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KZN police chief Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi reflects on lessons...

South Africa

JULY RIOTS, ONE YEAR LATER

KZN police chief Mkhwanazi suggested shutting down social media to quell last year’s civil unrest 

Lieutenant General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi, KZN police commissioner. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Danielle Karallis)

Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi says social media fuelled the fire of last year’s July riots and Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, who stirred the pot, should have faced consequences. The provincial police chief proposed shutting down social media but his superiors thought he was 'mad'.

Should civil unrest start brewing in KwaZulu-Natal that could morph into the scale of the July 2021 riots, the province’s police commissioner will make the same recommendations that he did at the start of those devastating eight days.

The police commissioner recommended that a state of emergency be declared so that specific communication towers could be temporarily shut down in KZN to halt the instigation and planning of violence and looting via social media.

“When such things happen, and the community mobilises themselves for insurrection, a coup or whatever you call it, you want to bring that particular area… under control. And the only way in this day and age to do that, is to get rid of social media. 

“When the [July 2021 riots started] I said, ‘shut down communications – declare a state of emergency’”, Lieutenant General Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi told Daily Maverick.  

The response from higher up was that his request was “mad”, he said. 

Should it have been heeded, though, Mkhwanazi said he understood that he – along with other role players and higher authorities – would have faced a lambasting from almost all quarters, “…but we would not have had the destruction we did”. 

The media could have a field day with him for pushing the recommendation, he added, after the unrest was quelled. “For me [the riots and the response to such] wasn’t about the media, it was about communication by the traitors.

“I wanted Twitter and WhatsApp group chats to be shut – not in the entire province, but [where incitement and planning was taking place].”

The people organising the unrest were doing so via WhatsApp, he said.   

The provincial commissioner made the statements during a sit-down with Daily Maverick to discuss lessons learnt from the riots, as the country nears one year since the outbreak. 

Affable, engaging, and stern, Mkhwanazi characteristically shot from the hip – one of the reasons he was disliked by politicians, he readily admitted during the interview. 

He said he had also suggested that trucks be barred from driving at night during the early days of the unrest. This was when dozens of freight carriers started blocking roads on the M7, N2 and N3 to protest the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma on contempt of court charges. Trucks were torched at Mooi River – an area notorious for ongoing violent protests by local drivers over the hiring of cheaper and sometimes undocumented foreign nationals.  

Read in Daily Maverick: Jacob Zuma speeds out of Nkandla and into custody at Estcourt Correctional Centre

As trucks were blocking critical routes and being torched, people celebrated on Twitter, said Mkhwanazi. 

“Then others started saying ‘Gauteng, what are you doing about it?” It was such statements that had “encouraged” the violence, he said. 

Looters on Umgeni Road on 13 July 2021 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

Mkhwanazi was referring to tweets posted by Zuma’s daughter, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, who had openly celebrated the destruction via the micro-blogging site. Throughout the unrest, Zuma-Sambudla had tweeted photos of the unrest, often saying “Amandla, we see you” – and in some instances, footage from older protests attached.  

This stirred a volatile pot, according to Mkhwanazi. 

“I would have taken her to court,” he said. “That was the person who was pushing the narrative… [which quickly led to the formation of chat groups and further incitement via Twitter and WhatsApp].”

It was via “chats” on Twitter and WhatsApp that the “sharing of ideas” was taking place, said Mkhwanazi, including how to make petrol bombs.  

It was also via the chats that those taking part in the violence were encouraged to remove their vehicles’ number plates, he said, which has become a “a culture” rife in KwaZulu-Natal to this day, particularly in eThekwini. 

Returning to the scuppering of the instigators and their plans via the temporary closure of social media at the start of the riots, Mkhwanazi was adamant that it “would have brought the country back to a state of democracy” within a shorter space of time.  

Citizens would have suffered too, he admitted, but phone calls could have been made to keep in contact. “When you phone [police are still able to listen in for criminal instigation and mobilisation] … but to this day, WhatsApp remains difficult to intercept.”

Given the sheer number of communication towers in eThekwini, for example, and the ability for the planners of the violence to merely move to another zone to reconnect, that would mean the signal of most towers would have to be blocked, he said. 

The commissioner’s “mad” recommendations, if made in future, would likely be spat upon by law-abiding citizens who had experienced the 2021 violence, for very practical reasons: Apps such as Zello, and to a lesser extent WhatsApp and Telegram, were essential tools during the unrest for community mobilisation by the “good guys”. 

Zello, in particular, allowed bona fide community policing forums (CPFs), neighbourhood watches and impromptu community patrollers in eThekwini to mobilise – with the blessing of SAPS – to protect local police stations earmarked for attack by criminals searching for high powered weapons. 

The Zello app enables a cellphone to be used as a walkie talkie, cutting out critical time delays during the riots that would have been experienced when sending or waiting for responses to WhatsApp voice notes or messages. 

Looters pack a car with furniture in Springfield on 13 July 2021 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

WhatsApp community groups – which had swollen during the riots – were often awash with panic, as fake messages were either intentionally or unintentionally shared. In smaller, closed community groups, WhatsApp did, however, play a vital role in the immediate soliciting of critical medicine, food supplies and baby formula, given that malls and pharmacies close to residents had been looted and/or torched. 

