South Africa


Beating the counter-revolutionaries: South Africa’s people are the ultimate defenders of democracy

Beating the counter-revolutionaries: South Africa’s people are the ultimate defenders of democracy
Unrest and looting in Johannesburg and Durban, South Africa. (Photos: Felix Dlangamandla / Shiraaz Mohamed / Leila Dougan)

Did the instigators lose control of the unrest in July? Perhaps not. General mayhem seems to have been their actual aim. The fate of the unleashed masses did not matter, as long as the plan to emasculate the state succeeded.


Joel Netshitenzhe is the Executive Director of the Mapungubwe Institute and a member of the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC). He writes in his personal capacity.

Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, speaking in 1972 to French visitors, famously said “it is too early to judge”, ostensibly referring to the significance of the 1789 French Revolution. This is used to illustrate China’s long-term planning mindset. However, it emerged later that, either because the discussion was lost in translation or because Zhou may have been hard of hearing, he thought the question was about the 1968 French youth uprising.

South African and other pundits should be forgiven, though, for arguing that it is too early to appreciate the full ramifications of the July 2021 mayhem in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. 

The implications straddle many aspects of social life. They are about security of the democratic state and its capacity to protect citizens and property, the fate of constitutional democracy, the social psychology of protest, the impact of poverty and inequality, the pent-up irritation with Covid-19 lockdowns and much more. Care should be taken, though, to avoid drawing straight lines of cause and effect between the orgy of looting and economic sabotage on the one hand, and broad issues of the political economy on the other.

The uprising of July 2021 was orchestrated. Municipal IQ observes in Daily Maverick (25 July) that in normal service delivery protests, looting was recorded in only 16%, as distinct from 71% in the recent uprising. Looting, it says, is usually “tangential to most such protests… rather than becoming the focus”. 

According to the chief executive of the Road Freight Association (Daily Maverick, 29 July), the burning and hijacking of trucks on the N3 arterial route was deliberately planned, with the aim of “causing a congestion point” and creating “the impassibility of roads”. Further, an analysis of social media posts shows that specific activists coordinated the mayhem, giving instructions on which roads should be closed and which centres targeted for looting. These activists would then report back “to the commanders when members had executed a plan”.

The government’s security cluster claims that, besides the warehouses and logistics system, strategic key points such as water infrastructure and airports were also targeted for attack. The aim was to cause maximum damage, including the disruption of supply chains. Some of the instigators’ communications advised that people should stockpile food and water for the long haul.

All this happened after thinly veiled threats about what would unfold if the former president was arrested for contempt of court. 

Now, you do not instigate organised mayhem of this magnitude overnight. This was obviously planned over a long period of time. As to whether the contempt was deliberately engineered to generate the uprising is a matter of conjecture. So is the question of the ultimate objective, given that there are other court processes under way, and that many of the beneficiaries of corruption and State Capture are due to face their just desserts. 

Only one conclusion can be drawn from this: the intention was to create such instability that, at least, a paralysed state would not be able to ensure rule of law and, at most, the leadership at the helm of government would be removed. 

Call it insurrection, counter-revolution or what you will, but there is no reason why a process of counter-revolution cannot take the form of, or culminate in, a mass insurrection. 

Herein lies the interconnection between orchestrated events and mass psychology. It is correct to argue that levels of poverty and inequality in our society are social tinder, ever ready to catch fire. Add to this the hardships arising from the multilayered devastation of Covid-19, and the counter-revolutionaries had only to light the match. 

During the anti-apartheid struggle, a tactical approach emerged after many years of debate about the balance between armed actions and mass mobilisation — that these pillars needed to feed on each other. Armed struggle in the South African setting, it was agreed, could only succeed when “the people are in political motion”. In similar fashion, the organisers of last month’s unrest sought to undertake organised acts of sabotage, while at the same time instigating a generalised uprising.

