South Africa


Amid the politicking and platitudes, a search for needles of July’s civil unrest truth in the haystack of parliamentary reports

From left: State Security Deputy Minister in the Presidency Zizi Kodwa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Esa Alexander) | Small Business Development Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams. (Photo: Gallo Images / Lubabalo Lesolle ) | Police Minister Bheki Cele (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)| Defence Minister Thandi Modise. (Photo: Deaan Vivier)

Two days, two Houses, plenty of debate. But decency and facts were largely missing amid what was yet another political spectacle of playing to the cameras.

It was Defence Minister Thandi Modise who, from the podium just below the presiding officer’s chair she used to occupy, brought decency and accountability to the debate on parliamentary oversight reports on the July violence in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

“I want to take this opportunity to send condolences to all the families of those who lost their lives in the senseless killings. I want to send good wishes and apologies to all those who are in business who got their businesses wrecked, destroyed, looted by criminal elements in our country…” These were Modise’s first words in the National Assembly on Tuesday.

“On any day, at any hour, SA cannot countenance any acts of illegality. We have to stand firm on that. Whatever the motivations, we can never say it’s good to steal, it’s good to burn.” 

Modise stood alone in tackling the persistent opposition criticism that the July violence and public disorder is the result of the ANC’s policy and governance failures. 

“Honourable members have said this rioting, this insurrection, whatever you want to call it, this thing that happened, was because the governing party is in disarray. It does not matter which side felt hurt or challenged, it is still illegal and it still must be treated like an illegal and treasonous act to subject South Africans to what we have just been subjected to.”

That was as good as it got.

Police Minister Bheki Cele fell short in both Houses, on both days.

“I want to stand here and thank the police for the beautiful, beautiful job they did – the protection of property, the protection of individuals – and then to pass condolences to the families where they have lost the lives,” Cele told the National Assembly on Tuesday, towards the latter part of what was largely a repeat of previous grumbles of lack of resources.

On Wednesday, in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), Cele switched tack to offer sympathies first, alongside his thanks to law enforcement agencies.

“Our heartfelt greetings also go to the orphans, widows, widowers and parents who buried their children during the failed insurrection that was aimed at undermining the authority of the state.”

Another statement on the lack of resources followed, with Cele repeating his words from Tuesday that the security cluster service agreement had ensured the people of South Africa were safe.

But the facts tell a different story – and are clearly stated in the parliamentary police committee’s oversight report on its visits to the violence-torn parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

“There were concerns raised regarding the deployment of public order policing (POPs) units to hotspot areas as very few were visible on the ground where looting was taking place. The police responded by saying they were severely stretched and simply did not have the numbers to deal with the protesters,” says the report published in the Announcements, Tablings and Committee (ATC) reports – Parliament’s record of work. Read here.

“The leadership of the POPs in the province responded with a detailed report on the deployment in the province, which painted a picture of a heavily under-resourced unit that was stretched to the limit by protests.” 

While Cele announced in the National Assembly on Tuesday that the police watchdog, the Independent Investigative Police Directorate, was investigating 74 police in KwaZulu-Natal and 13 in Gauteng for, among others, 26 murders and 25 assaults, he failed to mention that some have already been charged. 

“A total of 10 law enforcement officials had since been charged for allegedly taking part in the looting,” says the lawmakers’ report. It’s unclear whether these are all SAPS members or include metro police.

On opposition criticism of widespread intelligence failures, Cele simply stayed silent on Tuesday, but he pledged to rebuild crime intelligence on Wednesday in the NCOP.

Thanks to the police committee and joint standing committee on defence’s oversight reports, failings are on public record – no matter how much ministers may want to fudge the facts.

“There were glaring lapses of the intelligence community, according to the committee, as reports suggested that the State Security did provide the police minister a dossier that violent protests were going to erupt. The police minister denied receiving such intelligence from the state security minister, stressing that despite being overwhelmed by the situation, the police did their best to repel the violent protesters,” says the police committee report.

The defence committee report (Announcements, Tablings and Committee Reports) concludes:

“… (T)he SAPS admitted several shortcomings in its policing approach. First, it highlighted the need for better intelligence to drive SAPS operations. Second, better crowd management training is required… noting the possible need to improve the training of ordinary station members in crowd management. Third, the SAPS highlighted that broader concerns of poverty and unemployment need to be addressed as an underlying solution to these problems.”

