Maverick Citizen


July 2021 unrest report – The anatomy of the destruction of South Africans

July 2021 unrest report – The anatomy of the destruction of South Africans
A burnt car at a roadblock during the violent clashes in downtown Johannesburg on 11 July 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

The thing about South Africa is that it has the restless energy of a country that’s always on the verge of some or other tipping point. There’s a nervous energy that encircles it and sometimes it’s difficult to decide whether it’s good or bad. But I do know it can be exhausting because it’s often left open-ended and inconclusive.

The latest is the release of the South African Human Rights Commission’s report on the unrest that gripped the country in 2021, killing more than 350 people. The report has left the country none the wiser as to the real reasons behind the unrest, leaving us vulnerable yet again to similar acts. 

At Maverick Citizen we are acutely aware that issues of violence are not merely a matter of law enforcement because that is a reactive measure. Violence happens when people are not heard, face the indignity of cyclical poverty and are starved of basic human rights such as food, employment, housing, access to health services and basic education. In its 2022 report on South Africa Human Rights Watch released a report warning that: 

“South Africa failed to take meaningful measures to improve protection of social and economic rights, which has been undermined by widespread unemployment, inequality, poverty, the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and corruption. The authorities struggled to ensure law enforcement responded effectively to some of the worst riots and looting in the country since the end of apartheid. The violent riots triggered by the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court claimed more than 330 lives and caused an estimated R50.4-billion ($3.4-billion) in damage.” 

July riots

Police try to control looting during protests in Durban on 12 July 2021. Former president Jacob Zuma was arrested on 7 July and sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

SAHRC Commissioner Philile Ntuli in 2021. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

In a press briefing on Monday outlining the findings and recommendation of the July 2021 unrest report, SAHRC commissioner Philile Ntuli told the country: “While the timing of the events of the July unrest coincided with the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma, it couldn’t find evidence to link the two events. It is probable that the unrest was taken to destabilise the South African economy. However, it will be ultimately within the purview of the South African Police Service and the National [Prosecuting] Authority to make a conclusive finding regarding the orchestration of the July unrest.” 

The commission’s pronouncement is curious considering that in 2023 Daily Maverick reported that 65 people connected to the July unrest appeared in the Durban Magistrates’ Court after being arrested on charges of violence as a result of loyalty to Zuma. The main charge was that they protested, conspired and incited the use of violence to campaign for Zuma’s release from prison, resulting in public violence, looting, disruption of normal activities, loss of life, damage to infrastructure and destruction of businesses.

Read more in Daily Maverick: July ’21 unrest — 65 in dock facing terrorism and other charges linked to deadly violence 

Before that a high-level presidential panel chaired by Professor Sandy Africa, who’s background includes extensive work in intelligence and state security, found in a report that the violence was linked to poverty, political discontent and the incapacitation of government institutions. Some of the key findings were:

  1. The weakness of state institutions generally, a phenomenon that has been referred to as the hollowing out of these institutions;
  2. High unemployment, with youth unemployment above 70% and no consistent, continuous plan to address this;
  3. Inherited high levels of poverty and deep inequality;
  4. Poor spatial planning, leading to overcrowded and unsuitable living conditions for many, with informal settlements emerging in crowded urban spaces as people move to the cities in search of opportunities;
  5. Rampant corruption at various levels of government;
  6. The phenomenon of sponsored State Capture, as understood in the South African context; and
  7. The frustrations caused by the Covid-19 restrictions, adding to feelings of despair among the population.
July riots

A business premises ablaze during widespread looting and protests in Durban on 12 July 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

What is important is not which report is right but the conditions that existed in the country in 2021, and still exist, which precipitated the deadly outburst. KwaZulu-Natal flared up first and was hardest hit.  The destructive force still reverberates through the city. Driving through the inner city of Durban, one wrong turn leads you to an eerie “dead zone” of sorts with abandoned buildings that were once businesses have been hollowed out. One can only imagine what happened to the livelihoods of the people who once worked there.

A high-level presidential panel chaired by Professor Sandy Africa found that the violence was linked to poverty. (Photo: Alet Pretorius)

Former president Jacob Zuma in 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo)

What must not be lost, however, is that at the centre of this are poor people who are being inflicted with double violence: First the violence of poverty and then the violence of the riotous orchestration. One cannot glibly point responsibility for finding and bringing to book the orchestrators of the unrest to the SAPS and the National Prosecuting Authority – we already know that. Disappointingly, the SAHRC, as per the expectation of its mandate, does not make any recommendations on the urgent need and possible interventions for the country’s poor socioeconomic conditions. 

I’m not convinced that this latest report takes us much further than the previous one. The destruction, however, seems destined to linger and possibly be repeated because of the refusal to deal with the question of how to treat people humanely. This means that the protagonists of the unrest – whether it’s Zuma and his loyalists or unknown economic saboteurs – will continue to use poor people as their pawns, to our country’s destruction. 

So, yet again we find ourselves holding our breath and gripped with nervous energy about when our next tipping point will be and to what end. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • td _a says:

    it’s a good read, thank you Zukiswa. The question here is if members of the black South African middle-class care enough about their poor & desperate countrymen to vote out the ANC, bcs this will happen again.
    Anyone who votes again for the ANC, we know they don’t have the spirit of ubuntu & are in it for selfish gains. getting rich while the ship sinks.

