Cyril Ramaphosa: ‘Attempted July insurrection’ left two million jobless and wiped R50bn from the economy
The President admitted that the state had failed to quash the unrest, but reiterated his ‘attempted insurrection’ stance at the South African Human Rights Commission’s hearings into the deadly July 2021 riots.
President Cyril Ramaphosa told the South African Human Rights Commission on Thursday that nearly two million people were left unemployed and more than R50-billion had been “wiped off the economy” due to the violent July 2021 unrest that brought KwaZulu-Natal and sections of Gauteng to a standstill in 2021.
Addressing the commission’s national investigative hearings into the riots, Ramaphosa also admitted that the state failed in its duties to detect and then quash the unrest, which he reiterated was an “attempted insurrection”.
He also admitted that his initial comments at the height of the violence, that it was linked to “ethnic and tribal chauvinism”, were later found to be incorrect. He denied his statement led to the further escalation of violence and looting.
“For one week and one day in July 2021, as a nation, we stared into the heart of darkness. We watched in horror as part of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng were engulfed in violence, looting and destruction and death. We saw scenes of homes being ransacked and destroyed,” said Ramaphosa in his opening remarks.
“Shops, businesses, and warehouses were looted and torched and people [were] being beaten and humiliated. We felt uncertain, fearful for ourselves, our loved ones in our country. We felt the greatest sense of betrayal that there were some amongst us who would go so far as to plot to destroy this very country we have spent the past 28 years to build.”
He repeated his statement from 16 July 2021 that the riots were “nothing less than a deliberate, coordinated and well-planned attack on our democracy, intended to cripple the economy, cause social instability and severely weaken or even dislodge the democratic state”.
“We’re still struggling to come to terms with a cost. There is economic cost of well over R50-billion that was wiped off our economy, and to the livelihoods of those who looked on helplessly as their businesses were damaged or destroyed. There is a cost to the families… who lost their loved ones so tragically, and those who were injured, and of course, other costs that impact on the livelihoods of our people. So, almost two million people lost their jobs.”
The President told the commission that the government had taken “decisive steps” to ensure that such events did not reoccur and that “those who were behind them are brought to justice”.
Looting and death
The riots resulted in the deaths of more than 350 people – the vast majority of them in KwaZulu-Natal who, according to premier Sihle Zikalala at the time, had been crushed while scrambling to steal looted goods or were killed in fights over the same. Ramaphosa, however, said on Friday that the majority of those killed were as a result of gunshots, and it had to be determined where the shots came from.
The unrest started as a result of the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma on contempt of court charges. While initially sporadic acts of violent protests were recorded in parts of KwaZulu-Natal, these soon escalated in scale and destruction, with “overwhelmed” police unable to offer a response that was close to appropriate.
The commission completed three weeks of hearings in KwaZulu-Natal in 2021 and further hearings in Gauteng between February and March.
Among those who have given evidence are Police Minister Bheki Cele, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola, former state security minister Ayanda Dlodlo, former defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, former police commissioner Khehla Sitole, various community organisations and business forums – including taxi associations – as well as individuals directly affected by the violence.
The majority of those who took part in the violence and looting were indigent – tens of thousands of residents of informal settlements who streamed into industrial areas and shopping precincts to steal – but there were also thousands of middle-class residents who drove to shopping malls and warehouses to blatantly loot, many camping out for hours or days, awaiting an opportunity to steal.
While Ramaphosa reiterated his stance of a failed insurrection, the police have so far only managed to arrest and charge those alleged to have used social media, in particular, to “instigate” the rioters. Of those, all barring one have been released on bail, while one case has been withdrawn. The so-called masterminds remain elusive.
Ramaphosa continued: “What is also hard for us to come to terms with, is how those behind the unrest cynically took advantage of society’s most vulnerable to further their aims… We’ve heard from media monitoring and data analysis agencies at these hearings how instigators led well-orchestrated campaigns on social media to inflame racial tensions, spread fake news and disseminate misinformation.”
But, “try as they might” they “did not turn us against each other”. Instead, South Africans “came together as never before”.
“As has been the case so many times in the past, the people of South Africa showed that they love their country dearly and will always stand united against threats to insecurity.”
‘No popular uprising of the poor’
The report by the presidential panel probing the unrest, released earlier in 2022, found that the instability within the governing ANC had “become a serious source of instability in the country”.
Chaired by Professor Sandy Africa and supported by Advocate Mojankunyane 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.
Ramaphosa told the commissioners there was “broad agreement” that there were several contributing factors that caused the unrest and it was a “deliberate decision by certain individuals” to instigate and coordinate the “widespread destruction of property, violence and looting”.
“Socioeconomic conditions in the country played a role in the causes of the unrest. The fact that so many South Africans remain unemployed and economically inactive, and the fact that poverty is so widespread in our country that inequality is still a major challenge in our society. This could explain why so many ordinary South Africans would participate.”
There had not been “a popular uprising of the poor as the peddlers of misinformation sought to characterise it at the time”.
“It was not the bubbling-over of this discontent over an allegedly legitimate political grievance. It was an attempted insurrection. That economic infrastructure was targeted in the manner that clearly shows that the intention was to bring our economy to its knees, thereby destabilising our economy and democracy. Regardless of their intent, it was a situation for which we were ill-prepared, and in fact, we were not prepared for.”
Ramaphosa said that while there had been intelligence reports about the possibility of instability, neither the security forces nor the government anticipated the “nature and ferocity of these events”, which the former police commissioner, minister and provincial police commissioners had also said during their testimonies.
In his testimony, Cele said he had not been privy to intelligence reports about the impending violence, something the former state security minister dismissed during her appearance.
“This was a failing that we acknowledge, which we are hard at work to address. We must acknowledge that, as government, we were poorly prepared for an orchestrated campaign of public violence, destruction and sabotage of this nature,” said Ramaphosa.
The President’s testimony is set to continue into Friday afternoon. DM
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