Much of Wednesday’s NCOP debate, like the two days of debate on various reports in the National Assembly, was about listing the damage to looted shops and malls.

Small Business Development Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams took the gap to tout the business relief programme and provided contact details.

As did State Security Deputy Minister in the Presidency, Zizi Kodwa, who, after also talking about budget cuts, decided on a glass half-full approach to the July violence and public disorder.

“This has presented us with the broader debate on what constitutes national security, including the national interest… National security is a patriotic duty.”

A day earlier down the parliamentary corridors, the ANC MPs, dressed in party colours of black, green and gold, had proffered mostly platitudes about how “our government” would assist “ our people” with existing programmes to “build an inclusive economy”.

The July unrest – and the prospects of repeat scenarios not because of instigation, but because of increasing hunger, unemployment and inequality – should hold the lesson that the time for politicians’ platitudes is over. 

Details remained scarce about what would be done differently – after all, the July violence exploded on the back of current policies – but then doing things differently would mean acknowledging current policies and programmes are failing. And that may just be a step too far.

And so ANC MP Patricia Peacock was “shocked”, while fellow ANC MP Alice Mthembu affirmed “our unwavering commitment to the national democratic revolution to build a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic, prosperous and united South Africa”.

None responded to the hard criticism by the opposition.

“It is clear the intelligence structures of South Africa failed the people of South Africa… The eyes of the world saw the incompetence of our intelligence,” said Freedom Front Plus leader, Pieter Groenewald.

DA MP Dianne Kohler Barnard asked: “Do we even have a crime intelligence structure? This insurrection didn’t simply self-ignite. It’s not as though the so-called Free Zuma protests came as a surprise. Posters advertising when and where protests would take place were flying about social media days before the shooting started…”

Fellow DA MP Dean McPherson put it bluntly, “Make no mistake, for all the chest-beating and crocodile tears towards the public, and claims of “grandstanding” that the ANC will accuse us of, every single life lost and every rand of damage is on them…”

It was a debate of two sides that simply did not meet – regardless how often the call to collaborate and cooperate was made. And that, Modise told the NCOP on Wednesday, was “disappointing”.

Curiously, the debates unfolded against the series of oversight reports that were agreed to across party political lines. In a rare move, these were unanimously adopted – the EFF objected to two of the nine reports – in the National Assembly on both Tuesday and Wednesday.

Parliament’s basic education committee raised concerns that many of those schools it selected on the basis of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal education officials’ identification as being the worst affected did not seem much impacted by the July violence, but rather suffered long-standing vandalism and neglect, according to its report. Read here.

Small-scale black farmers were most affected by the July violence as simmering grievances between farmers and labour tenants, who felt left out of government programmes, turned violent in many places, according to the agriculture committee’s report published in the same ATC as the basic education report.

And then there’s the genuinely curious. Like the Home Affairs offices at Impendle in uMgungundlovu municipality that reported the looting of “one fridge, one microwave, one computer, one monitor and one kettle and R6,540”.

The money was in the old safe, not the new one. “The new safe has been in the office for two (2) years but officials have not been trained to use it. The R6,540 was stolen from the old safe that only uses a padlock,” says the parliamentary home affairs committee oversight report (ATC Reports).

Two days, two Houses and plenty of debates marked by platitudes and politicking. The hard numbers emerged elsewhere. 

National Treasury on Tuesday told the Select Committee on Finance that the July violence would shave between 0,7% to 0,9% off the economic growth rate that by consensus was already falling from the South African Reserve Bank’s 4.2% by mid-2021.

And that did not account for the further potential impact of disrupted supply chains, declining business and consumer confidence, or the impact on an already rapidly deteriorating unemployment situation. 

Joblessness stands at 44.4% on the expanded definition which includes those who are too disheartened to even try to find work, according to Statistics South Africa. 

The July unrest – and the prospects of repeat scenarios not because of instigation, but because of increasing hunger, unemployment and inequality – should hold the lesson that the time for politicians’ platitudes is over. 

Over two days, in two Houses, in various debates, Parliament proved thoroughly tone-deaf. DM


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  • “I want to stand here and thank the police for the beautiful, beautiful job they did – the protection of property, the protection of individuals”
    A police minister who is that blind should be removed immediately by the President.

    • I’m sure you meant that a minister that lies with such ease shouldn’t have been a minister in the first place. And don’t expect anything from Slow Cyril, he needs all the friends that he can muster.