Did the instigators lose control of events? Perhaps not. General mayhem seems to have been their actual aim. The fate of the unleashed masses did not matter, as long as the plan to emasculate the state succeeded. It has been pointed out that part of the strategy may have been to provoke a bloody response by law enforcement agencies and then use that to generate a national mass revolt.

Of course, effective intelligence and scenario planning would have limited the overall damage, and the weaknesses in this regard need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. But, with the uprising spread across many centres, the police were overstretched. No police force anywhere has the capacity to prevent attacks on shopping centres, warehouses, arterial roads and other targets, all at the same time.

How was the tide turned?

While the deployment of larger numbers of defence force (SANDF) soldiers helped to stem the tide, it was essentially the counter-mobilisation of “people in political motion” for good, which generated a new social psychology. The protection and cleaning of shopping malls by civil society activists and other community members, and greater appreciation of the self-injury that the looting was causing, generated a new atmosphere.

While government communication assisted in encouraging this atmosphere, weak coordination and poor central messaging created embarrassing spectacles of government ministers contradicting one another. If anything was needed to demonstrate that we have not yet recovered from the post-2009 mentality of departmental fiefdoms, this is it — and the sooner it is stopped, the better.

As the days wear on, it seems security force action has steadily disrupted the network of instigators. And it is also significant that the attempt by the counter-revolutionaries to rope in the Zulu monarch’s amabutho and the taxi industry mostly fell flat. In addition, there was no significant support from seven of the nine provinces. 

As many have argued, the social tinder that was lit by the instigators reflects the levels of poverty and inequality in our society. But the point has not been emphasised enough that the victims of the looting were both large companies, mainly white-owned, and many entities owned by black entrepreneurs including malls, franchises and small businesses. It flows from this that we cannot seek to address inequality merely by co-opting a black elite into the courtyard of privilege. 

Is it an act of folly, as reflected in this article, to talk about this experience in the past tense? 

The plot may be wider, and much more may still be in the offing. In KwaZulu-Natal, racist and ethnic mobilisation continues, with jingoists and criminals in Phoenix and the Inanda-Ntuzuma-KwaMashu complex seeking to fan the flames of conflict. There could even be foreign state and non-state actors involved. 

One central lesson from this experience is that security interventions, both proactive and reactive, have their limitations. The defence force deployment can only be temporary.

The solution lies in mobilising the people into political motion for good. They are the ultimate defenders of democracy that no counter-revolutionary can defeat. As government and social partners have agreed, this has to be combined with a wide array of immediate economic and social interventions. 

But the leaders need to go beyond the dance of quick wins. This is a moment when the country should go back to the basics and engage around macro solutions to macro-social challenges. The 1994 political compact survived over the years because hope and trust were sustained as people’s conditions of life improved and/or because they felt that tomorrow would be better than today. 

Required now is honest reflection on the kind of social system that we seek to create — one that combines high rates of economic growth and a minimum standard of living below which no South African should sink. Community activists also point to one detail that needs immediate attention: social work in communities to address the collapse of family structures and the pandemic of drug abuse which render some young people open to manipulation.

As for party politics, the argument that the uprising is an internal ANC factional battle may appear attractive, but it misses the fundamental issue. The justice system has been defied and the constitutional order challenged — and this is far more important than partisan politics. It is critical to avoid the psychology of projection and ensure that the overwhelming majority become part of the people in political motion for good. 

The ANC, though, cannot evade the existential question about principled unity if it hopes to lead the process of societal renewal. As history has shown, appeasement does not satisfy a voracious beast. The erstwhile revolutionaries gone bad and the bad people who have infiltrated the ANC — and their criminal hangers-on in broader society — seek to pull the organisation and the country down with them. A decisive clean-up is the only way to organisational survival.