For those wanting to check on the welfare of loved ones, WhatsApp also provided a quasi-real-time ability to do so. 

Should communication towers have been temporarily shuttered during those eight violent days, law-abiding, terrified citizens would have been trapped in their homes, unaware of what was coming next, which could have increased the risk of violent vigilante action, the type experienced in Phoenix, eThekwini and Mountain Rise, Pietermaritzburg.  

Solutions, therefore, to the possibility of civil unrest again flaring up – said to be “inevitable” by two high-ranking SAPS members Daily Maverick spoke to off the record – remain hypothetical. But Mkhwanazi said “strategising” had been taking place at a national and provincial level for a possibile repeat of such large-scale unrest breaking out. 

“This thing is not over,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court of Appeal, which will next month hear an appeal by Zuma and the Department of Correctional Services against a ruling in the Pretoria High Court, which found in December that Zuma’s medical parole was unlawful, and he should be sent back to jail until he was legitimately eligible for normal parole.   

Zuma’s medical parole had been granted by then correctional services head Arthur Fraser, about two months after the former president’s jailing and the riots spawned by his imprisonment. Fraser had overridden a decision by the Medical Parole Advisory Board that Zuma did not qualify for medical parole. Among his reasons used to justify the release, Fraser had said he feared the same level of unrest experienced in July should Zuma die in prison. 

Threats of renewed mass mobilisation have taken place via social media since the high court ruling, with the same expected to intensify prior to the SCA’s August decision. 

Police officers look at the remains of looted shops during protests in downtown Durban, South Africa, on 12 July 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

The 2021 unrest started with sporadic incidents of violence on the first night of Zuma’s imprisonment – July 8 – two days later, it morphed into something never experienced in democratic South Africa. 

The country’s ministers, security services, and Mkhwanazi have been severely criticised for their handling – or rather fuddled and inadequate handling – of the unrest. 

In KwaZulu-Natal, there are about 18,000 SAPS members to service a population of over 11 million. eThekwini, which experienced the brunt of the unrest and related deaths, has a population of about 3,5 million. 

Outgunned, outnumbered and seemingly outwitted, officers relied heavily on private security companies, community policing forums and civilian patrollers to protect police stations, neighbourhoods and private infrastructure. In some local precincts, station heads solicited ammunition from community members via policing forums. 

During his testimony before the South African Human Rights Commission hearings into the unrest, Police Minister Bheki Cele said there was “a lot of fear” among the police at the time.

What became obvious during the hearings was how government ministers in the security cluster and their subordinates attempted to shift responsibility from either minister to officials, or from ministry to ministry. Mkhwanazi was no exception

He told Daily Maverick it had been his priority when the violence erupted to secure national key points, essential infrastructure and police stations until the SANDF arrived. Food distribution centres – where possible – were also prioritised over, for example, “a place that is full of fridges”. 

“Once the food is gone, society is going to starve, and we don’t want that,” he said. 

While much was made of the eventual arrival of the army, and how it had valiantly quashed the attempted “insurrection”, deployments came too little, too late. By the time the boots hit the ground, it is more likely that the satiated and exhausted looters had retreated to enjoy their spoils. 

Should widespread civil unrest reoccur, said Mkhwanazi, it was his plan that at least one officer should be available at community-enforced roadblocks. The officer would legitimise any stop and searches he said, while the community would provide back-up. 

This would also negate alleged racial profiling, he said, adding though that when he had done impromptu drive-arounds in civilian clothes during the riots at community-led roadblocks in his upper-middle-class area, he had experienced no profiling. 

Everyone was “polite” when he approached them to ask what they were doing, he said. It was only after he had some feedback from residents at the roadblocks that he let them know who he was and left. 

Successful stop and search operations between police and CPF members have taken place prior to and since the riots, but should civil unrest again occur on the scale of 2021, it would be impossible to have an officer within each affected sector, even if reinforcements are brought in from other provinces. This is why Mkhwanazi’s requests to shut down signal towers in affected areas would again be made. 

Mkhwanazi and the Presidency both told Daily Maverick that to prepare for escalating unrest, and as recommended in the expert panel report into the 2021 riots, the public order policing unit was being bulked up, with 4,000 of the country’s current crop of 10,000 trainees being allocated to these units.  That, however, shifted the focus from crime-fighting to maintaining order, said the commissioner. 

To negate police stations being targets for criminals since the unrest, or during future large-scale unrest, Mkhwanazi insisted that smaller stations not store weapons collected via gun amnesties or by other means. Those weapons must be shifted to bigger stations with adequate manpower, security and means of defence.

“I will never right now allow firearms to stay in a small station,” he said. 

Asked if he foresaw civil unrest on the scale of 2021 taking place again, Mkhwanazi said it was “a worry”. 

“The amount of unhappiness in our society, the level of poverty, the unemployment rate, the lack of equality, and the political climate that we are in among all political parties, not just one; the instability that is there, it makes me worry. It creates fertile ground for something similar to what happened [in July 2021] to happen again.” DM/MC

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