South Africa


eThekwini mayor claims he displayed exemplary leadership in the aftermath of July unrest despite social media posts

eThekwini mayor claims he displayed exemplary leadership in the aftermath of July unrest despite social media posts
Mxolisi Kaunda, the mayor of eThekwini. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

Testifying at the SA Human Rights Commission hearings into the July 2021 riots, eThekwini Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda described himself as an exemplary leader. He made the claims despite his post to social media at the height of the violence stating: ‘We are Msholozi, Msholozi is us #FreeZuma.’

Following his testimony at the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on Monday, one could be forgiven for thinking that eThekwini’s mayor, Mxolisi Kaunda, single-handedly brought about peace and stability in the metro in the aftermath of the July riots. 

So self-assured was the mayor regarding his positive influence on matters that he mentioned the word ‘leader’ – in reference to his own leadership – more than 25 times while giving evidence.  

In his opening statement, Kaunda attempted to do what a tubload of politicians and police top brass had done before him – place as much distance as possible between himself and the looting and mayhem that engulfed KwaZulu-Natal, and to a lesser extent Gauteng, for eight days last year, and led to the deaths of more than 300 people. 

He also tried to place himself at the centre of the efforts by “my city” to contain the looting and quell social tensions between various communities and painted himself as a unifier of racial groups. 

Kaunda claimed that the CEOs of top industries and businesses in the metro believed in his leadership – and his handling of the unrest – so much that they assured him they would not pull their investments after the mayhem because the mayor gave them “comfort”. 

He also told commissioners Andre Gaum, Chris Nissen and Philile Ntuli that he was not aware of how the municipality had prepared for the unrest because when it started on 8 July he was still in Covid-19 isolation. 

“My knowledge of what was done by the municipality to prepare for the unrest may be limited as I tested positive for Covid-19 at the beginning of July 2021 and had to isolate until my return to work on 12 July. By then, most of the damage had already occurred,” said Kaunda. 

Evidence leaders did not ask why he was left out of the loop by his own officials in arguably the city’s biggest crisis in post-democratic South Africa. 

But when asked why a deputy mayor did not step in to fill the void, Kaunda said the city of more than three million residents did not have one, despite the position being vacant since March 2021. He said it was decided not to fill the position because of the then upcoming elections. 

This is, of course, false. The reason the city failed to elect a deputy mayor was because of the factional battles within the ANC caucus, which could not agree on a candidate. 

Kaunda said that, to his understanding, the unrest “was triggered by the Constitutional Court ruling in June 2021 in which President Zuma was found guilty of contempt and sentenced to a period of 15 months in prison”.

“Sections of the population were dissatisfied by the judgment, which sparked spontaneous unrest. And there were suspicions that the unrest was orchestrated.”

He said due to a lack of visible law enforcement, “many non-African communities” took to the streets to protect their neighbourhoods and businesses. They also erected barricades and unauthorised roadblocks where there were instances of excessive use of force towards Africans, racially profiled assaults, and killings. 

“The reality is most of the discontent lay within the African communities, which happen to be poverty stricken as well. Most of the non-African neighbourhoods were affluent and had much to lose. This led to racial profiling, which resulted in Africans being treated as looters.”

Kaunda was correct in that many of the looters were from eThekwini’s estimated 584 informal settlements, making up about 322,517 households – the same residents who have been neglected for years by the ANC-run city until their votes are needed at elections. But there was another contingent to the looters – hundreds, if not thousands, appeared to be middle-class residents who drove to looting destinations in high-end vehicles to steal.  

The mayor openly admitted that the looters were predominantly from ANC wards, but then shifted the blame for the unrest to “truckers” and other “organised groupings”. 

As for his support for Zuma, Kaunda said: “It goes without saying that as a member of the ANC who was mentored, by among others, former President Zuma, I share some of the pain that was expressed at the sight of a 79-year-old former head of state being imprisoned, purely on humanitarian grounds. 

“As a law-abiding citizen, I respect the law. [What worried me] was the health status of the former leader of the country. I was worried about a person of his age. Besides the issue of the health and age, but you talk about a former state president, a former ANC president,” said Kaunda.

Looters in Spine Road behind The Pavilion mall on 12 July 2021 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

He did not condone the looting, said Kaunda, but he understood why the poor joined in.

“There are people who were part of the looting because of their own socioeconomic conditions. But there were groupings that were well organised and who orchestrated their plans very clearly. Some of those people bombed ATMs. Not a single poor person can bomb an ATM. It is somebody who knows how to bomb an ATM. 

“Some of those groups [were also active] when I was the MEC for transport and community liaison in KwaZulu-Natal, [they] were burning trucks because they were not satisfied with the manner in which the government is attending to their plight, especially on the employment of the foreign nationals.”

He said these organised groups “took advantage” of the masses because they were poor and “could not afford milk”. 

Kaunda said that the city was given no formal indication by security agencies of the impending unrest. This has been a frequent complaint made by those in authority who have testified. But the state security minister at the time, Ayanda Dlodlo, in her testimony to the commission last week, branded such allegations as “theatrics”.  

Nevertheless, said Kaunda: “I was not aware of any intelligence reports. The only thing I knew was on social networks. If you look at the trend on my [Facebook] posts, I was curbing things before they started to happen. During the unrest we had intelligence, but prior – no.” 

But he said that once the looting was in full swing, he was in “constant communication” with the provincial police commissioner, Lieutenant-General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, as well as the deputy commissioner of the eThekwini metro police. 

