Are July insurrection suspects scapegoats for high-profile political figures?
More than a year after the three deadliest days in South Africa’s democratic history, the alleged instigators of the July 2021 looting are appearing in court. But they’re not who you might think.
Thirty-four people charged with inciting the July 2021 looting and violence have appeared in court over the past fortnight, and at least 50 further arrests are expected in coming weeks.
Notably absent from the dock: any high-profile political figures. The sole political operator to be arrested so far is an ANC Youth League spokesperson from northern KwaZulu-Natal. Of the remaining 33 alleged insurrectionists, the majority have either led such quiet lives to date, or have such common names, that a Daily Maverick investigation was unable to dig up any identifying information on them. Political kingpins these are not.
Employed and educated
Of the alleged insurrectionists Daily Maverick was able to identify positively, a significant number held decent jobs. A good number also have tertiary education under their belts.
The perception that those at the forefront of the July looting were poor, uneducated and desperate simply does not match the reality of many of these suspects. Yet it is a narrative still being pushed by, among others, former president Jacob Zuma — in whose interests it is to maintain that the unrest was fuelled by hunger and desperation, and unconnected to his July 2021 imprisonment or other political motives.
This week, the Jacob G Zuma Foundation tweeted a description of the rioters as “poor people without smartphones, data and probably not even on Twitter or literate”. The Hawks have said, meanwhile, that one of the reasons for the duration of a year-long investigation was because it required the cooperation of big tech companies to track the suspects — indicating the degree to which instigation is believed to have taken place in the digital realm.
City Press reported that particularly invaluable information was provided by social media platforms like Twitter, where accounts have to be registered to an email address or telephone number. The messaging app WhatsApp is also known to have played a major role in mobilising strikes on infrastructure, but owing to WhatsApp’s encryption of messages, no information could be obtained directly from the company.
Fortunately for Hawks investigators, in some cases journalists had already done some of the work for them. By the end of July 2021, for instance, Daily Maverick’s Ferial Haffajee had already reported that one of the figures exhorting comrades to block highways on WhatsApp groups was the spokesperson of the ANC Youth League’s Musa Dladla region, Sanele Masuku.
Consistent age group
One of the most interesting aspects of the 34 alleged insurrectionists arrested to date is their relatively limited age range. The average age of the accused is 39 years old. The youngest age of those arrested so far is 29.
This flies in the face of perceptions that it is South Africa’s youth who are most likely to be spoiling for a fight of this kind, because unemployed and disaffected young South Africans are often painted as a kind of demographic powder keg.
Details of charges mostly unclear
The Hawks are reluctant to make public details of specific charges or circumstances around the cases thus far, owing to ongoing investigations. The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), meanwhile, has blanketed almost all the arrests thus far under the rubric of “conspiracy to commit public violence, incitement to commit public violence and incitement to commit arson”.
In other words, very little information has been forthcoming from authorities as to how individual suspects are alleged to have incited violence. In the case of 51-year-old Matthews Stanley Ntjontjo, however, it was specified by the NPA that Ntjontjo was being arrested on charges “linked to his alleged participation in a WhatsApp group that conspired with others by posting messages that created instability”.
Ntjontjo was the only suspect to date to appear in court alone rather than as part of a group. It appears that this was simply for geographical reasons, because Ntjontjo’s initial appearance was in the Ventersdorp Magistrates’ Court.
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In a few other cases, there is information already in the public realm. Thanks to Haffajee’s 2021 reporting in Daily Maverick, we know that the ANC Youth League’s Masuku is accused of having posted a video of trucks blocking the John Ross Highway with a voice note calling on comrades to shut down other key roads.
Masuku admitted to Haffajee that he had sent messages to a number of WhatsApp groups in support of the campaign to free Zuma. amaBhungane would subsequently report that Masuku was a previous business partner of Zuma’s daughter Brumelda.
The Good Party, led by Patricia de Lille, stated in 2021 that it had submitted information to authorities about a number of instigators on WhatsApp groups mobilising people for looting and violence. Among the names on Good’s list was one of the 34 suspects recently arrested, 33-year-old Sfiso Artwell Sokhulu.
Sokhulu appears to be the sales rep for a chlorine manufacturer. Good accused him, based on WhatsApp evidence, of having “directly planned an attack on Bridge City Mall” in KwaMashu. A message allegedly sent by Sokhulu to a WhatsApp group at the time of the July 2021 unrest read: “Tomorrow morning we will be closing Bridge City Shopping Centre and meeting time will be 3am at Bridge City… let us mobilise all our forces on the ground.”
Good further stated that Sokhulu was an ANC member. This is not true of all the alleged insurrectionists, however. Sisanda Nomcebo Ntshona (43) stood as a candidate for the National Freedom Party for the uMzinyathi Municipality in the 2021 local government elections. Ntshona appears to have been the manager of an optometrist’s practice in Dundee until recently.
Most of the suspects arrested have been released on bail of R3,000.
Covering online tracks
A number of suspects appear to have taken the precautionary measure of deleting social media profiles. Others seem to think they have nothing to hide. The Twitter profile of 46-year-old Psychology Fika Malope features a picture of Jacob Zuma as its avatar, with the bio: “I don’t hate settlers but I have no reason to love them!!”
On Facebook, Malope posted his disapproval of President Cyril Ramaphosa a number of times. Malope appears to be a teacher — a profession in which he is joined by his co-accused Lindokuhle Wiseman Shilenge (32), who the Zululand Observer reported as being a primary school educator in Empangeni. Another suspect on the government payroll: Menzi Mack Bulose (43), a public order policeman.
Zuma twins, Carl Niehaus and others
Questions continue to be asked about the failure to date to arrest Zuma’s children Duduzane and Duduzile, both of whom tweeted some of the most overt calls to violence directly before and during the unrest. While Hawks spokesperson Thandi Mbambo acknowledged to TimesLIVE this week that Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla had been mentioned to authorities in a number of statements, Mbambo said that the Hawks were “not investigating her directly”.
Another high-profile figure who has evaded the dock to date in this matter is ANC veteran Carl Niehaus, who was identified by Good as having created a WhatsApp group used to mobilise people during the unrest.
With 50-plus further arrests promised for incitement, there is still plenty of opportunity for some familiar faces to appear in court. If that doesn’t happen, however, many will begin to suspect that the unknown names who make up the list of insurrectionists to date are being scapegoated to avoid more politically controversial arrests. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.