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From inadequate surveillance to ‘secret funds’ and ANC infighting: 10 revelations from July unrest report

Authorities ignored public demands for government to respond effectively to corruption and address societal challenges faced by South Africans

08 February 2022 - 13:30
An expert panel appointed to investigate last year's unrest and looting has found the response from police was inadequate. File photo.
An expert panel appointed to investigate last year's unrest and looting has found the response from police was inadequate. File photo.
Image: Alaister Russell/Sunday Times

An expert panel’s report into the unrest and looting that ravaged parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July 2021 found government failed to adequately protect citizens. 

It found authorities ignored public demands for government to respond effectively to corruption, address the societal challenges faced by South Africans and disregarded calls for mobilisation made through social media.

Had government heeded these signs, the unrest could have been prevented, according to the report.  

Parts of the two provinces were thrust into deadly violence that resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people and a R50bn loss for the economy. 

Businesses and properties were looted and destroyed and many lost their jobs, with the report claiming organised looters were bussed from KwaZulu-Natal to Gauteng to carry out attacks so they appeared “spontaneous”.

Here are 10 damning revelations contained in the report released this week:

Government ignored warnings

Government turned a blind eye to warnings about the unrest and pleas to end corruption to enable a more effectively run state that delivers the needs of South Africans. 

The report said government channelled its attention and resources towards the response to Covid-19, ignoring signs of brewing violence. 

“It appeared not many members of the executive, at all levels of government, appreciated the meaning of the warnings raised in the National Intelligence Co-ordinating Committee (Nicoc) reports, and accordingly largely ignored them. The need to stop corruption in government and start addressing the needs of the people kept being kicked down the road, like the proverbial can,” said the report.

Fertile ground for mass unrest

Unemployment and anger over corruption and Covid-19 restrictions were among the grievances that created a powder keg ready to explode.

“The weakness of state institutions generally, high unemployment, inherited high levels of poverty and deep inequality, poor spatial planning leading to overcrowded and unsuitable living conditions for many and rampant corruption at different levels of government” are some of the factors named in the report.

ANC infighting is hurting SA

“The internal contradictions within the ANC are impacting negatively on governance matters and need to be resolved,” the report said.

Security agency ravaged by factions

The report found the State Security Agency (SSA) was compromised when the unrest hit and had not fully implemented the recommendations in the 2018 Report of the High-Level Review Panel established by President Cyril Ramaphosa. 

The SSA was found to have been crippled by factionalism and mismanagement. When SA was plunged into violence in July, key positions at the SSA remained vacant. 

“At the time of the July 2021 unrest, there was slight progress in the implementation of its recommendations, a matter of concern. We observed there were vacancies in key management positions at the time of the unrest and provincial offices were understaffed.”

NSC’s role unclear and failed to meet regularly

The report was critical of the National Security Council (NSC), saying its functions were not clear. 

The council includes the president, deputy president and ministers of state security, defence, police, justice, home affairs, international relations and cooperation, finance, and cooperative governance and traditional affairs.

“Since 2000, the NSC has played a vital advisory role and helped shape the national security policy. One criticism that could perhaps be levelled against it is that as a cabinet structure, subject to cabinet privilege, not much was known about its role, functions and structure.”

The report said the council did not meet regularly before the unrest, despite a warning that 2021 would be a volatile year.

Zuma’s incarceration ignited ‘orgy of violence'

Former president Jacob Zuma’s incarceration in July was met with protests and torching of trucks on a national route at Mooi Plaza.

Within 24 hours, the violence had spread throughout the province and resulted in the looting of businesses. 

The report said the government also failed to respond to the looming threats of destruction in response to Zuma’s arrest. 

“As the deadline approached for the former president to hand himself over to the authorities or face arrest, his supporters, who mobilised largely on social media, called on people to, among others, make the country ungovernable, physically prevent his detention and remove Ramaphosa from office.”

It claimed a state security report on the eve of the unrest said there was no information that Zuma’s supporters would gather and protest his arrest. A gross underestimation.

Reporting streams tripping over each other

The report said considering the plethora of security structures, SA should have responded timeously to the unrest.

This was prevented by unclear and overlapping roles, security personnel told the panel.

“Some of the officials we spoke to expressed concern about the overlapping roles of the plethora of structures and said there seemed to be duplication of reporting lines. We recommend the question of streamlining the systems be looked into, as well as making sure there is full support for the structures.”

No clear mandate for police, especially for crimes masked as political activity

The report found members of the police service were not given a clear mandate on how to effectively generate crime intelligence.

“While there are guidelines on how to exercise these powers, policy needs to be clear on the lawful execution of the crime intelligence function of the police, in particular as it relates to crimes cloaked with political activity.”

Public order policing inadequate and ‘secret funds’

The report found public order policing is wholly inadequate for a country with a rich protest history.

Police minister Bheki Cele dismissed suggestions of budget restraints, saying “the real problem” was police wanted him to authorise the use of secret funds. 

Security services and executive to blame

Security services failed to respond timeously and sufficiently to the unrest and, as a result, failed to prevent loss of life. The blame, said the report, must be shared with the executives who failed to show leadership when it was needed most.

“Many reasons were proffered for this failure, but in the end the response remains that they failed to do the necessary to protect life, limb and property. The executive, however, carries some of the blame too and must take responsibility for its lapse in leadership.”


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