“The message from communities [about why the looting took place] was that you as government were failing us and people were living below poverty lines, which is increasing in this country. I said, ‘What you did in July was wrong.’ There are people who are unemployed today because their firms were burnt, and are no longer there,” said Kaunda. 

He said the communities that barricaded their neighbourhoods had engaged in a “racial exercise” instead of an attempt to save their lives and property. 

In fact, all of the affected communities in the province were left without protection, given the “overwhelmed” police, and formed impromptu patrol groups – very often with the blessing of outnumbered local police stations – or hid in their homes while their businesses and shopping centres were gutted. 

Continued Kaunda: “You can’t allow a situation as if we are living in a society where there are no laws, a lawless society where you just wake up and close the roads, conduct your own roadblock and they are selective in nature, so if an African individual comes, that individual is searched but other racial groups are not searched.” 

He said that the indications of the looting and violence started to unfold as early as 6 July and “as the first citizen of the municipality” he embarked on a quest in “attempts to restore calm and order”– by posting on his personal Facebook page.

The posts, similar in tone, all reflected his acknowledgement of the people’s alleged pain in dealing with Zuma’s arrest and reiterated that the task of having him released must not stop, said the mayor.  

But he also made it clear, he testified, that “nothing should be destroyed, and no blood should be shed, and people should be on the lookout for opportunists, [those] who were out to perpetrate criminality”.

They all committed to retain their investment in our city. They said: ‘Mr Mayor, we understand the unrest, we understand the damage that occurred during this period, but we are committed, because we have seen you on the ground, and we are with you here and we are seeing that the consultation is being done and therefore the investment would be retained in the city.’

Other posts said “We as leaders humbly request calm, lest we lose lives, damage infrastructure and lose jobs” and “racism must cease”.

Another post, translated from isiZulu by the commission, read: “This thing [of Zuma being imprisoned] is like we have been killed (crying emojis). We cannot even sleep. What did Msholozi do? But we must not vandalise or spill blood even though we are angry. We must be wary of chance takers who want to do criminal acts.”

He said the city’s Facebook page issued a number of posts that said “Save jobs, stop looting” and another that said the looting would lead to “unemployment and hunger”. 

Evidence leaders Buang Jones and Lloyd Lotz probed Kaunda on several of the posts, following a line of inquiry that insinuated they were borderline incendiary. 

The most notable was Kaunda’s most widely shared post which, on 10 July at the height of the unrest, said: “We are Msholozi, Msholozi is us #FreeZuma.” Kaunda did not include this post in his formal written submission to the commission.

Jones asked if the mayor was “cognisant as a public figure” that his Facebook posts had a “significant impact on public discourse”. Responded Kaunda: “Yes I do. That is why I always take cognisance [that] whatever I post should not instigate violence. So, here in my statement there is nothing that instigates violence.”

Jones reminded Kaunda that this post was made only hours after KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala “called for discipline and for protesters to express their anger through peaceful means”. He asked if Kaunda, with the benefit of hindsight, thought the post “was a wise thing to do with the incidents of violence and looting” taking place at the time. Kaunda verbally weaved and wobbled before eventually saying he did not agree. 

Jones also asked if a Facebook post that stated all his posts until that point had been made as “an ANC member” (ie, not the mayor of a city being decimated) was a “sort of retraction”, to which Kaunda answered in the negative. 

This line of questioning occurred in at least four other instances. In every case, Kaunda said he was “calming people down”, although it was not clear from the posts that this was always the intent. He said his Facebook posts needed to be viewed in totality and not individually. 

But when it came to the deaths in Phoenix and the alleged racism by that township’s predominantly Indian community, Kaunda was less conciliatory. He maintained that “most of the people killed in Phoenix” were not looters, but were on their way to, or leaving, work. 

“If I had power, once they are convicted, I would take tourists… [to their homes]… and say, ‘Here is where the racists are living… and that racist was sentenced to so many years’, and we write a statement there next to the gate.”

Kaunda’s self-congratulatory approach to the unrest was best captured in his explanation to the commission of his meeting with the city’s leading CEOs and the Durban Chamber of Commerce on 22 July. 

“As a municipality, after assessing the challenges and damages, I also convened a meeting with CEOs of companies, of all the companies that work in my city, so that we could give them what is our position as a city but also to give them comfort that their investment would be safe. 

“They all committed to retain their investment in our city. They said: ‘Mr Mayor, we understand the unrest, we understand the damage that occurred during this period, but we are committed, because we have seen you on the ground, and we are with you here and we are seeing that the consultation is being done and therefore the investment would be retained in the city.’”

In fact, as Daily Maverick has previously reported, the Durban Chamber of Commerce president told Kaunda that more visible leadership was needed from the city and province, instead of the usual platitudes. More than 155 high-ranking business people attended the meeting. 

The city and the province continue to paint a picture of industries and businesses thrilled at the prospects of investing in both, but on the ground, things are very different. Hundreds of small business owners, without insurance, were looted to such an extent that they have had to permanently close.  

The Spar Group, which is headquartered in Durban, announced in February that 28 stores are still closed following the looting – many of which may not reopen. 

Famous Brands has shuttered stores, including Wimpy and Steers. 

In December, eNCA reported Massmart saying it would have to sell 15 Game stores to “stay afloat”. The looting cost Massmart R2.5-billion, according to the broadcaster. DM


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