And so, it may be too early to appreciate the full implication of the July 2021 uprising. But one thing is clear: in the same measure that South Africans were their own liberators, they are the ultimate defenders of democracy. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Marco Savio Savio says:

    Good article and commendable that a member of the ANC and NEC has chosen to put pen to paper in the public forum but also disheartening that it once again highlights the lack of vision of the current leaders. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, however it is courage that is required to make the necessary changes to achieve a better life for all. In this the ANC has lost its way from the heady Mandela days and have descended into a political party of squabbling self serving opportunists. No other party, one of which I have voted for, has yet displayed the moral and disciplined courage to rise above petty party politics either. The ANC can still turn SA into the economic power house everyone believes it is capable of but it needs to grow up and stop behaving like the circus it has become.

  • Brian Cotter says:

    Joel the instigators tried to rope in the Zulu monarch’s amabutho and the taxi industry and it mostly fell flat you say. Who else in the ANC was approached by the insurrectionists to give them a respectable face and turned them down. It is because of this that one Minister said there is no face to the protest so one can not call it a coup. Another point is the 14 day threat warning by Carl and company that if JZ was not released after 14 days there would be trouble. This date has come and gone.

  • Steve Broekmann says:

    If it is true that “part of the strategy may have been to provoke a bloody response by law enforcement agencies and then use that to generate a national mass revolt”, perhaps the limp-wristed non-response by the police and army was not incompetence. It was a deliberate, albeit desperate, counter-strategy to avoid a “bloody response”, whatever the cost. That, in turn, suggests that the state was not warned of what was being planned until it was too late to take timeous preventative action, but was forced to sacrifice lives and property to thwart the plotters, by inaction, once the security cluster realised what was happening.

    • Terence Dowdall says:

      I think this is a very good point. It is very likely that this was a goal, in an attempt to grab the appearance of moral high ground by tarring the government with the ‘Marikana massacre’ type of brush, and depicting Ramaphosa as ‘Bloody Nicholas’ (the last Czar). I think that there were other less lethal measures available to security forces that they did not seem to use, and it would be interesting to know exactly what orders were given to them, but it is hugely important that they did NOT shoot people to restore order. I think this is a superb article, which does a lucid analysis of the strategy and tactics involved. Ramaphosa can still rescue the situation, but he needs clean, capable and loyal ministers around him.

    • R S says:

      I don’t disagree entirely with this sentiment, but if you listen to the leaked NEC audioclips, one of our so-called leaders so clearly points out “We were warned”. A preemptive move to stop this should have been the number one priority.

      That being said, relatively few people died considering the level of chaos.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    Spoilt by that old ANC standby :”a foreign state”.

  • Nick Poree Poree says:

    Never to be forgotten that the ANC established itself as the dominant political party by far more extensive bloodshed committed by youths under the command of the block commissars, in the same arenas as the latest unrest. The townships are still held under submission to the current government by strong arm tactics, threats, and the mythology of “the struggle”. This is reinforced by increasing dependence on the State for cadre rewards and to provide relief from the effects of unemployment caused by bad ideological policy decisions. The recent riots and looting is partly defiance against repressive, ineffective, and unrepresentative government as much as unemployment and poverty. Political restructuring is needed to create community representation in efficient government instead of party power. The deflection of the problems by promoting race-based conflicts is a totally negative and dangerous strategy with no potential benefits.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    An interesting view, Joel, but not nearly critical enough of your party and leadership. Clearly, a lot of thought went into the planning of the insurrection which led to the uprising, including the fact that it happened in several areas simultaneously. The SAPS was totally absent, though, not ‘thinly stretched’. Absent for most of FIVE DAYS. That sounds like dereliction of duty to me, at the very least, and/or passive participation of the insurrection at worst, which of course is treasonous. The Ministers are not only Balkanised into little fiefdoms, which they run like the aristocracy of old, they are mostly incapable of doing anything more than just that. This country is simply not being governed anymore. Finally, in agreeing with you that the only way for the ANC to survive is “a decisive clean-up”, this clean up must happen when the ANC is the Opposition. This country will not survive another term of this discombobulated rent-seeking bunch. Disclosure: I used to be an ANC supporter.

  • Johan Buys says:


    This pathetic attempt gives all proper insurrections a bad name. About as pathetic as Trump’s 6 January joke.

