at the state being their biggest client. At the moment it’s private security companies, but the fiber that they’ve laid out is going to be accessed by the government in all different levels, in all different shapes and forms in the next couple of years, and that’s the biggest thing that’s going to happen. So what you’re going to have is to have a parallel state surveillance thing happening, but also private surveillance being an enabler into peeping into certain spaces that the state can’t itself peep into. So what we are going to have is a surveillance state, quite frankly; if that’s not what we have already, we’re gonna have it, or at least it’s going to be a deliberate state surveillance. And if you check, for example, what the Chinese are doing to the Uighur Muslims, that’s the shit that we’re going to be subjected to in the next 5- 10 years. And there needs to be a pushback. You and I cannot do much about it. What we need to do for a fact is we need to rally the citizens behind this threat. Because what’s going to happen is that these softwares will be built in such a complicated way that they are connected to even your social security number and your ability to get credit, your ability to get whatever, is going to be based on your behavior; if they see you jaywalking, you may not have access to credit. And people don’t understand these things.
Kim M Reynolds: What have been some of the wins of the campaigns that you’ve worked on and that you’ve experienced? Whether it be with any work that you’ve done in this realm, tied to an organization or not.
Thami Nkosi: I think one of the gains has been one: we were able to litigate against the City of Joburg and Vumacam. So what we did, we had bilaterals with them. They didn’t shift. We had bilaterals with PSiRA. They didn’t shift. We had bilaterals with Vumacam, they didn’t shift. So what we then did was we took the City of Joburg to task for not having a regulatory framework, because what we then realized is to say we need to start at the level of policymaking. It’s one thing to fight Vumacam, but if Vumacam says, “But hold on, what’s the standard here?” So we took the City of Joburg to court to actually say you cannot allow private security companies to lay the foundation for surveillance use in this city because you will not be able to govern it. You will not know when they’re breaking the law and when they’re not.
So we took the City of Joburg to court, and they in turn then took Vumacam to court. So what needs to happen, the model is Vumacam has to apply to the City of Joburg to say, “We would like to put the post in this particular column,” and the City of Joburg is supposed to go to the regulations and say, right, what does the regulation say? What does the legal framework say? You can put the pole, but here is what you need to follow before they give them the go-ahead to do so. And they call those “wayleaves.” So before they give them the wayleaves, they then have to make sure that they satisfy all the requirements. So the City’s not been able to do shit like that. But what has been happening is that Vumacam has been getting wayleaves, and nobody knows how! So my suspicion is that there’s some deep-seated corruption that happens in the City of Joburg primarily because, look, Vumacam is a massive machine, and the majority shareholder of it is the Remgro group which is Johann Rupert-owned.
I’m not delusional about the kind of shit that I’m dealing with. And the Ruperts— with ties to the ruling party— even have a stranglehold on our government as a whole because when you look at the Solidarity Fund of COVID-19, who donated? The Ruperts. So these are trade-offs that are made at the very high level that I’m not delusional about. And the truth of the matter is that there’s going to be a massive, mammoth task, and there’s very little that Thami or R2K can do until there’s a citizen uprising against the system. But that’s the other thing. For me, it’s not so much even about the video surveillance, but it’s also about capitalism and how entrenched capitalism is and how it profits on human lives. And the corruption that happens behind that, and the political corruption that happens behind that that enables businesses to actually continue. So there needs to be the politics of it, there needs to be the technicalities of it, and there needs to be a resistance to it.
Kim M Reynolds: What year did you take the City of Joburg to court?
Thami Nkosi: Earlier this year, around June/July.
Kim M Reynolds: So then the City of Joburg took Vumacam to court.
Thami Nkosi: Yeah. The City of Joburg took Vumacam to court. So we had to make trade-offs and join the city rather as amicus [curiae], because it wouldn’t make sense for us to take them to task about. You know what I mean? [laughs] So they were awakened by us taking them there, so what we then had to do was to shift our position and actually come with them as amicus on the case.
So what happened is that Vumacam argued on the technicalities of unfair business practice by the City, saying, “Denying us wayleaves is actually messing with our income.” So they argued a very narrow point, and they were able to convince the court on that narrow technicality, because as amicus, we raised constitutional questions around privacy and those sorts of things because that was our game plan, even in the first place.
So where we are sitting now is, we are in conversation with the City of Joburg, even though they may have lost on that specific technicality, but there’s a bigger scope to go to the Supreme Court of Appeal. So then appeal the High Court ruling to then consider all other aspects that were actually raised within the case and not to focus on the narrow aspect of it. My sense is that beginning 2021, because this has been a shit year, we might even want to take this as far as the Constitutional Court because we raise questions of constitutionality as amicus in the matter.
