Police and crime intelligence failed during 2021 July unrest: SAHRC report

29 January 2024 - 15:55
By Sakhiseni Nxumalo
Burnt cars and debris on the Phoenix highway in the aftermath of the July 2021 riots. File photo.
Image: Darren Stewart Burnt cars and debris on the Phoenix highway in the aftermath of the July 2021 riots. File photo.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) says the police failed in their basic mandate to detect the planning and execution of the violent unrest and looting which devastated parts of the country in 2021.

The report on the findings of the SAHRC hearings was released by the SAHRC with the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities' (CRL Rights Commission) report on Monday. 

The reports were jointly released by the two chapter 9 institutions after unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July 2021. It found four central issues:

  • the social, economic, spatial and political factors prevalent in the affected areas and the extent to which these played a role in the unrest;
  • the causes of alleged racially motivated attacks and killings;
  • the causes of the apparent lapses in law enforcement by state security agencies, particularly the SAPS, and the role of private security companies in the unrest; and
  • the causes of the unrest, with particular focus on Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

Commissioner Philile Ntuli said a combination of factors might have caused the shortcomings in the SAPS. Evidence pointed to under-resourcing and lack of capacity in crime intelligence.

“There's also been a breakdown in communication in the police between crime intelligence, the national commissioner and the minister of police. The state's intelligence approaches to the unrest have proven to be ineffective.

“Excessive secrecy, insufficient resources and a lack of technological capabilities appear to have been a cause of a failure to protect and respond effectively to the planned unrest and contribute effectively to stabilising the situation,” said Ntuli. 

Evidence pointed to a need for urgent improvement in SAPS and crime intelligence structures to address failures and show accountability to restore public trust.

She said the state response to the unrest in both provinces could have been improved by better communication, co-ordination and planning at senior management level.

“There was a delayed response and inadequate resource management leading to an ineffective response to the crisis. There was a total breakdown in law and order in the affected areas for at least five days. The president, as head of the executive, ministers for intelligence, police and the director’s general are committed to ensuring an effective response to the crisis. Early warning signs were disregarded.”

She said the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NatJoints) failed to promptly respond to security risks, information and early warnings.

In response to the report, national police commissioner Gen Fannie Masemola said some of the recommendations had been implemented since 2021. This included the increase in the number of police officers and improving the working environment of crime intelligence.

He said the filling of critical vacancies in crime intelligence has been addressed. 

 “Structures in crime intelligence are being reviewed to enhance service delivery in all provinces. Crime intelligence has greatly improved its mandate of detecting and collecting information which informs and assists in the co-ordination and planning of joint multidisciplinary operations with other role players in the fight against crime,” he said.

Through Project 10,000, SAPS has trained and deployed 20,000 police officers in the past two years to strengthen frontline policing services and specialised units, with a focus on the public order policing (POP) unit.

Masemola said 79 officers have been trained and deployed as drone pilots to assist in crime prevention and policing operations. 

In the past year, 5,000 officers have been trained in crowd management and deployed to the POP unit. 

“R150m was allocated to procure resources to bolster crowd management equipment for the unit. Training has also been enhanced for members and now includes crowd psychology to improve the management and policing of crowds and gatherings,” he said. 

“The SAPS has also benchmarked and compared with other police organisations in use of the minimum force to disperse large crowds and found its equipment and techniques, such as the use of water canons, rubber bullets and teargas to disperse violent crowd situations, is in line with international standards. 

“However, SAPS is continuously researching and updating training material regarding techniques and equipment in use during crowd management to minimise the risk of human rights violations and prevent the excessive use of force.”