    The organizers overplayed their hand, appear never to have asked the six “and then” questions a half decent planner should have asked.

    The average shooting club could put this insurrection down with their junior team.

    • Paul Heine says:

      I think “treason” is a more accurate description, in terms of the intent and (partially) successful outcome envisaged by the plotters, and should be investigated and prosecuted as such. From Wikipedia: “Treason is the crime of attacking a state authority to which one owes allegiance. This typically includes acts such as participating in a war against one’s native country, attempting to overthrow its government, spying on its military, its diplomats, or its secret services for a hostile and foreign power, or attempting to kill its head of state.”

  • Veritas Scriptum says:

    The country isn’t sick.
    Those now accustomed to “feeding from the trough” need to be weeded out decisively and let the ANC regain the high ground. Mr President you need to surround yourself with new blood.
    Otherwise your time may soon also be running out.

  • Gerhard Pretorius says:

    The gist of the article is still focussed on the ability of the ANC to continue to exist instead of supporting the country’s citizens to unlock its incredible potential.
    Who stopped this ‘insurrection’? Not the SANDF, the SAPS, or any political party. The everyday Joe Blogs did. And they include all races, shapes, religions,sexes and political parties. In other words, Joel, the people are already where you say they should be. They are mostly on the side of the good, resisting the bad from whereever it came. This is so by default and not because of any policies of the governing party to build a nation. In fact, this is so despite the ANC’s ridiculous policies (cadre deployment, and economic development based on race, not to mention its protection of Zuma for years despite knowing the man and his cronies are criminals of the highest order) that have taken us very far from ‘a better future for all’.
    Your party is hopelessly out of sync with the population and from what I read, hear and experience it will remain so.

    • Paul Heine says:

      Thank you Gerhard. I totally agree: “The gist of the article is still focussed on the ability of the ANC to continue to exist instead of supporting the country’s citizens to unlock its incredible potential.” The ANC in its current form offers South Africa no hope at all. In fact, it is becoming increasingly irrelevant by the day.

  • Anton William says:

    I agree with almost all of the comments but above all I think that Nick Poree has raised an interesting issue indirectly related to the centralistic ideology of the ANC. Perhaps more of a federal system of local government where instead of party elected reinforcers / cadre feeders at the trough, the voters in an area elect individuals to democratically set the tone for development and accountability by the larger municipal structures. This would be by far more powerful and should be completely independent of political parties which is the current situation with ward committees.

  • Amanda Hayes says:

    I often used to wonder at the power of the US flag in people’s hearts, asking myself will we ever feel that way about our flag? Interesting that now, after the worst of arson, looting etc is over, I have a sense that the flag means something to us. The citizen fightback has a symbol. And instead of the usual tearing each other apart, it feels like we have come together to defend our democracy, our constitution and our flag.

  • Shirley Walters says:

    Thanks, Joel. A very interesting analysis. Key messages are that: the solution lies in mobilising the people into political motion for good; that this is of concern to all citizens and the solutions lie beyond partisan politics; and the process of social renewal must be far reaching. Band-aids are not what is needed. The deep seated contradictions which relate, for example, to prospects of permanent unemployment for the majority need to be confronted with creativity and imagination. The need for social support in communities racked by drugs, GBV, hunger is crucial – ‘none of us is safe until we are all safe’.

  • Jill Iggulden Stevens says:

    I totally agree with Stefano. I am confident that our President is very aware of this. He is walking on egg shells – this shows great courage and awareness of the situation. With the support from those who respect the fact that we had a peaceful revolution and the with the knowledge that Nelson Mandela believed that Cyril Ramaphosa was one of the most able young ANC members, and would have chosen him as his Deputy, but for pragmatic reasons had to be sidelined to make way for De Klerk and Mbeki. He a is also fully aware of the importance of the Constitution seeing that he and Roelf Meyer were virtually it’s “founding fathers”. I remain confident that he will be able to navigate the country into safe waters.

