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July riots: Presidential panel report is right to focus on policing and pro-Zuma forces, but falls short on a social response


Dr Imraan Buccus is a senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute and a postdoctoral fellow at Durban University of Technology.

The report on the winter riots by the presidential panel of experts confirms the explanation of the events given by grassroots activists as the riots and acts of organised sabotage were unfolding. That explanation is that law and order broke down when the police stood down as very small groups of Zuma supporters in the ANC began to act with brazen unlawfulness.

This created the opportunity for the poor, who were suffering endemic hunger and angered by the withdrawal of the Covid grant, to seize food from shops. One of the biggest bread riots in recent global history then unfolded. After a few days of rioting, the organised Zuma supporters in the ANC, as well as criminal networks, used the cover of the general chaos to push their own agenda, and push it hard. This included systematic attacks on infrastructure.

The report is also good at keeping in mind the massive unemployment crisis that led to the breakdown in law and order. However, it is not always consistent in bringing in a social analysis and it oscillates between an empirically grounded analysis of events and the conspiratorial explanation that sees them in terms of hidden “masterminds” secretly directing things – including the hundreds of thousands of people who seized food in the early days of the riots.

The media routinely collapses into the conspiratorial explanation of the riots. This is unfortunate, as it denies the agency of the hundreds of thousands of rioters, and exaggerates the levels of support for Zuma and the RET faction inside the ANC. It also masks the extent to which catastrophic levels of unemployment – which result in widespread hunger – generated social instability.

The report is very strong on the complete failure of the state during the crisis. It pulls no punches and what emerges is a case of complete state failure. By the time the riots hit, the ANC had already destroyed SAA, the rail system and many other important organisations and institutions. The riots showed that the police have also been destroyed by the ANC.

The report’s main focus for a way forward is on policing. However, the failure of Ramaphosa’s “new dawn”, including the failure to act against the criminals and authoritarians in the ANC, and the ANC’s complicity with the EFF’s attacks on democratic norms and institutions, means there will be no quick resolution of the collapse in policing.

Moreover, there are also slim prospects of some sort of social compact that could ease the tremendous pressure on individuals and families affected by the unemployment crisis.

Every state needs to retain a monopoly on violence, and to be able to deal with treason decisively. There is no doubt that the pro-Zuma forces who launched an attack on infrastructure during the wider bread riots, and later the generalised looting, were engaged in treason. The report is right to insist that the state must have the will and the capacity to act against further attempts at treason by RET forces.

However, a very strong social response to the riots is just as important. After all, if there had been no tinder on which the RET forces could throw a spark by showing that law and order had broken down, the riots would not have happened, or at least not in that moment.

Policing must be fixed, and an end must be put to the impunity of the RET force and the EFF for criminal and anti-democratic actions. But the most important way to secure our future is to build a more inclusive and just society. The report could and should have said much more on this. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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