ANALYSIS

Insurrection/counter-revolutionary looting… A hot potato/potatoe in the defence minister’s hands

By Stephen Grootes 21 July 2021

From left: President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo) | Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. (Photo: Flickr / GCIS / Siyasanga Mbambani)

The next few months may see a debate or dispute over what exactly happened to start the looting and violence of last week. This could turn into a key argument because people will reveal their constituencies and agendas through their positions on the issue. The fact that we still lack proper details of what exactly happened, and how it happened, could well provide fertile ground for both supporters and critics of President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Stephen Grootes

This has already been demonstrated in the contradiction between the president’s assertions that this was an attempted “insurrection” and the first statements by Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula that this was not a coup. Already there are some signs that those who oppose Ramaphosa will deny that this is an insurrection, while it might be to his political advantage to claim that our democracy is under attack.

While much of the nation watched the violence and looting last week, glued in horror to TV screens, it is sometimes forgotten how little we still know about how it started. The government has said that five “instigators” have been arrested, but there is still little public information on what exactly happened. Who “started it”, what did they do, how did the violence spread from there? These are crucial questions.

But without knowing all of this, it will be impossible to say for certain what the actual aim of those who started it was.

While it appears to be generally accepted that the trigger event was the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma, that doesn’t tell us whether people simply wanted to weaken Ramaphosa, or take over the country, or simply express their anger, or believed that as they had lost the political fight the only weapon left was violence.

It is in this context that Ramaphosa first used the word “insurrection” on Friday night. In fact, he used it at least three times. 

Then, on Sunday evening, in a parliamentary portfolio committee meeting, Mapisa-Nqakula contradicted him, saying the violence was not an insurrection, but rather “counter-revolutionary” looting.

That led to immediate speculation of a major difference in opinion between the president and a minister with a crucial portfolio, the woman politically in charge of the soldiers playing an important role on the ground.

By Monday, in response to a question, acting Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Nshavheni said that Mapisa-Nqakula’s view was “not supported by the facts”.

However, by Tuesday morning News 24 was reporting that Deputy Defence Minister Thabang Makwetla had said that the president’s word was final. He also pointed out, crucially, that he did not believe the generals would have told the president one version of events and then another to the minister. 

Then, later on Tuesday, Mapisa-Nqakula herself said that she was not contradicting the president and had been making another point — what could be termed a typical political clarification. “The president has spoken; it was an attempted insurrection”, she said.

There is much to consider with all of this.

For a start, the fact that the president and the defence minister do not agree on something as crucial as this, and do not agree absolutely during a time of national crisis, may well point to the government’s lack of urgency in its response to a serious crisis. If the president and the defence minister disagree on what actually happened, they may well disagree on what to do about it.

While the president is constitutionally the Commander-in-Chief, and the generals take their orders from him, the disagreement with his point person can still stoke discord.

Mapisa-Nqakula has previously been disciplined by Ramaphosa, suffering the loss of her salary for three months, after she allowed senior ANC leaders to travel on a military plane to Zimbabwe. This was a clear breach of the line between party and state and in defiance of lockdown regulations.

But she is still a party elder, having been in Cabinet for more than 15 years. In that time, however, there have been few displays of competence. She also did not deny abusing government resources to smuggle the citizen of a foreign country from Burundi to South Africa during Jacob Zuma’s presidency.

She is a former secretary-general of the ANC Women’s League and appeared to support Thabo Mbeki in the run-up to the 2007 Polokwane Conference (when Mbeki resigned after his recall in 2008 she even refused to vote in favour of his resignation). She was the league’s secretary-general when it appeared to go against her wishes and said it would support Zuma despite his behaviour, as revealed during his rape trial the year before.

She also comes from a family of influence. Her husband Charles Nqakula is a former Cabinet minister himself, and now a security adviser to Ramaphosa. Her sister, Nosithembele Nontobeko Mapisa, was previously an official at the South African Embassy in Burundi. 

This indicates her long history and deep connections in the party, which may make it difficult to take action against her.

That said, her deputy Makwetla’s reactions are almost unprecedented.

His public statements contradicting what she said may suggest that he is not afraid of her power. It is very rare for a deputy minister to contradict a minister and is generally seen as evidence of problems in a department (although it has happened — in 2017 the then deputy minister of mineral resources Godfrey Oliphant told 702’s Xolani Gwala that while he didn’t know about his department, he “was not captured”, in what was a clear rebuke of the then minister Mosebenzi Zwane. Similarly, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge lost her job as deputy health minister after criticising Manto Tshabalala-Msimang). 

Meanwhile, those who want to weaken Ramaphosa will try to use the defence minister’s statements to further their own aims. 

On Tuesday, former leader of the ANC in Nelson Mandela Bay Andile Lungisa tried to explain his actions last week.

In a statement released on Twitter, Lungisa claimed that “The Coup lie is a threat to civil rights”. He claims, without evidence, that a police officer told him they were being pressured to make sure people believed the idea there had been an attempted coup, while this was not the case.

He may not be the last, both inside the ANC and outside it, to make this claim.

