There were warning signs of brewing unrest ahead of July riots, says Cele, distancing himself from SAPS response
Returning to the SA Human Rights Commission hearings, Police Minister Bheki Cele said he had received informal intelligence from ‘Good Samaritans’ that unrest was brewing ahead of the July 2021 riots. He claimed he received no reports from Crime Intelligence ahead of the widespread violence.
Minister of Police Bheki Cele told the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on Monday it had been “clear” that last year’s devastating July unrest would take place – despite the total failure of the country’s intelligence services to provide early information about this – because he had received informal intelligence from “Good Samaritans”.
Cele said that the “mini-rally” held in Nkandla on 4 July 2021, where hundreds of supporters of Jacob Zuma gathered outside his home just days after the former president was sentenced to imprisonment by the Constitutional Court for contempt, was evidence that something was brewing.
The minister was testifying on the first day of the resumption of the SAHRC hearings into the unrest. Cele started his testimony on 3 December 2021, the final day of the hearings for that year. That testimony was preceded by that of several high-ranking police officers, Cabinet ministers, KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala and victims of the allegedly racially-motivated violence in Phoenix, Durban.
Cele told commissioners on Monday that the lack of intelligence and poor police readiness, coupled with Zuma’s incarceration, had fuelled the riots. But, he added, there was also a “concerted effort” by those involved in the unrest, and the planning thereof, to delegitimise the state, the security cluster, and to erode trust in South Africa’s democratic system. This bore the elements of a “coup d’état and insurrection”, he said.
President Cyril Ramaphosa last year declared the events a “failed insurrection”.
Continued Cele: “I said [during my December testimony that] dark clouds were gathering. You could see it coming. The province, especially KZN, [were] for some time having these [politically] sick climates, with the question of the former president Msholozi and the things happening around for some time.
“As I would say, the dark clouds were gathering. Several people tried to stop it. I am one of those people who did avail myself to go and speak to the old man [Zuma]. It was part of seeing if things can’t be stopped before reaching the breaking point.”
He said tension had increased in the months running up to the riots, but when Zuma was incarcerated, the agitation snowballed.
After hours of “negotiations”, Zuma handed himself over to police at his homestead and was rushed through to the Estcourt Correctional Centre in the early hours of 8 July.
That night, sporadic reports of unrest and trucks being looted and torched – not uncommon in KwaZulu-Natal – were already being received by journalists. While the violence did spread to Gauteng, the devastation and scale of violence there were nowhere as severe as in KZN.
Of Zuma’s jailing, Cele said: “You could see that was the beginning of it, not the end. Something was still coming.”
He said additional police capacity was brought into KZN to handle Zuma’s eventual detention and that he “didn’t want [the extra officers] to leave, but they did”.
Cele said he was in constant contact with Ramaphosa on the day Zuma handed himself in.
“The arrest of the former president was one of those things that ignited what you saw happening [in KZN]. Maybe other things [that were wrong] [were] the preparations [of the SAPS]. Without any formal information, it was clear something was coming. Preparations would have helped to mitigate against what was expected to happen. It was clear something was going to happen.”
Cele said in his December testimony that he was not privy to any early-warning intelligence reports before the unrest. This has been widely viewed as due to the poor state of Crime Intelligence, the State Security Agency (SSA), and Cele’s very public spat with the police commissioner, General Khehla Sitole. Both men have stated that they are not friends but work well professionally. The minister reiterated this on Monday.
Commenting on the poor intelligence gathering and dissemination, Cele said: “I don’t remember any form of intelligence. I would argue that preparation would have been better [if there was any]. I made a personal request to the head of policing to keep those police that were in KZN [seconded for Zuma’s arrest and imprisonment]. That was an indication that there was something expected to come. It would have helped if there was a build-up [of police, based] on that understanding.”
Cele again laid the blame at the feet of police management, and reiterated, as he had done last year, that Sitole was not “on the ground” during the riots, while he, as the police minister, was.
“In the middle of all of this, I was told there was a shortage of rubber bullets. I said if there is a shortage of rubber bullets, it would be a disaster. I said police would be forced to use live ammo. How do we deal with that?
“I was told a number of bullets were flown to KZN. Why were they flown in in the middle [of the unrest] and not the beginning? My belief is something extra could have been done that would have changed the outcome.”
The minister continued trying to create distance between his role and that of SAPS management, saying it was clearly stated in the SAPS Act that he could not be involved in operational decisions, but should provide oversight.
He was especially critical of the divisions and lack of leadership within Crime Intelligence, and of not being appraised of intelligent reports following the firing of a clutch of top Crime Intelligence divisional leaders, including Lieutenant-General Peter Jacobs.
Cele claimed he had not received a single intelligence report from December 2020, about the time of the firings, up to the riots.
There were names there that were very, very active on the social media, making real calls [to instigate unrest]. I remember one time there was one voice that was calling the name of ministers where some of them were saying, ‘If you don’t find them, you know where their wives and kids are.’
As for where he received his information from when the looting and violence were taking place, Cele said there were sources who assisted him by sending information about the alleged “instigators” of the unrest being active on social media and spurring rioters on.