  • Nick Griffon says:

    Excellent article Joel. I think your analysis is pretty much spot on.
    Only thing I disagree on is the issue around the ANC factional battle. This IS the fundamental issue. It is the one faction within the ANC, the criminal element, who was responsible for the attack on the justice system and the Constitution.

    I have a deeper question:
    Do you think there is a long term future for the Tri-Partheid Alliance?
    Any logical person can see that it is made of of 3 organisations with at least 2 vastly different fundamental ideologies. If the ANC is serious about growing the economy, it cannot have the ball and chain of the Communist Party around the neck. This is a huge contributing factor why everything takes so long. Every policy decision turns into a horse trading scenario where nobody is ever really happy with the outcome. Everything is a compromise.

  • etienne van den heever says:

    Agreed that it’s a good article -but to comment on SANDF as having “helped to stem the tide” is disingenuous if not downright dishonest – as the entire security cluster was clearly caught flat-footed and a mere 2,500 troop deployment compares pitifully with some 72,000 deployed to deal with breakers of lockdown regulations (Primarily alcohol-related).
    Netshitenzhe seems to agree that this was a coordinated and well-planned set of actions, constituting serious crimes of insurrection and treason. So why are those responsible miscreants not being seen in court? (only one DJ to date is being charged, plus a few other scruffy individuals – many of them known ANC figures)
    ANC Govt. response continues to be pathetic. DUMP the many whose important portfolios are clearly mismanaged!

  • Helen Swingler says:

    It is a tragedy that we need to ‘go back to the basics’. With the resources, thought talent, and goodwill the government could rely on post-1994, it should not have been a false start. We should have been able to put a subtantial dent in inequality and poverty in these years. Instead, we’re retreating to the starting blocks, hobbled by self-inflicted injuries and wearing spikeless shoes – with a finish line we can no longer see. (With apologies to the Olympians who offer a brief but welcome respite from weeks of dismal politicking.)

  • Tim Price says:

    The people also continue to vote for the #voetsekANC which was the instigator of the insurrection so perhaps the people are also democracy’s worst enemy?

  • Geoff Young says:

    Thought-provoking piece, thank you Joel. I would like to know how you arrived at the statement that most of the large companies that were victims of this uprising are “white-owned” and how that is defined. Small business ownership is typically far simpler than larger ones, particularly JSE-listed companies many of which have both public and private retirement funds as majority shareholders. I would hate to think you are perpetuating the populist yet misguided notion of so-called “white monopoly capital”.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    An eloquent assessment Joel, more of your calibre should be in government. Nothing short of an admission that the bankrupt ideology of the ANC is at the root of our problems, will suffice.
    Purge the ANC of all the rotten players, root out all incompetent/corrupt players in the civil service and make colour blind appointments on merit, as BEE goes into the scrap heap of history.
    Unleash the private sector and concern yourselves only with the creation of an enabling legislative dispensation. True South Africans want only to succeed and to work together regardless of race, colour or creed.

  • John L says:

    ” the argument that the uprising is an internal ANC factional battle may appear attractive, but it misses the fundamental issue”. This statement tried to deny the split in the ANC and the fact that the uprising WAS a direct result of the factional battles within the party.
    ” The erstwhile revolutionaries gone bad and the bad people who have infiltrated the ANC — and their criminal hangers-on in broader society — seek to pull the organisation and the country down with them”. It is also a well documented fact that many of the “erstwhile revolutionaries” were “bad” during the time of their exile. There are a number of recorded atrocities by these so called revolutionaries against their very own. These so called bad people did not infiltrate the ANC, they were always there. During the days of ZUMA, the ANC protected and supported these very same revolutionaries. Nothing has changed… it’s still happening, and while it continues to happen, there is nothing stopping a second uprising, which will be worse than we have ever seen.

  • Ann Bown says:

    Chaos or Chess?
    Definitely a long game strategy something chess players would plan. I was particularly struck hard on my head by “interdepartmental fiefdoms” thats a no return situation.

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