  • Solly David says:

    Again N Again it’s the inability of govt.n it’s agencies to fulfill it’s obligations to it’s citizens.its party before state.

  • Bonga Siyothula says:

    …an endless cycle of uncertainty….that pretty much sums it up….kicked further down the road, we will pretend to be dealing with it again when it inevitably happens again down the line….

  • Random Comment says:

    7 KEY FINDINGS and all seven are entirely the fault of 30 years’ mismanagement and misrule by the ANC Government.

    How much did these wholly self-evident findings cost the SA Taxpayer?

  • Johan Buys says:

    Reducing the July 2021 riots to poverty and unemployment is a massive insult to the 99% poor and unemployed that chose NOT to burn and loot.

  • patricksylvester11 says:

    the report reflects the home truth of poverty now standing at 50% I say it again the First Republic need to be abandoned we are technically a failed state with all their efforts building a middle class that turned into a self-serving industry of elites stealing to maintain their high-end lifestyles thinking that they deserve their privilege but in essence was socially engineered by the white business class a pattern of behaviour that’s laying waste to the Africa continent on top of this the whites business class use them the ANC to promote an open door free movement of the rest of Africa into SA to drive their business singing the praises of the PAN African movement as a given undermining the countries sovereignty and has become one of the main reason of infrastructure destruction and compounding our people struggle with state manage poverty now the rest of Africa want to call our people actions xenophobia having lost their country to the white mafia and their black counterparts now they turn to communism to BRICS FOR CHEAP MONEY AND MORE HANDOUTS FOR THE PRIVILEGE MIDDLE CLASS TO NOW USE LAWS AND FORCE TO CONTROL THE MASSES IN FUTURE THE PEOPLE CRY FREEDOM

  • Jeff Robinson says:

    It is definitely true that “at the centre of this are poor people”. The sad truth is that the poor tend to be the most prolific reproductively and hence there can be little optimisim that the overall economic picture will improve. Education is definitely the most important of all human enterprises, but schooling and education are not synonyms. Indeed, the most important education happens outside of the classroom, and the most important educators of all are parents. But having a child does not make one a parent any more than having a piano makes one a pianist.

  • Alan Watkins says:

    More than 60 instigators of and/or participants in the 2021 riots appeared in court yesterday. Yet from the reading of the summaries and analysis of the HRC report, the HRC appears to know nothing of these people. Whitewash to try and save the ANC in an election year.

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    “While the timing of the events of the July unrest coincided with the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma, it couldn’t find evidence to link the two events.”
    Really! ?
    Really! ?
    Perhaps the most recent appearance in the Durban High Court, of the 65 people accused of inciting the riots, in their newly-issued MK regalia, may provide an inkling of a hint to the SAHRC Commissioner, that they may perhaps, just perhaps, be supporters of the Wrecking Ball.
    After all the analysis and evidence previously provided by DM of text messages, et al., one would have expected a little bit more substance to the report. A total waste of time and money by people who were in no way determined to uncover the facts.
    Methinks Zuma will continue to have hidden tentacles in every corner of government and other institutions. RET is alive and scheming, in places that no-one knows of, or cares to look.

  • Werner Hautmann says:

    It Would seem the SAHRC is made up of the same quality as our government, they keep going around in circles and conclusions are Vague, no accountability.

  • Zai AD says:

    “While the timing of the events of the July unrest coincided with the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma, it couldn’t find evidence to link the two events”

    wow… millions would disagree.

    and the “free Zuma” placades and his kids calling for looting, meant nothing?

  • Fernando Moreira says:

    Poor people are not morally exempt from going on the rampage, pillage, loot and cause mayhem because of there situation however this may irk the rightous, but the circumstances that have contributed most to there misfortune is the inability of the ANC to deliver and its never ending appetite to steal and be corrupt.
    There is a dire consequence to these actions. The very people who could chose to improve there situation will continue to vote for the thieves !
    How sad that we should be more fearful of an ANC voter than the party itself .
    Vote DA ..change

  • Michael Thomlinson says:

    Another commsion, another waste of time and money. After 2 years of investigation, and probaly millions of Rands later we are expected to believe that there is no link between Zuma’s incarceration and the July unrest? Taken to jail on the 7th and the unrest starts on the 12th and that is just a coincidence! Multiple people admitted that they were doing this at the behest of Zuma’s supporters. His daughter was openly inciting people to go burn and loot but the commsion has found no link. WTF?

  • Deon de Wet-Roos says:

    Price’s law has a harsh lesson to teach all South Africans. The growth in the number of unemployed will continue to outpace the growth in the number of employed. If you apply this rule to South Africa you can understand the Gini index and why the concentration of power in the hands of the few increases. Similarly, today’s businesses don’t really require more workers, in fact businesses can do without workers. Sad truth especially for the younger generation. Price’s law and the principles governing it also means that knowledge and experience become concentrated in the minds and hands of a few old blokes/girls.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    Ah good old Msanzi, world champions of the pointless commission of enquiry. Two years and how many millions to produce this silly little egg dance. It’s abundantly obvious who orchestrated and incited the riots and looting and why. They made so little effort to keep it hidden that the evidence was impossible to ignore within days.

  • Vincent Britz says:

    Mmmmmm! SAHRC report seems more like a cover up than a actual finding!! This way the country can’t sue JZ for the damage he and his family & followers did to this country!!! That’s all….

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