The commission heard last year that provincial police had also been gathering “information” on the unrest from social media and traditional media reports, instead of from sources on the ground.
Said Cele: “I am not a social media guru, actually I am absent. But there are people who help me. But on social media, you were told that things were happening. I was briefed by some people who were not on the recognised intelligence structures. When I was briefed, I tried to conform.
“There were names there that were very, very active on the social media, making real calls [to instigate unrest]. I remember one time there was one voice that was calling the name of ministers where some of them were saying, ‘If you don’t find them, you know where their wives and kids are.’
“I was worried. I wanted the capacity for us, can we trace those things, literally, where they come from and I was told we were not equipped to do those things. But you have a person calling for the blood and the head of President [Ramaphosa] and the minister and you can’t trace those things. From several corners it was coming up. As a person who has been around, you see it is clear something is going to happen.”
Cele said he did not share the informal intelligence he had gathered with Sitole at the time, presumably because of the difficulty he had in contacting Sitole. Cele instead had been working with Sitole’s deputies. He “definitely” shared the information with the Hawks though, said Cele.
As is commonplace with SAHRC probes, questioning turned to the alleged racial and structural inequalities highlighted by the violence. The commission has, since it started its inquisitorial hearings, focused steadfastly on the 35 or so people who were allegedly killed in Phoenix because of racial profiling, and has offered scant interrogation of the rest of the 300 people who were killed.
Evidence leader Lloyd Lotz told Cele there “is a view” that “there was greater protection of malls in suburban areas as opposed to townships” by the police and private security, intimating a form of security racism.
While Cele initially “concurred” without providing much detail, he said this was not the case in KwaZulu-Natal.
“Around Durban, nothing was protected. Bridge City in KwaMashu is even now a ghost town. Without giving excuses, township businesses were unlucky to be where things started. They were there at the wrong time at the wrong place.”
He said in Gauteng it was a “different story” and lauded the communities who stood up to defend their malls and businesses.
Cele conceded that some areas were prioritised over others due to their economic significance, such as the King Shaka International Airport and the N3 highway.
The minister said that over and above the failures within the SAPS, years of budget cuts had seen the police force being reduced from 195,000 members in 2010/11 to the current figure of 177,000, while the country’s population grew by more than 10 million.
“From many people, we are told that when they phone the police they are told that the police have no cars. We need the police to be equipped. The budget has all this time been cut down, but we have a new sheriff [presumably, new Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana, who is set to deliver his Budget speech on Wednesday] in town who is sympathetic. We have given ourselves three years to turn this around.”
Cele said that until communities viewed their safety and that of those around them as a priority, crime would continue to be a major issue.
“At the moment we have 6,000 people doing life in prison. Very soon we are not going to have space. And most of them are there for sexual offences.
“The burning and looting had medium- and long-term outcomes. I went to get bread in Durban North and I had never seen such a long queue. Even the Sassa queue was not that long. Those people did not have food. [The unrest] had that element – get them hungry, get them angry. Agitate them.
“There were groups who called for the destruction of water reservoirs. There was information we received that people wanted to burst the oil line to Johannesburg. I got information that there was a group who wanted to burn a hospital with patients [inside] in Pietermaritzburg.
“While you look at those threats you must make sure other things are avoided, such as poisoning water. Unfortunately, there was the racial element too. Not just Phoenix, Pietermaritzburg and Verulam, but even the suburbs.
“There are many elements leading up to this ungovernability and leading to insurrection.
“Things like the SABC were guarded by soldiers and some police stations because police stations were seen as easy targets to get guns. That has nothing to do with hunger or poverty. It has all to do with people wanting to forcefully and violently change the system,” said Cele.
He said one element of this was the peddling of misinformation that the police were “standing down”. Other messages went out on social media saying every police officer in Umlazi must stay at home or their families would be attacked.
“There are quarters who believe I stood down (when in fact I was in isolation for Covid-19), because I sympathised with the cause. It makes me understand that when they say so about the police that it is nonsense. What I do know about the police was that there was a lot of fear.”
Cele said he went into isolation on 9 July after coming into direct contact with a Covid-positive person. He said by day five he had a negative test and then “broke the rules and left isolation because I could not watch the burning. Alex had just been finished and they were on their way to Pretoria.”
He said he was in contact with various provincial leaders throughout the unrest, with Mpumalanga, North West and the Eastern Cape also coming close to erupting.
“In the Eastern Cape, tribalism came into it with those [Xhosas] saying those Zulus must do those things there [in KZN] but not here.”
While the narrative of the riots is metastasising into that of the hungry and indigent from informal settlements seeking out what they could, there were also hundreds, perhaps thousands, of middle-class residents who drove to preferred looting spots in their cars – many of them upmarket – to take part in the thieving.
Cele said there was an element of people who were poor and hungry in the unrest, but that “you don’t get in your car to get your loot if you are poor and hungry.
“Fences would be broken, there were thousands and thousands of people on Queen Nandi Drive [in Durban, where the Game warehouse was destroyed] and I can assure you those people would have been coordinated in small cells.
“It was very ripe on the ground; people are hungry, poor, unemployed. Thank God some people resisted. Here they wanted destruction and then God knows what.” DM
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