Monday, September 25, 2017


Police in Swaziland disguised as news reporters have been spying on prodemocracy activists, a newspaper reported.

It is only one incident in a long history of spying in the kingdom that includes members of parliament, pensioners and journalists as victims.

The Sunday Observer in Swaziland reported (24 September 2017) that plain-clothed undercover police were at a march of public servants in the Swazi capital Mbabane on Wednesday.

The newspaper called it ‘spying’ and said it had happened before at other public demonstrations, ‘They [police] are always plain clothed and carry traditional journalistic tools including cameras and notebooks,’ the newspaper reported.

It added police took video and still photographs of marchers. The newspaper speculated that these might be used to later track down and intimidate participants. The march was legal.

A police spokesman said they were not spying because the march took place in a public place.

Swaziland, which is ruled by King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, has a long history of spying by police, Army and state forces. In Swaziland political parties are banned from taking part in elections and prodemocracy advocates are prosecuted under the Suppression of Terrorism Act.

In June 2017, some senior politicians in Swaziland reported fears their phones were being tapped. One also thought his car might be bugged.
In July 2013 it was reported that police in Swaziland were spying on the kingdom’s members of parliament. One officer disguised in plain clothes was thrown out of a workshop for MPs and one MP reported his phone has been bugged. Ntondozi MP Peter Ngwenya told the House of Assembly at the time that MPs lived in fear because there was constant police presence, in particular from officers in the Intelligence Unit. 

The Times of Swaziland newspaper reported at the time that at the same sitting of the House Lobamba MP Majahodvwa Khumalo said his cellphone had been bugged ever since he started being ‘vocal against some people’. 

In May 2013, the Media Institute of Southern Africa reported that police spies had infiltrated journalism newsrooms in Swaziland, which had led to a heightened climate of fear. 

It is legal in certain circumstances to tap phones in Swaziland. The Suppression of Terrorism Act gives police the right to listen in on people’s conversations if they have the permission of the Attorney General.

When the Act came into law in 2008 Attorney General Majahenkhaba Dlamini said that anyone who criticised the government could be considered a terrorist sympathiser.

In 2011, a journalist working in Swaziland for the AFP international news agency reported on her blog that her phone calls were being listened in to. 

In 2012, it came to light that the Swaziland Army had attempted to buy cameras and phone monitoring equipment worth US$1.25 million. The Umbutfo Swaziland Defence Force (USDF) – the formal name of the Swaziland Army – was sued  in the Swaziland High Court because it ordered the equipment, but did not pay for it.

The equipment was known as GSM Option: Voice Intercept or delivery and SMS (Short Message Service) Intercept or delivery, as well as spy cameras and alarm systems, the Times of Swaziland reported at the time. 

The equipment could be used against the civilian population in Swaziland. The Voice Intercept equipment is marketed as a tool to monitor and record live phone conversations, which, according to one supplier called SyTech Corporation, the equipment can be a valuable asset to any agency and investigation. It, ‘delivers the evidence that makes the case while protecting officers’ safety’. 

The GSM equipment is designed to monitor mobile phones. This type of equipment is widely available across the world. Another supplier listed the main use as, ‘following a person’s activities and staying undetected’. 

The equipment records all information on the phone as it happens and records ‘phone events’. It can spy on SMS text messages, on web browser activities and call logs (inbound and outbound). It can also track the phone’s location using GPS.

It was, one supplier said, ‘100 percent undetectable and you can spy on unlimited [number of] phones.’

The Swaziland Army ordered equipment worth about E10 million (US$1.25 million at the then exchange rate) from Naspoti J & M Security Solutions, in Nelspruit, South Africa, the Swazi High Court heard, but cancelled the order just as the company was ready to deliver.  No reason was given to the court for the cancellation but, then as today the Swazi Government was broke and struggling to pay its bills, including public sector salaries.

The revelation came at a time of growing activity in the kingdom to force King Mswati to democratise. All political parties and opposition groups are banned and the King controls the parliament and judiciary.

This was not the first time that the Swazi ruling elite has been found trying to spy on the King’s subjects. In August 2011, Wikileaks published a cable from the US Embassy in Swaziland that revealed the Swazi Government had tried to get MTN, the only mobile phone provider in the kingdom, to use its network for ‘surveillance on political dissidents’.

Tebogo Mogapi, the MTN chief executive officer (CEO) in Swaziland, refused to comply and later did not have his work permit renewed and so had to leave the kingdom.

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