Johannesburg - Attorneys, journalists and researchers who are working on sensitive political cases are increasingly experiencing burglaries and having their documents removed.
In some of the cases, the victims aren’t sure if their computers and/or documents are simply part of the loot being taken, or if the burglaries are organised specifically to gain information.
In other cases, the victims are certain the burglaries were more sinister, an attempt to find out what they know and to stop the information from coming out.
Two weeks ago, a legal adviser working on an investigation of South African banks and who has lodged a Constitutional Court case that aims to establish transparency in banking was robbed at gunpoint and his files stolen with what appeared to be the help of the police.
Raymondt Dicks was at home with his son and friend in Blue Hills, Midrand, when six armed men stormed into the house. He caught on CCTV footage what appeared to be three police cars patrolling nearby his house during the robbery.
Dicks is legal adviser to the group NewERA (New Economic Rights Alliance), which has launched a court case against the four major local banks and the SA Reserve Bank that the group says will expose the banks’ illegal activities.
He is also representing author Michael Tellinger, who is suing Standard Bank for civil fraud.
Dicks is the latest person in a line of robberies that have taken place in the past few months whose circumstances are suspicious.
Hennie Van Vuuren, a former director of the Institute for Security Studies, who is now working at the Open Society Foundation for SA personally experienced two strange burglaries.
He was working on a manuscript dealing with the arms deal at the time of the thefts.
Van Vuuren wrote in an opinion piece for the Mail & Guardian in August that there appeared to be a climate of fear in South Africa, with many examples of intimidation.
Van Vuuren said he had no doubt the two robberies in his office in Cape Town were for the sole reason of stealing information.
His papers were looked through and his computer and hard drive were taken. His office held keyboards and flat screen televisions, but these were not touched.
In April, a member of the board of inquiry into the conduct of then police commissioner General Bheki Cele was robbed by men using R-5 assault rifles – the same rifle type as that stolen from a safe at Air Force Base Waterkloof. Only laptops and keys were stolen.
In May, suspended prosecutor Glynnis Breytenbach was shot at on the N14 highway.
She also reported that two BMW motorcycles had tried to force her off the road.
Breytenbach was working on fraud charges against former crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli.
Investigative journalists have also been affected by disappearing computers.
Noseweek editor Martin Welz said the magazine office was broken into two months ago and fairly old computers were taken, but he isn’t sure if it was just general crime or an attempt to find information on stories they are working on.
“My computer and all its back-ups were taken. They also took two others from the newsroom. It was all my work, all my contacts… There are so many big cases we work on that it remains a possibility the theft was for more sinister reasons, but we can’t be sure,” Welz said.
Andrew Trench, the editor of Media24’s investigations team, has also been a victim of a strange burglary. He and colleague Jacques Pauw had their laptops taken from their offices at work with no sign of a break-in.
“We were very suspicious because we were working on stories involving crime intelligence and state security at the time. We had no evidence that the theft was sinister, but we were suspicious,” Trench said.
Former City Press journalist Phalane Motale also had a strange experience when his car was broken into.
His car was filled with belongings, but the only thing removed was his notebook.
Muzi Sikhakhane, a legal representative of Julius Malema and Tokyo Sexwale, had a break-in in April this year. Documents were stolen from his Northcliff home.
Months later, he has heard so many similar stories from other attorneys that he now believes it is “part of the job”.
“[But] I am still suspicious. South African crooks are hardly sophisticated enough to steal documents and books.”
He said the problem was that people didn’t understand the role of an advocate.
“People are suspicious of me because of my job. I don’t represent my client’s political beliefs. I don’t ask them who they believe in politically when I take on their cases. But people don’t understand. There are people who used to be my friends who refuse to speak to me now because of the people I represent.”
Sikhakhane said that in a climate of political tension things such as robberies take place.
“I now see these type of things happening as part of the job,” he said.
The DA police spokeswoman Dianne Kohler Barnard said she, too, had noticed a climate of increasing paranoia and added that in many of these cases there were allegations of police and crime intelligence being involved.
“I know that when the Mdluli case was going on, there were some strange forces at work,” she said.
“The question must be asked: who would benefit from this information?
“It is becoming increasingly worrying that we are regressing… to an era where we are fearing sections of the police service.”