Kim M Reynolds: And on what basis did you take the City of Joburg to court?
Thami Nkosi: What we were saying is that the affording of the permits or infrastructure had no basis in law because you don’t have regulations or a legislative framework, so you cannot then therefore be issuing permits to people when you don’t have… where do you derive it? That was the first point that we raised. Secondly, we raised an issue of the positioning of the cameras that Vumacam has. They’re taking information from highways, freeways, and all kinds of things, so what we were saying is that, in fact, these are taking data from public spaces and it raises all kinds of constitutional questions with regards to the gathering of people’s data in public spaces, like what does that mean? And we needed them to understand, to say in the absence of a legislative framework, you can’t then hold them accountable. And then the other issue that we raised was to say, is Vumacam POPI compliant? To say the Information Regulator needs to make sure that the information that Vumacam is actually gathering is secured, protected, and it’s stored away in a way that the guidelines of POPI require, and that it’s not sold off. So is Vumacam subscribing to POPI?
Kim M Reynolds: The last few questions I have for you are, where do you hope to see the work and the politics go? What memories will you hold with you in future struggles? And who do you see going with you in this work?
Thami Nkosi: The hope would be at least in the next two years to establish grassroots movements in localities that are going to be raising issues of the dangers of a surveillance state. And then secondly, it would be legislative reform or legislative formation where there’s no legislation. That’s the best way we can go within the democratic dispensation, at least, even though the police may not be entirely adequate. But the least is let’s have something in place to try and mitigate some of these things from happening with all kinds of impunity as they’re happening.
So the second thing is to at least push the legislator or the legislation or the legislative bodies with a parliament, provincial legislators to have come up with some guidelines with regards to how surveillance is actually going to take place within their cities, then when we have this base, we can start asking these questions like who has access to these recordings or this feed? Who has access to that, why are police then brutalizing? Why is racial segregation actually taking form and taking shape from the provision of these cameras? That’s the next fight.
But for me, I think that’s the one thing, to raise consciousness of the dangers of surveillance capitalism and surveillance state in our communities and build a popular movement from grassroots to pushback against that. And then secondly, to have some form of legislative reform or legislative formation to try and at least mitigate the effects of surveillance capitalism or surveillance rollout in this country. And then thirdly, for me, I would like to see a bit more cohesive movement of civil society collective putting this into the public discourse, asking the questions, holding government accountable, demanding transparency around the issue, and essentially ensuring that this matter finds expression in the public discourse the same way as we’re talking about access to land, and everything else.
Because my view is that the people’s struggles cannot be disconnected between one thing to the other, all these have an effect on humanity and we need to be able to address all of them. When we talk about dams running dry, we need to actually talk about people not having access to land to build or access to social housing in the city, or what does it mean when people have social housing in the city, if they are in current, microscopic, you know, elements of private security or government watching everything that they do in their lives and for me, until we understand that our struggle is a holistic struggle for the total liberation of humanity, we cannot then want to divorce some of these things.
Kim M Reynolds: And you’d like to see the defunding of police and private security, things like that?
Thami Nkosi: Yeah. We need to defund those and invest in addressing the social constraints and the sustainable livelihoods of people in communities. When people have jobs, when people have land, when people have houses, there’s very little to police because then people have the responsibility to take care of their environment etc. And the history of police, when you think about what James Baldwin said, he says, look, we don’t have a relationship with the police, all we know is that these are folks in uniform and guns. And our relationship with them is such that we need to run away from them, and they’re going to chase us around. We have no relationship with them. And I think James Baldwin was very prophetic in his analysis of police because police by their very nature are an establishment of capitalism to try and put a stranglehold on weapons in the nation, to try and clamp down on workers resisting giving away their labor, resisting being exploited, to make it impossible for them to want to stand up and demand better working conditions, you know? So even when you think about it, if you read Marxist theory, even peasants back then would work in farms but what you’d have is that those who benefit from the work of the peasants then established the police so that the peasants can come and say demand that that portion, you sanction it off for our own benefit, or, you give us more because we’re doing the labor and those sorts of things. So even the police by their very function, are an extension of state to essentially impose martial law on citizens, on the workers. So that in itself, we need a broader discourse on what do we mean by police? What do we mean by policing? Do we need humanity to be policed? That’s the question.