However, by saying this, Lungisa and others would be revealing their lack of support for Ramaphosa at a time when he appears to have much of the country on his side. This may mean this debate will only be heard in muted tones.

Additionally, reports from Gqeberha indicate that Lungisa first said he was going to instigate looting and then had to hide from taxi bosses in a police station before they paraded him through taxi ranks forcing him to publicly apologise for his actions.

He now faces criminal charges for breaking lockdown regulations during this parade.

All of this is a massive climbdown from the days when Zuma himself attended the regional ANC conference that saw Lungisa win the position of Nelson Mandela Bay ANC leader against the express wishes of the NEC.

Of course, perhaps the best outcome for the country would be for proper police work to reveal what exactly happened and how the violence was triggered. It is best to respond to facts, not to theories. This means that the work of the police and the criminal justice system will be vital over the next few days.

What they uncover may well have political repercussions that will spark more debate. In the meantime, Mapisa-Nqakula’s job security will be indicative of where and how fast things are moving in the ANC. Stay tuned, this post-looting drama is far from reaching its climax. DM

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All Comments 10

  • CR’s description of events is correct judging against personal experiences, official evidence and numerous statements from the general public I have spoken to during the past week in one of the hot spots in KZN. The attempt by the some top politicians to use different colours of paint is a continuation of the entire debacle. It is evident that the disagreements lead to a lack of focus on how to address the events at the cost of SA citizens. As was said so many times the President has to act fast to show that we still have a constitutional denocracy left. The people are sitting in the dark and waiting to see to which side the good/bad scale is going to tip at the top.

  • For as long as competence & some semblance of intelligence are not prerequisites in order to occupy a cabinet position, South Africa will continue as is.

    I’m not sure that Cyril has what it takes to sort out the shambles that is his cabinet & get rid of the cadres that surround him.

    • Having read Moeletsi Mbeki’s analysis of the ANC on Politicsweb it would appear that Ramaphosa has very little room to move in outside of ANC NEC decisions. Perhaps we exaggerate Ramaphosa’s authority and therefore blame him for things that are completely outside his control. It would appear that Jacob Zuma achieved it by loading the NEC with his supporters and therefore had approval to act on his own. Just something to consider.

  • “proper police work” – not holding my breath. The informed know full well who the instigators might be; though proving it is in the wrong hands. Until CR rids himself of bad blood around him this could occur again with more impact. Everyone seems to be engaged with clean up except CR.

  • Assuming events were started by instigators, which seems likely, their agenda was probably to generate a context where the police / military would shoot a significant number of rioters. They surely knew that this would not lead to a take-over in the short term. Rather, it would lead to a “Marikana all over again” chant to weaken Ramaphosa. Sufficiently oxygenated, this would lead to his eventual downfall. Whether or not one calls such an agenda a coup, an insurrection or whatever, is irrelevant. It explains why the security forces seemed so passive.

  • “there have been few displays of competence” – Could be said of 99% of the cabinet cadres.
    Classic case as has been pointed out, that political connections and history trump competence in cabinet appointments.
    Will it ever change? I personally doubt it and therefore our downward spiral as a country will continue until we are at the same lowest common denominator as the rest of Africa. Cry, the beloved continent!

  • Picking up on comments from the Jacob Zuma foundation it seems that the goal was to create a situation where the government would be forced to release Zuma in order to calm the people down. Zuma would then say a few words and re-enter public life as the saviour.
    Things got out of hand and the cannon fodder in the mix, who were confined and angry after the covid shutdown, did their thing. Criminals organised large scale theft from distribution warehouses to exploit the opportunity. There was NO usefully applied intelligence as everything loops back to my first paragraph and the people who are responsible for gathering it are part of the problem.
    What was good about the insurrection was that apart from KZN and areas in Gauteng support for the exercise did not have enough support to be maintained once the Army were deployed, easy targets were looted and citizens stood up.
    This was an insurrection against CR by a section of the ANC who are about to face the law for their misdeeds. The shifting descriptions of what happened are a sign of a bunch of weak characters who are hanging on the fence and not knowing which way to jump. The ANC has failed themselves and the country, and #THEREMUSTBECONSEQUENCES

  • The ANC can count their lucky stars there is no major opposition to take advantage of this. It would appear a lot of comrades are jealous that CR remains popular across all types of South Africans and that he is backed by business to a degree.

  • Well we are all still waiting for any meaningful action on the part of the government, or , for that matter, any publicized arrests of ANYBODY of note! Perhaps, as per unusual, whenever the ANC finds itself in a tricky situation, it just stays silent! The days are passing , and so far , not a peep from the discreditedRET faction- so what will happen next?

  • Generally I am impressed by how well informed Stephen Grootes is and how measured his views are. This article is another example. However this morning on Safm Stephen Grootes revealed his clay feet when he appeared to conflate the number of dead bodies in the Phoenix Mortuary, which come from a much wider area than Phoenix itself, with the number of deaths that that occurred in Phoenix itself as a result of what the police are investigating as possibly resulting from over zealous local citizens of Phoenix protecting their area and businesses. Perhaps Stephan will clarify this on Safm sometime.

  • DM168 COVID-19

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