Presidential panel report rips into state’s ‘unequivocal’ failure to protect its people during looting mayhem
The report on the July 2021 civil unrest, released by the Presidency on Monday, paints a damning picture of the state’s inability to safeguard the nation and its people.
The report by the presidential panel tasked with probing July 2021’s violent civil unrest makes it clear that they were unable to meet key players in the intelligence sector who would have shed better light on the drivers of the eight days of disgrace that engulfed KwaZulu-Natal and, to a lesser extent, Gauteng.
“The question that remains is whether the National Security Council (NSC) has, subsequent to the riots, sat down to conduct a deep analysis of what happened, why it happened, who was behind it, what their ultimate goal was, or is, why the country faces constant instability, and related questions,” according to the 154-page report, released just before noon on the Presidency’s website to no fanfare.
“We could not answer these questions because we failed to meet with Ministers serving in the NSC collectively, though we asked. We met individually with the Ministers of Police, Defence and State Security. We had no access to intelligence products, again after asking for such. What we can conclude is that the National Security Council, as a structure, does not seem to have received any clear, direct intelligence about the impending violence prior to it happening.”
Read the full report here.
According to the report, the instability within the ANC was raised as a point of concern by a cross-section of role-players that included civil society groups, think-tanks, business and community associations and government actors.
“Perhaps the most significant input made, which we heard several times, was that what appears to be factional battles in the African National Congress, have become a serious source of instability in the country. This is a matter of great concern.”
Chaired by Professor Sandy Africa and supported by Advocate Mojanku Gumbi and Silumko Sokupa, the panel found that poor lines of communication between various security ministries and political overreach into operational matters all played a key role in the unfolding of events.
In an emphatic conclusion, the panel, addressing President Cyril Ramaphosa directly, said that, as to the question of “whether the response by the security services was timeous, appropriate and sufficient”, the answer was “an unequivocal no”.
“Many reasons were proffered for this failure, but in the end the response remains that they (the state security apparatus) failed to do the necessary to protect life, limb and property.”
The report is dated 29 November 2021. Asked by Daily Maverick why the document was only being made public in February, Presidency spokesperson Tyrone Seale said he would “look into it”.
Sporadic outbursts of violence started on the night of 8 July following the early-morning jailing of former president Jacob Zuma on contempt of court charges for failing to appear before the Zondo State Capture Commission. Prior to this, hundreds of Zuma supporters had gathered at his Nkandla homestead for days, vowing to stop his arrest and openly threatening that “blood” would “flow” if attempts were made to jail him.
Social media was also awash with threats about how the country would “burn” if Zuma were arrested.
The report said that due to the political instability within the ANC, security services “are uncertain about how to effectively address this convergence of violent criminal conduct with mainstream politics, given the correct posture taken by the country to ensure that political activity stays free of state security interference”.
The riots cost the national economy at least R50-billion, more than R20-billion of that in eThekwini alone, led to the loss of at least 354 lives – the vast majority in KZN and as a result of looters crushing or killing each over stolen goods – and, at conservative estimates, left more than 100,000 people unemployed in KZN.
As Daily Maverick observed at the time, and other reports from the ground confirmed, many of the rioters were drunk – bottle stores were a favoured thieving destination – and armed with knives, guns and other weapons, such as rocks and bricks.
The report notes: “In most of the affected shopping malls we visited, the managers of the malls informed us of how they watched their regular customers, who used to be frequent, friendly visitors to the management offices, become part of the ravaging mobs. They sat down with them after the violence subsided to try and make sense of it. They could not get clear answers from them on why this happened.”
The report continues: “The looting, destruction and violence have come and gone, but we found that little has changed in the conditions that led to the unrest, leaving the public worried that there might be similar eruptions of large-scale unrest in future.
“The question, many argue, is not if and whether more unrest and violence will occur, but when it will occur. The fear of many is that.. a repeat of such violence [will] find ground in the all-too-familiar contexts of negative political contestation, where certain interests take advantage of the levels of poverty, inequality, lack of service delivery and social tensions to advance their cause.”
The panel found there was “a sense of deep bewilderment at the absence of the police at a time when communities needed them most. In most areas the police became spectators as one mall after another was destroyed; as one truck after another was torched; as people came back day after day to finish looting whatever was left from the previous day.”
Some of the reasons behind the unrest, according to the panel, were:
- The weakness of state institutions generally, a phenomenon that has been referred to as the hollowing out of state institutions;
- High unemployment, with youth unemployment above 70% and no consistent, continuous plan to address this challenge;
- Inherited high levels of poverty and deep inequality;
- Poor spatial planning, leading to overcrowded and unsuitable living conditions for many, with informal settlements emerging in crowded urban spaces as people move to the cities in search of opportunities;
- Rampant corruption at various levels of government;
- The phenomenon of sponsored State Capture, as understood in the South African context; and
- The frustrations caused by the Covid-19 restrictions, adding to the feelings of despair among the population.
The document includes an analysis of the government’s response across security clusters and possible remedies to avert a similar situation.
“There also is a worry that the violence has left behind a sense of uncertainty and vulnerability because of the ineffective response of the security services and an appetite for lawlessness by those who might feel emboldened by the apparent lack of state capacity. This bleak prospect can be avoided if there is a clear understanding of what happened, and better planning and coordination leading to a coherent approach in dealing with the mounting social and political challenges that our society is facing.”
A key recommendation from the panel was a streamlining process for internal deployment of the South African National Defence (SANDF) to “avoid unnecessary delay”.
One of the criticisms of the SANDF’s deployment during the riots was that it took at least 72 hours for the army to reach the province. During this time, central business districts were overrun by looters and strained police stations literally gave up. Daily Maverick noted several incidents where station captains had phoned community watch groups to ask for ammunition and protection from looters.
Impromptu community patrol groups also emerged at this time, and tasked themselves with protecting food sources such as malls, homes and citizens. Some of these patrol groups are still active today, fearing a resurgence of the riots as well of the food shortages that lasted for several days after the violence dissipated.
During its hearings into the unrest, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) heard in December 2021 from KZN police commissioner Lieutenant-General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi that the number of troops being deployed to the province had been exaggerated.
The panel also found that ministers had overstepped their authority by getting involved in operational matters.
Ministers seemed to have been more directly involved in intelligence and operational work than their portfolios required, giving the appearance of an element of executive overreach or interference in the line function work of the services. “At best, the lines between the executive authorities and security services seemed blurred,” according to the report.
The SAHRC hearings are set to continue this month, although dates have not yet been released to the media. DM