The cliché American conspiracy-theory trope, “they’re watching”, is an overused storyline common to the American screen, from “conspiracy nut” comedies to dark action-packed spy blockbusters. 

But this trope could become a South African reality if the new General Intelligence Laws Amendment Bill (GILAB) comes into play. GILAB, approved by Cabinet earlier this year (May 2023), looks to amend the powers and mandate of South Africa’s state intelligence services. Ramaphosa and his cabinet’s recent approval of draft legislation that drastically expands the definition of state security has the makings of a good Jason Bourne movie. 

The new amendment bill would result in questionable changes to the National Strategic Intelligence Act of 1994, the Intelligence Services Oversight Act of 1994 and the Intelligence Services Act of 2022. The bill follows calls for urgent reforms in South Africa’s intelligence set up, first in the hearings of the Zondo Commission and then by the 2018 High Level Review Panel on the State Security Agency (SSA). The new bill has sparked major public concerns – and fears – about the potential (and likely) impact on civil participation and the lack of protections from mass surveillance. One particular source of anxiety is the lack of improved oversight of the SSA and general intelligence services. GILAB could conceivably give the SSA the kind of legally sanctioned powers that would have had J. Edgar Hoover on the edge of his seat.

Characteristic of increased state intervention, the bill looks to expand the vetting powers of the SSA. These new powers would sanction the vetting of those seeking to establish and operate NPOs, NGOs, religious associations, and private security companies. In the context of rising crime and a crippled police service, private security has become indispensable to many South Africans. There is no shortage of constitutional and individual liberal rights this bill would infringe on. Freedom of association and freedom of speech are two of the key constitutional rights at risk.  

The bill would provide the space for the intelligence service to spy on organisations and individuals involved in lawful political activity, protests, dissent or advocacy. Participants involved in peaceful protests, a constitutional right and a common form of civil participation, would be at the mercy of the intelligence services. The draft law would enable the intelligence service to spy on organisations and individuals involved in these lawful political activities. 

Vetting processes under the proposed legislation would be highly invasive, granting intelligence officers the right to “gather information” on criminal records and personal matters. The law would also grant agents the discretion to gather “any other information which is relevant to determine the security clearance of a person.” This means that cell phone records, internet browsing history, and communication records are all fair game. 

Increased, expanded surveillance of civil society organisations – especially those vocal about the ruling party – could be manipulated with a view to effectively rebranding civil rights groups as terrorist organisations. 

In South Africa, as elsewhere, NGOs have often been an annoyance to the intelligence services of both democratic and autocratic states. The vetting of NGOs and the clampdown on individuals involved in lawful political activity would truly hamper public participation and open the door to dystopian practices that could be taken right out of George Orwell’s 1984

Perhaps I sound like the crazy conspiracy nut from your favourite spy movie, but reality has often proved to be stranger than fiction. 



Genevieve Labuschagne is a Master's Political Sciences candidate focusing on political risk analysis, and is currently an intern at the Centre for Risk Analysis. Her interests lie in ESG, political economy, conflict, and civil unrest.