South Africa riots report raises serious red flags

 ·30 Jan 2024

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) published its report into the July 2021 unrest that unfolded in Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal (KZN), saying that organised groups and individuals opportunistically used this period as an attempt to upend the rule of law.

However, the report was unable to find or provide “clear evidence identifying specific groups or individuals as primary actors, while… the common purpose or intention behind the unrest [also remains] unclear.”

In addition to this, the report raised serious questions and red flags about the competency of the police, private security companies, and intelligence agencies that failed to handle the situation – while also flagging the racial tensions between communities that exacerbated the tensions.

The riots and destruction that took place in July 2021 saw widespread looting, violence, destruction of property and the disruption of economic activity in the provinces of KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng.

During this period, 354 people lost their lives and over 5,500 people were arrested. It was also reported that an estimated 40,000 businesses and 50,000 informal traders were affected, with 150,000 jobs put at risk. The financial damage of the unrest was estimated at R50 billion.

According to SAHRC Commissioner Philile Ntuli, it was found that the outbreak of both destruction and violence during the period “were symptomatic of unresolved systemic conditions, including post-Covid-19 economic recovery, high unemployment, lawlessness, discrimination, socio-economic divides, and issues within the security sector.”

The report argued that while the timing of the events of the July unrest coincided with the incarceration of former President Jacob Zuma, [the commission] could not find evidence to link the two events.”

Elements of well-orchestrated planning

Two types of actors were identified during the unrest:

  • Primary actors, who led and executed widespread destruction;
  • Secondary actors, who participated in theft.

“Evidence indicated that the acts during the unrest were well-orchestrated, including the blocking of the N3, destruction of factories and warehouses, attack on government communication facilities, and bombing and theft of ATMs. These events were interconnected and required significant resources,” said the report.

Responding to the report, the Democratic Alliance said the SAHRC’s findings are “perplexing”, given that the group claims the events were orchestrated, but does not tie them to anyone.

The party said that the assertion that there is no evidence linking the timing of the events to Zuma’s incarceration appears unfounded and contradicts the experiences of those who witnessed the events firsthand.

“The lack of clarity on the ‘Zuma factor’ and the apparent avoidance of addressing the connections between Zuma’s situation, pro-Zuma campaigns, and the riots is a notable omission,” the party said.

Failure in law and order

During the period, major shortcomings in maintaining law and order were spotlighted, particularly with respect to the South African Police Service (SAPS) and Private Security Companies.

The report highlights flaws in the coordination of crime intelligence, inadequate preparations, ineffective resource management, limited community participation in justice processes, and security firms exceeding their jurisdiction.

The report criticised the state’s response to the unrest, highlighting poor communication, coordination, planning, and high-level management within the security cluster.

SAPS said in a statement on Monday that while it will study the report in detail, “it is important to highlight notable progress made where key milestones were achieved to ensure the SAPS is better prepared to respond to such incidents”.

Findings of racial tensions

The report argues that some of the violence seen during the unrest could be linked to racial tension, with social media, often with racially divisive hashtags, playing a role in the spread of the violence.

The Cultural, Religious and Linguistic (CRL) Rights Commission, which helped compile that report, said that among other issues, “historical racial tensions between some members of the African and Indian communities,” may have contributed to the deadly Phoenix violence, which saw 36 people killed.

The report said: “While it is understandable that a general sense of fear accompanied the July Unrest and that individuals felt the need to protect their families and properties, especially in the absence of sufficient police protection, it becomes evident that, for some, this fear was driven by racial motivations as well.”

Types of looters

Additionally, the commission identified that nature of the different kinds of looters:

  • “Primary” looters, who appeared to be organised. They would “hit” a mall or shop andmessages would be sent on WhatsApp saying that a specific mall or shop had been “hit”.
  • “Secondary” looters, who would go and see what they could get, or see what was left.

According to Tshidi Madibakwana, the Chairperson of the Meadlowlands Community Forum, it was the “secondary” looters who were either arrested, injured, or killed by SAPS, by private security guards, or in the stampede that often accompanied the looting.

“The Unrest serves as a wake-up call, urging us to redouble our efforts to build a united, inclusive, and prosperous South Africa for generations to come,” the report concluded.

The full report by the SAHRC can be read here.

Read: ‘Worst case scenario’ will see repeat of July riots in South Africa

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